Black Swans by Banjo Paterson

Black Swans by Banjo Paterson

Grappling with Change – An Analysis of ‘Black Swans’ by Banjo Paterson

In his melancholy bush ballad ‘Black Swans’, Banjo Paterson reflects wistfully on the inevitability of change and the passage of time. Through vivid imagery and skilful structure, he explores themes of nostalgia, loss and acceptance.

The poem opens gently with the speaker resting in a park at dusk, observing a V-formation of black swans flying overhead. Paterson uses this Australian symbol to represent the broader concepts he examines. The black swans’ migratory pattern serves as a metaphor for the cycle of life and death.

The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses by Andrew Barton 'Banjo' Paterson - Book Cover

The Man from Snowy River and Other Verses

by Andrew Barton ‘Banjo’ Paterson

In the first two stanzas, the speaker imagines joyfully joining the swans in flight, swept up in their journey southwards through the night sky and sweeping Australian landscapes. This fantasy of freedom and adventure reflects a yearning to escape change and time.

As the poem progresses, a tone of lament emerges as the speaker recognizes this desire is futile. Returning to reality, he urges the swans to carry a greeting and well wishes to Australian settlers facing hardship and adversity.

The fourth stanza forms the emotional crux of the poem, with the speaker grieving for the irretrievable past. Though he longs to return to “the old bush days”, he knows “those days have fled forever.”

The poem’s close mirrors its opening, with the swans disappearing into the distance as the speaker grapples with his mortality. Just as the swans instinctively travel their predestined route, humans too must accept their fate, with both joys and griefs allotted by forces beyond their control.

Through skilful juxtaposition of nature and humanity, Paterson crafts a profound meditation on change as the one constant in life. ‘Black Swans’ provides wisdom and solace in its sensitive treatment of this universal experience.

Black Swans

As I lie at rest on a patch of clover
In the Western Park when the day is done,
I watch as the wild black swans fly over
With their phalanx turned to the sinking sun;
And I hear the clang of their leader crying
To a lagging mate in the rearward flying,
And they fade away in the darkness dying,
Where the stars are mustering one by one.

Oh! ye wild black swans, ’twere a world of wonder
For a while to join in your westward flight,
With the stars above and the dim earth under,
Through the cooling air of the glorious night.
As we swept along on our pinions winging,
We should catch the chime of a church-bell ringing,
Or the distant note of a torrent singing,
Or the far-off flash of a station light.

From the northern lakes with the reeds and rushes,
Where the hills are clothed with a purple haze,
Where the bell-birds chime and the songs of thrushes
Make music sweet in the jungle maze,
They will hold their course to the westward ever,
Till they reach the banks of the old grey river,
Where the waters wash, and the reed-beds quiver
In the burning heat of the summer days.

Oh! ye strange wild birds, will ye bear a greeting
To the folk that live in that western land?
Then for every sweep of your pinions beating,
Ye shall bear a wish to the sunburnt band,
To the stalwart men who are stoutly fighting
With the heat and drought and the dust-storm smiting,
Yet whose life somehow has a strange inviting,
When once to the work they have put their hand.

Facing it yet! Oh, my friend stout-hearted,
What does it matter for rain or shine,
For the hopes deferred and the gain departed?
Nothing could conquer that heart of thine.
And thy health and strength are beyond confessing
As the only joys that are worth possessing.
May the days to come be as rich in blessing
As the days we spent in the auld lang syne.

I would fain go back to the old grey river,
To the old bush days when our hearts were light,
But, alas! those days they have fled for ever,
They are like the swans that have swept from sight.
And I know full well that the strangers’ faces
Would meet us now in our dearest places;
For our day is dead and has left no traces
But the thoughts that live in my mind to-night.

There are folk long dead, and our hearts would sicken —
We would grieve for them with a bitter pain,
If the past could live and the dead could quicken,
We then might turn to that life again.
But on lonely nights we would hear them calling,
We should hear their steps on the pathways falling,
We should loathe the life with a hate appalling
In our lonely rides by the ridge and plain.

 .    .    .    .    .

In the silent park is a scent of clover,
And the distant roar of the town is dead,
And I hear once more as the swans fly over
Their far-off clamour from overhead.
They are flying west, by their instinct guided,
And for man likewise is his fate decided,
And griefs apportioned and joys divided
By a mighty power with a purpose dread.

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