I discovered something quite interesting today in John Milton's Paradise Lost. Here is Milton (this is the Archangel Raphael relating to Adam and Eve the creation of the world):

                                  the Swan with Arched neck
Between her white wings mantling proudly, Rowes
Her state with Oarie feet:

(Paradise Lost, Book 7: Lines 438-440)

And here is the second stanza of "Imitation of Spenser" by John Keats, with the similar passage in bold:

There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright
Viewing with fish of brilliant dye below;
Whose silken fins, and golden scales' light
Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow:
There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,
And oar'd himself along with majesty;

Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
Beneath the waves like Afric's ebony,
And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.

Does anyone see the similarity between the two passages?

Milton has "arched neck", Keats has "neck of arched snow". Milton has "mantling proudly", Keats has "with majesty". Milton has "Rowes/Her state with Oarie feet", Keats has "oar'd himself along".

Keats was a great reader of John Milton, and yet I could not find this echo of John Milton mentioned anywhere. Editions of Keats's works only ever mention his reading of Edmund Spenser (obviously) and also especially the Irish poet Mary Tighe (1772-1810) who wrote a work called "Psyche" (1805) in the style of Edmund Spenser. Mary Tighe was a very big influence on Keats's early works. Tragically she also died of tuberculosis.

What does everyone else think? A clear influence? I have read Keats far more often than I have Milton. But when I was reading the abovementioned Milton passage I thought that I had read something similar elsewhere. I wracked my brains, and then finally found the Keats passage in "Imitation of Spenser".

1 Answer 1


Keats’ debt to Milton in these lines was well observed. But Keats was not the only poet to borrow from Milton’s description of the swan!

Borrowing from Milton

Phil Robinson discussed Milton’s swan and its many imitators in The Poets’ Birds:

It was probably Milton who first wrote (at any rate in English) that

“The swan with arched neck
Rows her state with oary feet;”

but Keats has

“The swan, his neck of arched snow,
Oars himself along with majesty.”

Thomson says—

“Arching proud his neck, with oary feet
Bears forward;” †

and Broome—

“With snowy pride elate,
Arch their high necks, and row along with state;” ‡

and so on, and so on, till the swan, so dreadfully “oary” does it become, might be a quinquereme rather than a bird.

Phil Robinson (1883). The Poets’ Birds, p. 34. London: Chatto and Windus.

† James Thomson (1766). ‘Spring’ In Works, volume I, p. 31. London: A Millar.

‡ William Broome (c. 1725). ‘Daphnis and Lycidas’. In Samuel Johnson, ed. Works of the English Poets, volume XII, p.17. London: J. Johnson (1810).

I can add some more examples to Robinson’s list:

The swan contented with a humbler fate
Low on the fishy river rows in state.

Elijah Fenton (c. 1707). ‘An Epistle to Thomas Lambard Esq.’. In Thomas Park, ed. (1819). The Select Works of the Minor British Poets, volume II, p. 166. London Suttaby, Evance, and Fox.

His Hair transforms to Down, his Fingers meet
In skinny Films, and shape his oary Feet;
From both his Sides the Wings and Feathers break;
And from his Mouth proceeds a blunted Beak:
All Cycnus now into a Swan was turn’d

Joseph Addison (1717). ‘The Transformation of Cycnus into a Swan’. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses in Fifteen Books, p. 51. London: Jacob Tonson.

in state the snowy swans
Arch their proud necks

William Broome (1739). Poems on Several Occasions, p. viii. London: Henry Lintot.

Where silver swans, with snowy pride elate,
Their tall necks mantling, sail’d along in state.

Francis Fawkes (1752). A Description of May, p. 19. London: J. Whiston and B. White.

                                the feather’d fleet,
Led by two mantling swans, at ev’ry creek
Now touch’d, and now unmoor’d; now on full sail,
With pennons spread and oary feet they ply’d
Their vagrant voyage

William Mason (1778). The English Garden, p. 19. London: J. Dodsley.

Again rejoicing in his length of neck,
With oary feet the swan divides the stream,
And proudly loosens to the coming gale
His snow-white plumage

Henry Headley (1785). Fugitive Pieces, p. 66. London: C. Dilly.

Here and there a cygnet is reared uneasily among the ducklings in the brown pond, and never finds the living stream in fellowship with its own oary-footed kind.

George Eliot (1871). Middlemarch, volume 1, p. vii. London: William Blackstone.

Borrowing from Douglas?

Francis Fawkes’ poem A Description of May (quoted above) is a loose translation into English of a poem in Scots by Gavin Douglas, whose lines about the swan do not at first sight resemble Milton’s:

Swannis souchis throw out the respand redis,
Ouer all the lochis and the fludis gray,
Sersand by kynd ane place quhare thay suld lay

[Such swans throughout the rasping reeds,
Over all the lakes and the gray floods,
Searching by kind a place where they should lay]

Gavin Douglas (c. 1513). ‘A Description of May’. In Fawkes, p. 18.

