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I wonder what exactly "a-swing" is in:

For he must fly back to his perch and cling

When he fain* would be on the bough* a-swing;

Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar

If it was "would be on the bough swinging", I wouldn't ask. But a-swing?

I couldn't find the word as it is in any dictionary I have looked up the word in. Could someone say a-flying, or a-verbing for that matter? Was made up for musical poetic reasons?

Note: Fain means gladly and bough, a branch

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"A-swing" means roughly the same as "would be on the bough swinging", but that wouldn't rhyme. Compare with "asleep" = "sleeping".

To fit the rhyme scheme of the poem the third and fourth lines in each stanza must rhyme. The stress of "... perch and cling" falls on the last syllable. "And cling" forms an "iamb", a metric foot of a unstressed followed by a stressed syllable). Whereas "swinging" is a "trochee" (stressed-unstressed). Therefore "cling" doesn't rhyme with swinging. However "a-swing" is an iamb, and so this fulfills the meter and rhyme scheme of the poem.

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In your example, a-swing means simply swinging.

OED defines this use of the prefix a- as:

  1. With nouns and verb stems, forming adverbs (and derived adjectives and prepositions) expressing activity, position, condition, etc. Now chiefly poet.

Beneath this entry, tiny type tells us:

A selection of rarely occurring formations is given below.

The two most contemporary of these are:

1989 T. Tryon Night of Moonbow iv. iv. 261 Harpo took up a position outside the window, tongue still hanging a-pant, earnestly cocking his head.

1999 Esquire Mar.33/3 Cynics often wonder, aloud, and asmirk.

While the usage in your example may serve mainly to satisfy the demands of meter in verse, it is from the use of this prefix (according to Jesperson, at least) that, over time, such words as aswim, agape, afloat (which dates to 1023 CE!) and awash have evolved. Jesperson goes so far as to claim that they may

"...for all intents and purposes be regarded as a new type of present participles, but their use is often more literary than colloquial."


N.b.: Words such as asleep and around have evolved differently; in these, the a- prefix represents the OE on or an with the meaning "on" or "onto", and is prefixed to a substantive such as sleep or round, not to a verb form.

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