The phrase the Swan of Avon, or Avon’s Swan, is an epithet for the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), born at Stratford-upon-Avon, a town in Warwickshire, on the River Avon.
This epithet was first used by the English poet and playwright Benjamin ‘Ben’ Jonson (1572-1637) in To the memory of my beloued, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare: and what he hath left vs, published in Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies, known as the First Folio (London, 1623):
Sweet Swan of Auon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights vpon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our Iames!
(“Eliza, and our Iames” refers to Elizabeth I (1533-1603), queen of England and Ireland (1558-1603), and to her successor, James I (1566-1625), king of Scotland as James VI (1567-1625) and of England and Ireland (1603-25).)
According to Alexander Waugh (born 1963) in The True Meaning of Ben Jonson’s Phrase: ‘Sweet Swan of Avon!’ (2014), Avon refers in reality to Hampton Court; he writes that Shakespeare’s works
were evidently performed (many presumably for the first time) before Queen Elizabeth and King James upon the grandest courtly stage in England, situated on the banks of the Thames at Hampton Court.
In support of his theory, Waugh explains that Hampton Court was anciently known as Avon; in Kykneion asma. Cygnea cantio (London, 1545), the English antiquary John Leland (circa 1506-1552), swimming down the Thames in the guise of a swan, explains that Hampton Court was called Avon as a shortening of the Celtic-Roman name Avondunum, meaning a fortified place (suffix -dunum) by a river (avon), which “the common people by corruption call Hampton”:
Auona. Hampton courte. Auondunum propius nomen exprimit […], quam uulgus Hampton corruptè pro Auondune uocat.
(It must be said, however, that Alexander Waugh is an advocate of the Oxfordian theory, that is, the belief that Edward de Vere (1550-1604), 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the works of William Shakespeare.)
In any case, this use of swan for a ‘singer’, a bard, a poet, is rooted in a tradition going back to antiquity. For example, in Carmina (Odes), the Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) used Dircæus cycnus, the swan of Dirce, for Pindar (circa 518-circa 438 BC), Greek lyric poet from Thebes, in Boeotia (Dirce was a river near Thebes which, according to Pindar, owed its origin to the Muses):
Multa Dircaeum levat aura cycnum,
tendit, Antoni, quotiens in altos
translation by Hugh Macnaghten (Cambridge University Press, 1926):
The swan of Dirce, Antony,
Borne by strong winds is wafted high
Above the clouds.
Likewise, in the Greek description of the bronze statues in the gymnasium called Zeuxippos, erected at Byzantium and destroyed by fire shortly after this description was written (532 AD), Pindar is called the Heliconian swan (Mount Helicon is a mountain in Boeotia):
Θήβης δ᾽ Ὠγυγίης Ἑλικώνιος ἵστατο κύκνος,
Πίνδαρος ἱμερόφωνος, ὃν ἀργυρότοξος Ἀπόλλων
ἔτρεφε Βοιωτοῖο παρὰ σκοπιὴν Ἑλικῶνος,
καὶ μέλος ἁρμονίης ἐδιδάξατο: τικτομένου γὰρ
ἑζόμεναι λιγυροῖσιν ἐπὶ στομάτεσσι μέλισσαι
κηρὸν ἀνεπλάσσαντο, σοφῆς ἐπιμάρτυρα μολπῆς.
translation from The Greek Anthology with an English translation by W. R. Paton (London, 1916):
There stood the Heliconian swan of ancient Thebes, sweet-voiced Pindar, whom silver-bowed Apollo nurtured by the peak of Boeotian Helicon, and taught him music; for at his birth bees settled on his melodious mouth, and made a honey-comb testifying to his skill in song.
In English, swan as an epithet for a poet has chiefly been used in designations derived from river-names. In Athenæ Oxonienses. An exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the most ancient and famous University of Oxford (London, 1692), the English antiquary Anthony Wood (1632-95) wrote the following about William Davenant (1606-68), English poet and playwright (Isis is a name for the part of the River Thames that flows through Oxford):
[William Davenant] whom we […] may justly stile the sweet Swan of Isis.
In The Dunciad (London, 1743), the English poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) used swan of Thames as an epithet for John Taylor (1578 -1653), an English poet and Thames waterman who dubbed himself The Water Poet:
Once swan of Thames, tho’ now he sings no more.
The Irish author James Augustine Aloysius Joyce (1882-1941) used the swan of Avon in Ulysses (Shakespeare and Company – Paris, 1922):
Shakespeare has left the huguenot’s house in Silver street and walks by the swanmews along the riverbank. But he does not stay to feed the pen chivying her game of cygnets towards the rushes. The swan of Avon has other thoughts.
The following by Ben Jonson appears next to Shakespeare’s portrait by Martin Droeshout (1601-circa 1650) in the First Folio (1623):
To the Reader.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;
Wherein the Grauer had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life:
O, could he but haue drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print would then surpasse
All, that vvas euer vvrit in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.