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Analysis of Poem "Leda And The Swan" By W.B.Yeats

Updated on May 10, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

W.B.Yeats
W.B.Yeats | Source

W.B.Yeats and Leda And The Swan

Leda and the Swan was written in 1923, a year of success for W.B.Yeats, who was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature. This international acknowledgement followed years of turmoil and dismay during the Irish civil war, which ended with the setting up of the Irish Free State in 1922, and Yeats installed as a senator.

His poetical techniques and mode changed quite radically over the years. After meeting with Ezra Pound, the young American poet and editor, Yeats became more aware of his poetic language and developed a more concise way of saying things. His belief in the occult energies of the cosmos remained intact, as did his love of folklore and mythology.

The story of Leda and the Swan comes from ancient Greek mythology. Zeus, the Father of the Olympian Gods, took the form of a swan in order to seduce Leda, daughter of King Thestius. She later the same night lay with her human husband Tyndareus, and so produced eggs out of which hatched four individuals - Castor and Pollux the twins and the half-sisters Helen and Clytemnestra.

Yeats took the central theme of this story - the seduction, the rape - and turned it into a metaphor for the British involvement in Ireland, which lasted centuries, eventually coming to a conclusion in 1922. At least, this is one interpretation of Leda and the Swan.

Others see it as a disguised narrative of the progress of western civilisation. A single violent event sets off a cycle of barbarism and deceit, initiating the modern era and despite the pessimism and outrage, positive and beautiful things can emerge.

But as Yeats himself said ' Bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it.'

Petrarchan Sonnet Form

Leda and the Swan is a Petrarchan sonnet with a rhyme scheme of abab cdcd efg efg and has 14 lines (one of which is split, so officially it has 15 lines) and is mostly iambic pentameter in rhythm. That is, it has five stresses in each line, a steady rhythm which does occasionally alter to reflect the violent action.

All the end rhymes are full, for example : still/bill, push/rush except for the slant rhyme of up/drop.

Yeats chose the sonnet form, traditionally associated with romance and love, to highlight the irony - this is a full blown rape, a controversial subject for the tightly knit framework of a sonnet.

After eight lines comes the volta or turn, where the previous lines are answered or a conclusion is drawn. Look out for the unusual way in which the poet ends the sonnet.

Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan
Leda and the Swan

Analysis of Leda and the Swan

eda and the Swan is based on the well known ancient Greek myth in which Zeus takes the form of a swan in order to make love to Leda, wife of Tyndareus, King of Sparta, who also happens to lay with her that very night.

The result? She becomes pregnant and the following births of Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor and Pollux all have profound effects on the history of Greece and subsequently, western civilization.

  • Yeats used this theme of seduction, rape and resultant offspring as a metaphor for the relationship between Britain and Ireland. Britain being the swan (the mighty Zeus) and Ireland Leda (the helpless victim).

Perhaps this is why the poet uses such dramatic language in the first eight lines of the poem. From the opening three words the reader is instantly caught up in this act, this shocking scenario of violent passion. A sudden blow....as the swan catches the girl with its beating wings and she staggers back. It is nothing short of a rude assault.

The diction is worth focusing on: blow/beating/staggering/dark/caught/holds/helpless/terrified/push/loosening/rush/strange/beating/shudder/broken/burning/mastered/power/indifferent/drop.

There is a natural tension set up as the poem progresses; it is basically a masculine versus feminine struggle.

In Greek mythology the gods looked down on the human world and treated them as playthings. Humans were pawns in a game. Every so often the gods would enter the human world and stir things up.

In this poem it is the brutal physical act that sets off a chain of events, divinely inspired it could be said, leading to all sorts of disruption and violence in human society.

Further Line by Line Analysis

Lines 1 - 4

Set right in the here and now, this sonnet opens with an astonishing scene of violence, passion and trauma. This is no ordinary sonnet on the theme of sweet romance and eternal love. The reader is right there in the front row, staring at what is a blatant sexual assault on a girl, the wife of a king no less.

The first line has five stresses, iambic and spondaic, to reflect the impact of the swan as it impregnates Leda, who is in shock, staggers back, and is helpless to resist.

  • Note the use of enjambment - where one line flows into another without punctuation and with the sense maintained - and caesura, the pause in the middle of the line as the physical act takes place. Rhythm is all important, as is the tension between the stresses and the content. Alliteration is strong in the fourth line: He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

The swan has the girl by the nape, the back of the neck, whilst her breast rests on his. This is a vivid description, with rich yet direct language. There is nothing in the least romantic about this coupling but the image is so strong - little wonder artists throughout the centuries have been keen to depict this scene.

So the reader can have no doubts after this first quatrain. A barbaric act has been perpetrated by this beautiful if sinister bird, a god in disguise, the god of gods in the guise of a pure white swan.

Lines 5 - 8

The descriptive language continues and intensifies in the form of two mostly iambic questions, focusing on Leda's predicament as the swan advances. This is serious stuff. Zeus is all powerful and intent on impregnating the helpless female, who seems unable to ward him off.

Feminists raise the alarm at this point, for here we have the blatant rape of an innocent girl, which they see as symbolic of the exploitation of females by the males, by patriarchal society.

The speaker relays the awful details to the reader in language that is anatomical - vague fingers/loosening thighs/body/heart beating - it is lustful and earthy and real.

  • Note that white rush is an ambiguous term which could refer to the advancing feathers of the swan, the soft down of the loins.

More Analysis

Lines 9 - 15

A shudder...echo of the opening line A sudden...and how poignant for this is the moment of conception as the swan consummates the meeting. The orgasm occurs and with it the engendering of a future war - the seige of Troy, occurring in the Trojan War, a 10 year conflict between the kingdoms of Troy and Greece.

So Leda is responsible indirectly for all that follows because she gave birth to Helen, who caused the Trojan War when abducted from her husband Menelaus by Paris. It's all quite complicated but what the poem is trying to say is that the consequences of one act can have devastating repercussions.

Agamemnon was the husband of Clytemnestra (born to Leda), but she ended up killing him when he returned from the war a hero.

  • Note the unusual two lines, the eleventh and twelfth. The eleventh brings closure to the whole sordid business of the rape and subsequent births. The full stop (period, end stop) is a definite end of clause.
  • Line twelve begins the conclusion, ambiguous to say the least because of that verb put on and asks the question - Despite Leda being so overwhelmed by the whole violent episode she still knew who it was who was raping her, she was aware that Zeus was omnipotent. Or did she gain his knowledge and power as a natural consequence of the seduction?

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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