Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Wells, Somerset

The silver swan

Swans – elegant, silent, monogamous, soft of down but powerful of wing – are amongst the most emblematic of our birds. They pop up in all kinds of odd places in English culture. As royal birds, the swans on the Thames, for example, are owned (if you can own a swan) by the queen – with exception of those belonging to the London livery companies of Vintners and Dyers, who mark their swans every year in the ceremony of swan upping, marvellously portrayed by the artist Stanley Spencer.

Poetically, the swan can be a symbol of the overmastering power of a god in the story of Leda and the Swan (in the work of Yeats, among others), but swansdown is symbolic of softness (as in a lyric by Ben Jonson). Swans hang around buildings, too. I have already blogged about their presence in the moat of the Archbishop’s Palace at Wells, and how they ring the bell when they want feeding. I was reminded of this the other day when watching the film Hot Fuzz, filmed in Wells (though the tiny city plays the role of a small town in Gloucestershire). In the film, ‘the swan’ goes missing, reappearing to interrupt in a very British way a hilarious car-chase across fields in police panda cars.

So here’s a picture of the sign of the Swan Hotel in Wells, the city’s three-dimensional and hospitable tribute to its avian inhabitants. Like its living counterparts, it’s mute, which reminds me of the madrigal and poem by the great English composer Orlando Gibbons, ‘The Silver Swan’ of 1612:
The silver swan, who living had no note,
When death approached unlocked her silent throat;
Leaning her breast against the reedy shore,
Thus sung 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.

More geese than swans will be consumed in the next few days, so enjoy yours. And enjoy too this version of the madrigal by the Hilliard Ensemble.

Then go out and buy their records, for their singing has all the swan’s strength and its delicacy too. Season’s greetings.


Anonymous said...

So happy I found your blog! I love architecture and I'm looking forward to returning!

Peter Ashley said...

Love swans on buildings. This one reminds me of the stately bird swimming above Fogarty's old factory in Boston, Lincolnshire. "They'll break your arm with one beat of their wings" we are continually told. But has anyone actually known that to happen?

Loved the madrigal, Merry Christmas.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks for those comments. Fogarty's swan is a good one, I agree.

Vinogirl said...

Great post. I love swans, was fascinated with them as a child as there was a huge amount of them on the River Dart (at Totnes and Dartmouth) where I visited often...there was one black swan which looked a little scary but still beautiful and graceful.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: By the way, re swans breaking your arm, swan experts think it's possible, but very rare, and the victim would most likely be someone with weak bones, such as an infant or an elderly person. And they're defensive creatures, of course, and usually only attack when you threaten their young or nest site.