A Summary and Analysis of Mary Oliver’s ‘The Swan’

‘The Swan’ is a poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), who has perhaps not received as much attention from critics as she deserves. It’s been estimated that she was the bestselling poet in the United States at the time of her death, so a few words of analysis about some of her work seem appropriate.

In ‘The Swan’, Oliver describes the appearance and behaviour of a swan on the black surface of the water. You can read the poem here.

‘The Swan’: summary

The poem consists of one stanza. The speaker of the poem (who may or may not be Mary Oliver herself) begins by asking someone – possibly us, possibly someone with her – whether they also saw swan drifting all night upon the dark surface of the river. She also wonders whether they saw it in the morning, rising into the air, looking like an armful of white blossoms from the trees, or white fabrics which have been disturbed.

The swan looked like a riverbank covered in snow, or one planted with white lilies. The bird’s black beak bit the air. The speaker of the Mary Oliver Selected Poems Coverpoem also asks if the unknown addressee heard the swan whistling its high-pitched but sombre song: a phenomenon which puts the poem’s speaker in mind of the sound of raindrops hitting the trees or a waterfall as it falls down dark ledges in a sharp motion.

When the swan flew out of the water and towards the clouds, the speaker asks if her addressee also witnessed this moment, when the bird looked like a white cross moving across the sky in a fluid motion, the bird’s feet looking like black leaves. The swan’s white wings were like the river’s light (the water’s surface reflecting the morning sun).

The speaker wonders if the addressee of the poem felt in their heart how such a sight as the swan relates to everything else in the world. Observing the swan can tell us why beauty exists in the world, so the speaker wonders if the addressee has figured out the purpose of such beauty. Finally, she asks them if they have changed their life in response to witnessing the swan and sharing in the transcendent power of nature.

‘The Swan’: analysis

Mary Oliver’s poetry is in the tradition of Romanticism: in her work we can detect similar themes to those we find in earlier Romantic poets, from William Wordsworth to Gerard Manley Hopkins to Robert Frost and many other poets whose work is principally concerned with our relationship with the natural world. ‘The Swan’ is a classic example of Oliver’s Romanticism.

Indeed, there is something reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins, in particular, in ‘The Swan’. Hopkins (1844-89) was an English poet who wrote a number of Romantic sonnets about the transcendent power of nature (Hopkins, a Jesuit, believed God’s ‘grandeur’ could be seen in all things), including several about birds. See, for example, his ‘The Windhover’ with its exultant opening lines:

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy!

The headlong excitement Hopkins’s speaker feels when observing the windhover (or kestrel) is not dissimilar to the joyous exhilaration experienced by Mary Oliver’s speaker in ‘The Swan’.

It may be significant that whereas Hopkins’s sonnet has the conventional fourteen lines, Oliver’s poem has fifteen and eschews the rhyme scheme and regular metre of the sonnet. It is as if Oliver has taken the sonnets of Hopkins as a starting point and then forged her own way forward in order to provide a personal and individual response to the sight of the swan.

But ‘The Swan’ is by no means overly indebted to Hopkins, any more than Oliver’s sprawling longer lines of unrhymed verse (known as free verse) owe too much of an obvious debt to that nineteenth-century American Romantic, Walt Whitman. Instead, Mary Oliver invites us to focus on the particular grace and beauty of the swan (a bird neither Hopkins nor Whitman wrote poems about) and to identify – in the bird’s elegant flight and song – a reason to change one’s life for the better.

Nature can have a transformative effect on human beings, in other words: another key tenet of Romanticism. Observing the swan does not simply provide pleasure to the observer: it can act as a catalyst for change in the person’s own life. This experience is open to anyone who takes the time to bother to witness the bird’s majesty, as the structure of Oliver’s poem implies: she appears to take it for granted (her framing of her observations as questions is merely rhetorical) that both she and her addressee, who by implication is the reader themselves, will be capable of changing their life after their epiphanic encounter with the bird.

In this connection, we might link ‘The Swan’ to another of Mary Oliver’s poems, ‘The Summer Day’. At the end of that poem, she (or her speaker) turns to us, the reader, and asks us what do we plan to do with our one ‘wild and precious’ life. ‘The Swan’ ends in a similar fashion, with the emphasis turning from the wonders of nature towards an encouragement to spend our time in introspection, considering what all this means for us and our lives.

‘The Swan’ is alive to the play of light and dark, black and white, freedom and restraint, and is aware of how they are at play in the world of nature. The swan looks like ‘white blossoms’ against the ‘black river’; its beak is ‘black’ and its feet like ‘black leaves’, but its feathers are like a ‘snowbank’. At first, the speaker is struck by the ‘bondage’ or restraint of the bird’s wings; later, when the bird takes off from the water, those same wings provide the swan with its means of gaining freedom from the water and from gravity itself.

If we ask, then, what kind of epiphany Oliver’s speaker specifically expects us to have after witnessing the swan in flight, the answer might be this: an awareness that what we think restrains or restricts us in our lives can so easily be turned into our means of escape, our expression of freedom. Much as the swan elegantly turned from ‘bondage’ to ‘Streaming across the sky’ (that verb, of course, echoing the stream or river that the bird departed from), so we can find in the bird’s flight a metaphor to unlock our own ability to change our lives.

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