I notice swans at this time of year. They are mute swans, the largest birds in Britain, and they live here throughout the year. In my locality, there is an abundance of fresh water and they tend to do well. Now they are in their family groups, with the cygnets becoming adolescent.
Watching swans, even this soon after Lammas, cues me in to an elegaic mood, a slight bitter sweetness in the heart. Their family life is in its later stages. The generations will go their own ways before long. The parents will stay together since the swans mate for life, but they will be moving into a new cycle of life and parenting. There’s an anticipatory poignancy about this, where the current moment knowingly invites images of a probable future. I sense impending separation, not precisely fixed in time.
I am influenced by literature and legend, as I slip in to the autumnal quarter. Yeats sets The Wild Swans at Coole (1) at a moment when “the trees are in their autumn beauty”. He counts 59 swans “upon the brimming water among the stones” and the poem gives voice to the soreness of heart that goes with a feeling of unwanted change, and the foreknowledge of their departure from the lake. There are resonances here of the legendary Dream of Oengus, where King Oengus and his secret Cymric lover Caer Ibormeith (Yewberry) can meet only for a brief time at Samhain, and then only every other year, in the form of swans (2).
But the main reference for me is Tennyson’s Tithonus, a Tojan hero who asks for eternal life, and is granted it, by his divine lover Eos the Goddess of Dawn. He neglects to ask for eternal youth, with very sad results.
“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thy arms,
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was, in ashes.” (3)
Aldous Huxley published his novel After Many a Summer in 1939 (4). This was a year or two after he moved to California to become a Hollywood screen writer, and also to engage in earnest with Eastern spirituality. In a youth worshipping culture, a self-referential multi-millionaire hires an ambitious doctor/research scientist to extend his life span. What could possibly go wrong?
Meanwhile, in the wider world, Barcelona falls and the Spanish Republic is extinguished. At one level, the novel is a simple satire. At another it is a vehicle for Huxley’s view, on the eve of World War II, that political and military solutions to the world’s problems will, by themselves, always fall short. A spiritual dimension is needed to make a difference. Without such a dimension, ‘peace’ will be sought by unskillful means and ‘eternity’ will be confused with extended time. Both are found authentically in another – counter-cultural yet nonetheless accessible – approach to life. Huxley explores these ideas in more depth, with more of a sense of how to develop and maintain a healthy society, in his last novel Island (5) published in 1962.
Politically and culturally, I feel perplexed and disoriented. Individually, I have many ways of responding to my experiences of love and loss, growth and decay, life and death. Anxious anticipations of unwanted experiences and events are certainly a feature. My contemplative inquiry is in part about learning to be lovingly open and engaged with experience, whilst at the same time wisely anchored in the peace and stillness of living presence. An acceptance of falling short is baked into this stance.
(1) W. B. Yeats The Wild Swans at Coole In:A. Nroman Jeffares Poems of W. B. Yeats London: MacMillan, 1964 (Selected, with an introduction and notes)
(2) Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm The Druid Animal Oracle: Working with the Sacred Animals of the Druid Tradition New York, NY: Fireside, 1994
(3) Alfred, Lord Tennyson Tithonus (extract) In: Tennyson Poems and Plays London: Oxford University Press, 1968
(4) Aldous Huxley After Many a Summer Vintage Claasics e-book edition. (Original publication 1939)
(5) Aldous Huxley Island Vintage Classics e-book edition (Original publication 1962)