Nonetheless Fawkes speculated that Milton had read Douglas and used some of the elements in his description of the creation of birds in Paradise Lost:

That Milton had his eye upon this passage, is plain from his describing the swan, the cock, and peacock, in the order and with several of the attributes, that our author [that is, Douglas] has given them.

Fawkes, p. 20.

What Fawkes means is that Milton’s description of Eden includes:

the Swan with Arched neck …
… the crested Cock whose clarion sounds
The silent hours, and th’ other whose gay Traine
Adorns him, colour’d with the Florid hue
Of Rainbows and Starrie Eyes.

John Milton (1667). Paradise Lost, VII.438–446.

while Douglas has these three birds in the same order:

Swannis souchis throw out the respand redis …
Phebus rede foule his curale creist can stere …
The payntit powne paysand with plumys gym

[Such swans throughout the rasping reeds, …
Phoebus’ red fowl his coral crest can stir, …
The painted peacock weighted with smart plumes]

Douglas, pp. 18–20.

I am not sure, however, that Fawkes’ “several of the attributes” is right—the only one I can spot is that the cock is “crested” in Milton and has a “curale creist” in Douglas.

Borrowing from Donne?

As pointed out by Peter Shor in comments, Milton’s description of the swan has similarities to John Donne’s. This was discussed by Richard Farmer in his ‘Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare’:

You must not think me infected with the spirit of Lauder,† if I give you another of Milton’s imitations:

                                The swan with arched neck
Between her white wings mantling proudly, rows
Her state with oary feet.

“The ancient poets,” says Mr. Richardson,‡ “have not hit upon this beauty; lavish as they have been in their descriptions of the swan. Homer calls the swan long-necked, δολιχοδείρον; but how much more pittoresque, if he had arched this length of neck!”

For this beauty, however, Milton was beholden to Donne; whose name, I believe, at present is better known than his writings:

                        Like a ship in her full trim,
A swan, so white that you may unto him
Compare all whitenesse, but himselfe to none.
Glided along, and as he glided watch’d.
And with his arched neck this poor fish catch’d—
                                Progresse of the Soul, st. 24.

Richard Farmer (1767). ‘An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare’. In Isaac Reed (1809). The Plays of William Shakespeare, p. 111. London: Vernor, Hood and Sharpe.

William Lauder, who wrote a book claiming that Milton had plagiarised Paradise Lost from passages in a variety of Latin authors, but on inspection, it turned out that Lauder’s quotations were forgeries.

‡ Jonathan Richardson (1734). Explanatory Notes and Remarks on Milton’s Paradise Lost, p. 441. London: James, John and Paul Knapton.

Donne also says of the swan that “It mov’d with state”, which is echoed by Milton’s “rows her state”.

Borrowing from Silius Italicus?

The arching of the neck is unquestionably to be found in Donne, but rowing the oary feet comes from Silius Italicus:—

“Haud secus Eridani stagnis, ripâve Caystri
Innatat albus olor, pronoque immobile corpus
Dat fluvio, et pedibus tacitas eremigat undas.

William Maginn. In Shelton Mackenzie, ed. (1856). Miscellaneous Writings of the Late Dr. Maginn, p. 259. New York: Redfield.

Maginn is a bit misleading about Silius as a source for Milton, as “eremigat” means “rows” but there is nothing corresponding to Milton’s “oary”:

So a white swan floats on the still waters of the Eridanus or by the bank of Cayster, and lets the current carry its motionless body, while its feet row on beneath the unruffled stream.

Silius Italicus (c. 90). Punica, XIV.189–191. Translated by J. D. Duff (1961). London: William Heinemann.

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    John Donne wrote about swans with arched necks well before Milton did: Stanza 24 of The Progress of the Soul.
    – Peter Shor
    Feb 18, 2021 at 2:24
  • It really isn’t clear how the Fawkes/Douglas/Milton connection works as Fawkes’ ‘loose translation’ and Milton’s lines bear no resemblance to Douglas’s passage, which translates approximately as Swans such as throughout the sedge and reeds, Over all the lochs an floods grey, Search by nature one place where they should lie.
    – Spagirl
    Jul 25, 2021 at 9:29
  • @Spagirl: I've added an explanation of Fawkes' remark about the resemblance of Milton to Douglas. Aug 26, 2021 at 7:47
  • That's helpful, thanks. The more look at that 'loose translation' the more I realise how wildly it is at variance with the original!
    – Spagirl
    Aug 26, 2021 at 10:28

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