In ancient times, back when it was thought that a crocodile wept after eating a man, it was also the belief that a swan, unable all its life to sing like other birds, would burst forth into glorious song when it felt the approach of death.
According to Plato, Socrates explained the song as one of gladness because the swan, sacred to Apollo, was shortly to be able to join the god it served.
As Apollo was the god of poetry and song, it was also the belief that the souls of a poet passed after death into the body of a swan. These ancient beliefs may be traced through all European literature; in England, we find them in Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, and many other writers.
From this picturesque source we owe the allusion to the last work of any poet, writer, or orator as his “swan song,” supposedly the culmination of all his artistry, his finest work,