Zwarte Zwanen (1996)

Paul Marijnis

The first wall poem by a Leiden poet. Take a look through the eyes of Marijnis and see how much people and animals resemble each other.

illustratie: lees in nederlands

Zwarte Zwanen

Een vlugge glimp van witte lingerie
onder roetwolk van rokken: zwarte zwanen
die, gekoppeld in eenzelfde rêverie,
als kanten schuitjes door de vijver varen:
kokette weduwen die niet om hun doden
blijven treuren - zwart is in de mode.
Eén kijkt soms even of haar spiegelbeeld
zich onder water net zo erg verveelt.


Listen to this poem in Dutch.
Voiced by: Leo van Zanen

illustratie: ontdek dit gedicht in 1 minuut

This poem in 60 seconds

A gaggle of black swans in the Dutch polder stirs the imagination. Paul Marijnis describes them as coquettish ladies parading around pertily. Seemingly bored, but simultaneously rather self-confident and stylish. They are just like humans.

Want to know more? On this website you can listen to the poem, discover its origins and its author and find out what the poem means to the people of Leiden.

Paul Marijnis

Paul Marijnis

Schiedam 1946 - Leiden 2008

Paul Marijnis was twenty years old when he moved to Leiden to study Dutch at Leiden University. From 1970 onward, he worked at a high school for five years until he was fired. According to Leidsch Dagblad (a local newspaper), he allegedly had difficulties with regulations, collaborating in a team, and ended his lessons whenever he saw fit. His dismissal sparked protest among the students, parents and colleagues and it was even discussed repeatedly in the city council. Ultimately, he was allowed to stay but nevertheless left not long after. Subsequently, he worked as an editor for the national newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

Writer and poet

Marijnis was 46 years old when he made his debut as an author. He published four novels and two poetry collections, which were both acclaimed. In his writing, he combined melancholy with light-heartedness, like his idol Piet Paaltjens (pseudonym of François Haverschmidt, 1835 - 1894) did a century before him. Marijnis’s poems are full of striking, beautifully-worded metaphors.

illustratie: over dit gedicht

What's this poem about?

Animals frequently recur as a theme in Marijnis’s oeuvre. He describes their movement, sound and appearance with great appreciation. The black swans in this poem are no exception. Marijnis depicts them as vain ladies from wealthy families in beautiful garments who do not do much except flaunt their plumage and admire themselves. The small presence of white; the beak and flight feathers, reminds him of lingerie and lace. The animals are coquettish, ostentatious.

Animals and humans

Did Marijnis attribute human characteristics to the swans in this poem, or did he describe people in black clothing and used the metaphor of black swans? Perhaps he recognized something in them? Marijnis grew up in Schiedam, among quite a few Orthodox Christians who wore black when they went to church on Sundays and after someone passed, family members wore mourning-wear for a long period. At the same time, they displayed the need to flaunt small details such as silver or lace. The image is indeed somewhat similar.

illustratie: ontstaan van dit gedicht

Origin story

Paul Marijnis wrote this poem in 1996. It is unknown whether or not he has actually seen the black swans, the main feature of this poem, in Leiden. Black swans are native to Australia and New Zealand. However, on occasion, they were introduced to the waters of Leiden. If this happened in the mid 1990s, it is likely that Marijnis went to see them. Several poems reveal his admiration for animals and their characteristics.

illustratie: ik heb een verhaal bij dit gedicht

Share your story

Does this poem hold a special place in your heart? For example, do you remember when you first read the poem? Or did you come across it someplace unexpected? Let us know at muurgedichten@taalmuseum.nl! We would love to add your story to our website.

illustratie: gedicht in leiden

Paul Marijnis in Leiden

Photo Anoesjka Minnaard

Since his days at university, Paul Marijnis has been a Leiden resident. He lived with his cats Raffles and Toffe in a house on the Gekroonde Liefdepoort, in the very center of Leiden, until his sudden death in 2008.

Wall poem

This was the first wall poem written by a then-living Leiden poet. In the presence of neighbors, students, the mayor and Marijnis himself, the poem was applied to the wall of the building at Hogewoerd 158. The blue letters on a pink background are striking since the poem is about black swans.

Paul Marijnis and Leiden cafés

Paul Marijnis was an esteemed guest in the cafés of Leiden. The poet often visited the barroom Burgerzaken on the Breestraat for some coffee or wine with friends. In reminiscence of his passing, another of his poems was applied to a wall inside Burgerzaken. Though the title of the poem is Paul, it is not about Marijnis himself, but about the Flemish Modernist poet Paul van Ostaijen, whom Marijnis greatly admired.

Ever still on my wallpaper
chimpanzee, canoe, Hinderickxs
The poet dances the Charleston.
The poet drinks, the poet sniffs.
Plays Russian roulette, waves.
Demigod. Dandy. Extremely polite.
He was there, all my life.

Translation: Demi van de Wetering

illustratie: citaten


Marijnis mainly wants to astound with his ornate imagery.

A review in the Dutch newspaper Trouw

illustratie: wist je dat

Fun facts

  • When Paul Marijnis moved to Leiden to study, he brought a bunch of white chrysanthemums to Hogewoerd 63. He asked the lady living there to put the flowers in the windowsill as an homage to the poet Piet Paaltjens, whom Marijnis greatly admired. Paaltjens had lived at that address during his student days.
  • Three black swans were living in the Rijnsburgersingel from May 1966. The swans had been gifted to the city by the company 3M, when it started renting an office in Leiden.
  • For a long time, black swans were considered mythical creatures and herald of calamity throughout Europe. A ‘Black swan event’ or ‘Black swan theory’ is still used as a metaphor to describe a sudden and disrupting event.
  • By using end rhyme (“lingerie” and “reverie”), slant rhyme (“zwanen” and “varen”) and broken sentences, Marijnis created an unique rhythm. Just try to recite it.
  • This is the first wall poem applied when the poet was, then, still alive.
  • In June 2005, Paul Marijnis himself recited this poem during a poetry night organized by the TEGEN-BEELD Foundation.

illustratie: lees dit gedicht in het engels

Black Swans

A brief glimpse of white lingerie
under a smog of skirts: black swans
who, linked by that same reverie,
like lace boats drift across the pond:
coquettish widows who won’t mourn
their dead - black is à la mode.
One checks to see if her reflection
beneath the surface is equally bored.

Translation: Anne Oosthuizen