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Audubon’s Birds of America, Part 3: The Trumpeter Swan

 

Trumpeter Swan, Cygnus buccinator, from Audubon’s Birds of America

In the final installation of this week’s theme (dare we say this week’s blog’s swan song?) in celebration of Abbeville Press’ reissue of the stunning Baby Elephant Folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, we’re taking a closer look at the Trumpeter Swan. The swan has a long history in literature, with roots going back to Greek mythology, where we find the story of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus takes on his notorious guise as swan to seduce (or, depending on who’s telling the story, to rape) the young nymph Leda. This subject has been recounted often (and by often, we mean basically ad infinitum) in art—in paintings, sculpture, music, dance, and in poetry—and one of the most notable versions is W.B. Yeats’ poem, “Leda and the Swan.” In Yeats’ version of the tale, he foresees the tragic consequences of the scene, and we witness the fall of Troy:

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
——————————–Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Why the fall of Troy? Because Leda subsequently gives birth to Helen (yes, that Helen, Helen of Troy, whom we commonly know to have had the face that launched a thousand ships). The force and the violence, not to mention the indifferent beak, of the swan Yeats depicts is a far cry from the swan of popular culture that we’ve come to recognize as a symbol of love and fidelity.

Audubon places his Trumpeter Swan in repose on a lake, and the only apparent threat he presents is directed at an unsuspecting butterfly. But in his writings, Audubon acknowledges the muscular power of the swan, and he reports:

When wounded in the wing alone, a large Swan will readily beat off a dog, and is more than a match for a man in four feet water, a stroke of the wing having broken an arm, and the powerful feet almost obliterating the face of a good-sized duck-shooter.

Perhaps we should take this as a warning, as even well-intentioned wildlife appreciators (such as the young bride in this video) might be subjected to a swan’s unexpected aggression.

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Click here to learn more about Audubon’s Birds of America, published by Abbeville press.