Cygnea Cantio: The Swan-song

A cygnea cantio, or a swan-song, is a final gesture or performance given just before death (or retirement from one’s career, if you want to be dramatic when you leave your job). It is the last song you sing before you are finished, so to speak.

Singing swans

Today we use the swan’s singing as a proverb as many have done throughout the ages. The expression is found in Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Adagia, that came out in different edition, one greater than the other, from 1500-1536. Erasmus believed the proverb to spring from the swans' song just before they die.

This idea of swans singing before they die is much older than Erasmus, ancient really. Many Ancient Greek scholars spoke of the swan as a singer, and pointed out that they sing the most beautifully just before they die.

Many Romans also described the swan as a singer and the connection between their song and death. Martial wrote in one of his famous epigrams:

Dulcia defecta modulatur carmina lingua, 
Cantator cygnus funeris ipse sui. 
— Martialis, 13.77

i.e. ”The swan, chanter of its own death, modulates sweet songs with failing tongue.” (transl. Shackleton Bailey, 1993)

Ovid too, mentions the fatal song in his Metamorphoses:

Illic cum lacrimis ipso modulata dolore
verba sono tenui maerens fundebat, ut olim
carmina iam moriens canit exequialia cygnus.
— Ovidius, Met. XIV. 428-30

 i.e. “In tears she poured out words with a faint voice,
lamenting her sad woe, as when the swan
about to die sings a funereal dirge.” (transl. More, 1922)

Titelpage of "Den singende swaen" ("The singing swan") by Willem de Swaen te Gouda. Engraving made by Reinier van Persijn in 1655.

Titelpage of "Den singende swaen" ("The singing swan") by Willem de Swaen te Gouda. Engraving made by Reinier van Persijn in 1655.

Pliny's Position

Pliny the Elder, however, was not a believer of the swan-song stating that observations of swans have shown that the stories of dying swans' singing were false.

He wrote in his Naturalis Historia:

olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis,
— Plinius, Nat. Hist. X.32.

i.e.  ”A story is told about the mournful song of swans at their death—a false story as I judge on the strength of a certain number of experiences” (transl. Rackham, 1938)

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Martial. Epigrams, Volume III: Books 11-14. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library 480. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.

Pliny. Natural History, Volume I: Books 1-2. Translated by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 330. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.

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