top of page

September: The Black Swan

September is the month that traditionally marks the end of summer. Whether you reckon by the Labor Day Weekend at the beginning of the month, or the equinox towards the end of it, September brings a change in the seasons (regardless of actual temperatures). For those on an academic calendar, September is also the beginning of a New (school) Year. Whether it stretches back into August or forward into October, "la rentrée" offers new possibilities that call for an alert mind, so perhaps a shot of espresso is just what you need to get ready. This is a Norwegian twist on the Danish "kaffepunch."

How to make a Black Swan


Step 1: Brew up a shot of black espresso coffee and chill well (use decaf if you need to avoid the caffeine)


Step 2: Pour the cold coffee over ice cubes in a cocktail shaker


Step 3: Add 1 oz aquavit*


Step 4: Shake well, then shake some more to make sure it is well chilled


Step 5: Strain and serve. Sip rather than downing it in one.

*There are many different variations on aquavit, but in keeping with the Norwegian theme (fjords) of this month's poem, you might want to try the Linie brand. Norwegian aquavit, made from potatoes, is aged in oak casks, and thus is not as clear as other Scandinavian aquavits, made from grain. In addition, the Linie ("line") brand is named for the equator that the spirit crosses twice while aging at sea in barrels, a journey that seems in keeping with the long migrations of the swans evoked in the poem and the restless travels of Renée Vivien herself, who crossed many lines of one kind and another.

Black swan image.jpg

"Le Cygne Noir" by Renée Vivien and her own translation

"Le Cygne Noir" from Brumes de fjords


Sur les ondes appesanties, flottait un nuage de cygnes clairs.


Ils laissaient un reflet d'argent dans leur sillage.Vus de loin, ils semblaient une neige ondoyante.

Mais, un jour, ils aperçurent un cygne noir dont l'aspect étrange détruisait l'harmonie de leurs blancheurs assemblées.

Il avait un plumage de deuil et son bec était d'un rouge sanglant. Les cygnes s'épouvantèrent de leur singulier compagnon.


Leur terreur devint de la haine et ils assaillirent le cygne noir si furieusement qu'il faillit périr.


Et le cygne noir se dit:


"Je suis las des cruautés de mes semblables qui ne sont pas mes pareils.

"Je suis las des inimitiés sournoises et des colères déclarées."

"Je fuirai à jamais dans les vastes solitudes."

"Je prendrai l'essor et je m'envolerai vers la mer."

"Je connaîtrai le goût des âcres brises du large et les voluptés de la tempête."


"Les ondes tumultueuses berceront mon sommeil, et je me reposerai dans l'orage."


"La foudre sera ma soeur mystérieuse, et le tonnerre, mon frère bien-aimé."


Il prit l'essor et s'envola vers la mer.


La paix des fjords ne le retint pas, et il ne s'attarda point aux reflets irréels des arbres et de l'herbe dans l'eau; il dédaigna l'immobilité austère des montagnes.


Il entendit bruire le rythme lointain des vagues....


Mais, un jour, l'ouragan le surprit et l'abattit et lui brisa les ailes....


Le cygne noir comprit obscurément qu'il allait mourir sans avoir vu la mer....


Et pourtant, il sentait dans l'air l'odeur du large....

Le vent lui apportait un goût de sel et l'aphrodisiaque parfum des algues....

Ses ailes brisées se soulevèrent dans un dernier élan d'amour.

Et le vent charria son cadavre vers la mer.


"The One Black Swan"


A troop of white swans floated on the inland waters.


White were they, and silvery white was their shadow upon the water.


Amongst their gleaming midst, discovered they one morning a young black swan.


Angry were they, and most angrily did they fight and wound and harry him, and drove him forth from amongst their midst.


The black swan said unto himself at last:


"I am weary of this long cruelty of my kindred, which yet is not of my kind. Alien is my kindred to me, and alien am I to my own kindred."


"Far away shall I spread my wings and fly, till I reach at last unto the deepest peace."


"Never shall I fear the storm, but rather shall I ride upon its wings!"


"The great waters shall be my cradle, the lightning shall smile upon me as a sister smiles, and rough and good as a brother shall the thunder be."


So rose he and stretched his great wings in their might; so flew he afar off towards the sea.


Never once did he look beneath him, and gloriously did he fly, till slowly grew he weary and wearier...


