and the Song of the Dying Swan
by Albany Poyntz
In the conclusions of naturalists there is much to respect. But we must
beware of false inferences.
For instance, no one will deny that swallows skim the surface of the earth
on the approach of a storm. But it is simply because insects then swarm in
the lower regions of the atmosphere. The swallows seek their prey where
instinct teaches them that it is most abundant; not because a peculiar
sympathy warns them of the coming storm. Swans, ducks, goslings, also,
indicate hot weather by plunging oftener than usual, because the
temperature being oppressive, they seek a fresher one under the water.
In the list of meteorological animals, leeches hold a prominent place. An
English physician pretends that they are lively when the sky is clear and
serene, and raise their heads above water to breathe the pure air. But if
the sky be gloomy and clouded, they conceal themselves in the mud, and
are evidently agitated at the approach of storms. The following are the
observations of Dr. Vitet, in his “Treaty on Medical Leeches.”
“Close up a quantity of leeches in jars of equal size containing the same
water, and expose them together to the open air. Never will you see
identity of action. In one jar, they are at the surface, in another at the
bottom, while in another they will be completely out of the water sticking
to the cover. Again, you will see all the leeches of the same jar in all
these different positions; some adhering by their tails from the borders
of the jar, others balancing themselves with the most perfect regularity.
It follows, therefore, that leeches are devoid of meteorological
Had not Dr. Vitet made his experiments on so large a scale, a single
leech, well-watched, would always have been said to announce changes of
weather and temperature. In the case of the Rana Arboria, or tree-frog,
which is sometimes confined in a glass jar to form a sort of living
weather-glass, it may be noticed that, when two frogs of the same species
are kept in the same glass, one is sure to be found at the top of the
ladder and one at the bottom, proving how little such indications are to
be depended upon.
To leeches is attributed another peculiarity, equally groundless; the
faculty, namely, of ridding us of our corrupt blood, while they respect
the pure; a fact disproved by daily experience.
According to a popular prejudice in many countries, snakes and vipers will
creep down the throats of persons imprudent enough to sleep in the open
fields with their mouths open; and strange things are related on this
subject, especially in Germany.
About fifty years ago, the German newspapers announced that in Styria a
young girl being asleep with her mouth open, a viper made its way into her
throat. She was not aware of the fact; but a few days afterwards began to
experience an insupportable irritation. On a subsequent day, the viper
reappeared by the channel it had penetrated, hissing and raising itself on
its tail as if overjoyed at its emancipation; and immediately afterwards,
the girl vomited a quantity of viper’s eggs. This anecdote so charmed the
French journalists, that they republished it in various directions,
neither suspecting that they were renewing a fable of the Greeks, nor
inquiring whether vipers were oviparous.
The adventures of the Styrian girl was nearly forgotten, when a French
surgeon gave a fresh version of it in the following shape:
“In the month of June, 1806, a child of four years old having fallen
asleep on the bank of the Canal de L’Ourcq with her mouth open, a snake
crept in and passed into her stomach, where it remained for nineteen days;
at the expiration of which, the child accidentally drank a glass of white
wine, when forth came the snake in the presence of her whole family!”
Witnesses were found to attest the fact; and the medical man who attended
the child, asserted the reptile to have been eighteen inches long! Dr.
Masson, surgeon to the civil Hospitals of Paris, made a report upon the
subject to the Faculty of Medicine, attributing the attraction of the
snake to the child having fed upon bread and milk, the predilection of
those reptiles for that sustenance being well known.
Before we return to the above subject, we may as well inquire whether the
predilection of snakes for milk be really true. The French peasants agree
in this opinion with Pliny, Aldovrandus and Gesner. Yet all are wrong.
Snakes are furnished with numerous little teeth at the extremity of their
mouths, that their prey may not escape; so that if they sucked the cows as
asserted by the peasants, their teeth must become inextricably entangled
in the udder. The diminution of the milk in the dairies of the French
provinces, is nevertheless often most conveniently ascribed to the
interposition of snakes, innocent at least of this species of mischief.
We must, therefore, conclude that Dr. Masson’s little patient was not the
victim of the passion of the snake in question for milk. Is it credible,
however, that a snake eighteen inches long could introduce itself into the
mouth of a sleeping child without awaking it, or creep down the æsophagus
and into the stomach without being perceived? The marvellous snake was
probably nothing more than a worm such as is frequently ejected from the
mouths of children.
