‘The silver swan, who living had no note’ by Orlando Gibbons is one of my favorite poems. I came upon it when asked to memorize a poem for a short course poetry seminar. I read it and determined that the length was short enough for memorization… a succinct six lines. But within six lines there is much to think about and enjoy. This beautiful poem captures the timeless and elegant image of the swan, alluding to both the fragile dancing swan and the ugly duckling-turned-swan childhood image. I love the juxtaposition of these images as they lead up to the final line and moral of the poem.
Readers can interpret the silver swan however they wish, giving the poem that wonderful quality wherein the interpretation of the viewer is critical. This is part of the joy of the poem.
When I first read this poem in college, I believe that my view of the swan was that of a romantic, something along the lines of the swan as a sad lover, a philosopher, or some other important figure.
However, reading the poem now as a teacher, it’s easy to see the swan as the voiceless teachers and lost educators who fail to speak up against a broken system. The world of education is cluttered with geese and the swans have swum away or are dying. The new generation of teachers (especially in low-income schools) have failed to learn from the wise (or are being taught by geese)–the art of tradition, the art of wisdom, the process of learning, all of these things are being thrown out of the window for data-driven assessments and “proof” of learning. Education is becoming a product-driven, business model endeavor. Learning is supposed to be art-like in form; it is a unique process. Yet today, education is viewed as a means to an end–the means to a test score, the means to college. As the art is lost in education, so is the joy of it: “Farewell, all joys.” Education should be joyful and challenging. The words “rigorous,” “college-prep,” and “disciplined” fail to capture the true joy that could, and should, exist in schools. These words are illusions of success if not paired with the true “joys” of natural, holistic, creative, and expressive learning. Yet many teachers and administrators are doing nothing to change the system. I fear the silver swans will continue to stay too silent.
‘The silver swan, who living had no note’
by Orland Gibbons
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sang her first and last, and sung no more:
Farewell, all joys; O death, come close mine eyes;
More geese than swans now live, more fools than wise.