And just as he felt weariest, heard he from afar off the sound of the great waves...


But too weary was he to reach unto the goal...


So the sea-wind carried forth the dead swan and drove him forth to the great kind sea.

Black Swans: A few things to think about in this poem (by Melanie Hawthorne)


The French version of this prose poem was first published as part of the collection Brumes de fjords (Fjord Fogs) in 1902, in a section subtitled "Traduite de poèmes norvégiens" (translated from Norwegian poems). The collection appeared under the name "R. Vivien" (she was still using only a first initial). It was her third book publication.


The poem was also, in a sense, Vivien's last word, too. After she died, an English translation of the work appeared posthumously in The One Black Swan (Constable, 1912). This anthology appears to be based on a translation Vivien was working on at the time of her death intended for her baby nephew and namesake Paul (see Nicole Albert's introduction to the ErosOnyx re-edition of the work). Unusually, the work was published under the name Pauline Mary Tarn, only the second publication to appear under Vivien's real name (the other is Chansons pour mon ombre), and the only work in English.


Jean-Paul Goujon tells us that Vivien had visited Norway as a girl, some time around 1887-1890 (Goujon, Poésies, 26). The Scandinavian would become a lasting theme woven throughout her life and work, from her claims of Viking ancestry (her father's family was from Yorkshire, which touts its Norse origins), to the enduring association between the coldness of the north and Natalie Barney's icy blond appearance. But the image of the black swan takes things one step further: this outcast creature is Vivien's totem animal, as the posthumous tribute suggests.


By the late nineteenth century, the black swan was a familiar creature (there is a Black Swan inn in the sleepy provincial town that forms the setting of George Eliot's Mill on the Floss of 1860). It was understood by then that the black swan was a separate species of swan, one that came from faraway Australia. It was not just a random mutation in an otherwise white flock, like a black sheep, yet this is how Vivien seems to deploy the image in this poem. A black swan appears suddenly and apparently out of nowhere among a flock of pure, snowy-white swans. They notice him because he is different, and his difference has negative connotations: his black plumage is the color of mourning (deuil) and his beak is the color of blood (rouge sanglant). Their first reaction is to fear him, but fear turns to hatred, and they attack the one who is different.


The black swan reaches a breaking point. He is tired of the cruelty, the hostility (both overt and covert), and resolves to leave and make his way to the sea. He is not afraid of the danger; on the contrary, the storms will be restful and the thunder and lightning will be his siblings. In other words, he will find himself a different family, a kinship based on affinity and choice.


And so he sets off. But a hurricane (ouragan) catches him by surprise and breaks his wings. The swan knows he is doomed and will die without having seen the sea (the promised land in this parable), but he can tell that he is nearly there from the smells that come to him. Comforted, he makes one final effort, an act of love....


The swan succeeds in reaching the sea, thanks to winds that carry his body, but it's important to note that he does reach it, even if only after death. Clearly, Vivien thought of herself as the black swan/black sheep, the one who is different and persecuted on account of that difference (out of fear that turns to hate). The posthumous re-publication of the story suggests a recognition that Vivien herself attained after death a success that eluded her during life, and even contributes to that posthumous success like the helpful wind.


Swans in general are a recurring image throughout Vivien's work, but this is far from the only reference to a black swan specifically.


In the prose poem collection Vagabondages (1909), the narrator of "Le courroux du cygne" (the wrath of the swan) recalls an encounter on a green and peaceful little island with an angry swan. The narrator is enjoying the beauty of the scene when an angry black swan bursts out of some reeds, threatening and hissing through its red beak. Knowing that aggressive swans can inflict severe injuries, the narrator beats a hasty retreat. But while the narrator is wise to be fearful of the swan, she (or he, the gender is never specified) also admires the swan's wild beauty. The swan was only defending its nest, and the narrator can relate because "Moi, qui songe, dans le silence, je défends avec acharnement mes rêves...." (I who dream in silence protect my dreams fiercely; Vagabondages, 54).


Since the translation "The One Black Swan" can be attributed to Vivien, the language reflects her choice, and perhaps even second thoughts, about the poem. A notable feature of the translation is the very biblical language, which brings together archaic word choices, word order, and repetition to suggest that the poem has the status of a psalm or parable. In identifying with the role of one who is persecuted for being different, Vivien positions herself as a kind of Christ-like figure who accepts death as the price of posthumous success.

bottom of page