Snakes, vipers, and serpents have always been leading features in fable,
and, at times, in history. Without alluding to the serpent-tempter, we
have the serpent of Aaron, which also serves as the attribute of
Esculapius, and ornaments the Caduceus of Mercury. We have the serpent
Python, and those which entwined themselves round the Laocoon and his
sons; the serpent concealed under the flowers, whose sting caused the
death of Eurydice; and finally, the asp of Cleopatra. But upon such
matters, the moderns have gone far beyond the ancients. If, for instance,
the asp which bit the bosom of Cleopatra had pertained to the species
which Father Charleroix saw at Paraguay, it might have been the rival of
Anthony; for the Padre expressly asserts that serpents are ever on the
watch to carry off females in the forests of that province. These may be
considered rivals to the Great Sea Serpent of the Americans.
Bertholin, the learned Swedish doctor, relates strange anecdotes of
lizards, toads and frogs; stating that a woman, thirty years of age, being
thirsty, drank plentifully of water at a pond. At the end of a few months,
she experienced singular movements in her stomach, as if something were
crawling up and down; and alarmed by the sensation, consulted a medical
man, who prescribed a dose of orvietan in a decoction of fumitary. Shortly
afterwards, the irritation of the stomach increasing, she vomited three
toads and two young lizards, after which, she became more at ease. In the
spring following, however, her irritation of the stomach was renewed; and
aloes and bezoar being administered, she vomited three female frogs,
followed the next day by their numerous progeny. In the month of January
following, she vomited five more living frogs, and in the course of seven
years, ejected as many as eighty. Dr. Bertholin protests that he heard
them croak in her stomach! The utter incompatibility of the nature of
these reptiles with the temperature of the human stomach, renders denial
of the truth of this scientific anecdote almost superfluous.
The Journal des Débats, then called the Journal de l’Empire, published the
following circumstances as having taken place at Joinville, in the
Department of the Meuse.
“Marie Ragot, a widow, having complained for two years of a distaste for
food, and suffered from internal cramps.
“These symptoms were at first attributed to an aneurism of the viscera;
but were soon found to proceed from some strange substance in the stomach.
After two months, Marie Ragot ejected from her mouth a living reptile in
the presence of many; who, on seeing it creep away, in the hurry of the
moment, inconsiderately crushed it. This reptile belonging to the lizard
class, was thin and long, its colour light grey, brown on the back, and
dark yellow under the belly. It had four small legs, each having
nail-tipped feelers, a triangular head, rather obtuse at the nose, bent, a
short tail and filiform at the extremity. This is all we have been able to
learn, the witnesses having stupidly destroyed the reptile. Ragot died
soon afterwards, and it remains undecided whether her death was caused by
the reptile remaining so long in her stomach. The lizard we have described
was doubtless the grey common wall lizard. It is supposed to have crept
into her mouth when asleep.”
While occupied by consideration of the marvels of physiological history,
we must not omit to mention the song of the Dying Swan; formerly applied
as a standard of composition for the highest pitch which melody could
attain, and as typical of the last strains emanating from the soul of the
poet. Virgil, Fénélon and Shakspeare, are known as the Swan of Mantua,
the Swan of Cambray, and Swan of Avon. Pliny, whose propensity for handing
down popular fallacies we have already noticed, says, in treating of the
gift of song conceded to swans by the poets: “The doleful strain
attributed to the swan, at the moment of death, is a prejudice disproved
by experience.” Modern observation confirms his opinion that the song of
the swan is a mere metaphor. To urge this matter further would be
equivalent to pleading after judgment; had not Dr. Bertholin, who attended
the woman of the eighty frogs, endeavoured to revive the idea of the
ancients; quoting the declaration of one of his friends, Grégoire
Wilhelmi, that having seen one of a flight of swans expire, the others
hastened to its aid, giving forth harmonious sounds, as if singing the
funeral dirge of their departed companion.
This story is evidently a romantic fiction. But if the domestic swan be
mute, it is not so with the wild one, which is guilty of the most
discordant noises, instead of the fabulous harmony so long attributed to
it. The Abbé Arnaud carefully observed two wild swans which sought refuge
on the waters of Chantilly, more particularly, as regarded their cries.
Buffon notices that they have a shrill, piercing shriek, far from
agreeable, and are quite insensible to the sound of music.
The song of the swan, therefore, must be admitted to be as much a creation
of the poets as the song of the syrens which, according to Homer,
attracted the vessel of Ulysses.