“The Transformation of Cycnus into a Swan” – Ovid

by richibi


   “Swans among the Reeds at First Light (1832) 


             Caspar David Friedrich





were I to be transformed into anything,

I told myself, after reading about all 

these earlier metamorphoses, then 

coming upon this one, of Cycnus, I 

wouldn’t mind, I decided, becoming 

a swan

                   Cycnus beheld the nymphs transform’d, ally’d 
                   To their dead brother on the mortal side, 
                   In friendship and affection nearer bound; 


Cycnus, son of Sthenelus, King of Liguria,

a region still of Northern Italy, a prince, 

therefore, in his own right, was a good 

friend of Phaeton


the nymphs, the Heliades, daughters

of Helios / Phoebus / Apollo and 

Clymene, though transform’d into trees, 

were nevertheless on the mortal side, 

living things, ally’d  / To their dead 

brother, by the earth, which confined, 

constrained, covered them, if only,

the maidens, partially


nearer bound, ally’d again, like a refrain, 

a literary reverberation, honouring their 

brother, Phaeton, [i]n friendship and



                   He left the cities and the realms he own’d, 
                   Thro’ pathless fields and lonely shores to range, 
                   And woods made thicker by the sisters’ change. 


the sisters’ change, more trees than 

there had been before

                   Whilst here, within the dismal gloom, alone, 
                   The melancholy monarch made his moan, 


monarch, Cycnus, prince of Liguria

                   His voice was lessen’d, as he try’d to speak, 
                   And issu’d through a long-extended neck; 


the transformation of Cycnus occurs, 

much as it did earlier with the Heliades

through the mercy, presumably, of the 

gods, who, usually indifferent, express 

compassion here, however 

uncharacteristically, for the unbearable 

anguish suffered by the grieving sisters 

and friend


Cycnus, incidentally, would also later be 

placed by Apollo among the stars, to 

become the constellation Cygnus

                   His hair transforms to down, his fingers meet 
                   In skinny films, and shape his oary feet; 


oary, hoary, grayish white, grizzled,


                   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, 
                   Who, still remembring how his kinsman burn’d, 


his kinsman, Phaeton, burn’d, in the

sundered Chariot of the Sun

                   To solitary pools and lakes retires, 
                   And loves the waters as oppos’d to fires. 


swans, it appears, seek out the shade, 

are oppos’d to fires, shun the heat of 

the nefarious, the treacherous, sun


see above

                   Mean-while Apollo in a gloomy shade 
                   (The native lustre of his brows decay’d) 


decay’d, disintegrated, fell away from,

its native lustre

                   Indulging sorrow, sickens at the sight 
                   Of his own sun-shine, and abhors the light; 


Indulging sorrow, allowing himself 

to steep in his own agony

                   The hidden griefs, that in his bosom rise, 
                   Sadden his looks and over-cast his eyes, 
                   As when some dusky orb obstructs his ray, 
                   And sullies in a dim eclipse the day. 


another reverberation erupts here

recalling the darkness, eclipse, just

undergone after the incineration of 

Apollo’s chariot, however paltry

might’ve been, to that god, the 

mere disturbance of a planet 

obstructing the sun, however 

otherwise momentous, compared 

to the death of his son    

                   Now secretly with inward griefs he pin’d, 
                   Now warm resentments to his griefs he joyn’d, 
                   And now renounc’d his office to mankind. 


Helios / Phoebus / Apollo, presently

in the throes of griefs and guilt, warm,

impassioned, resentments, chooses 

to no longer drive the Chariot of the 

Sun, renounc[es] his office, his duty,

responsibility, service, to mankind  

                   “Ere since the birth of time,” said he, “I’ve born 
                   A long ungrateful toil, without return; 
                   Let now some other manage, if he dare, 
                   The fiery steeds, and mount the burning carr; 
                   Or, if none else, let Jove his fortune try, 
                   And learn to lay his murd’ring thunder by; 


Helios / Phoebus / Apollo challenges 

Jove himself, if no other will take his 

place, to guide the horses, holding 

him responsible for the death of 

his son, Phaeton, by having cast his 

murd’ring thunder at him, though

the Earth herself and the harried

constellations, in Jove’s defence,

had begged the god of gods to do



                   Then will he own, perhaps, but own too late, 
                   My son deserv’d not so severe a fate.” 


but could there have been any other 


                   The Gods stand round him, as he mourns, and pray 
                   He would resume the conduct of the day, 
                   Nor let the world be lost in endless night: 


without the Chariot of the Sun and

someone to guide it, there would be

no day, an apocalyptic cataclysm

                   Jove too himself descending from his height, 
                   Excuses what had happen’d, and intreats, 


intreats, entreats, implores, beseeches

                   Majestically mixing pray’rs and threats. 


Jove / Jupiter / Zeus, from his position

of supreme authority, pulls out all the 

stops, uses all his mechanisms,

pray’rs, threats

                   Prevail’d upon at length, again he took 
                   The harness’d steeds, that still with horror shook, 
                   And plies ’em with the lash, and whips ’em on, 
                   And, as he whips, upbraids ’em with his son. 


Helios / Phoebus / Apollo takes out 

his anguish on the horses, which 

must’ve led to a daunting, a hellish 




R ! chard