Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1288
Title The title of the poem is important, because it is the only indication of the characters who are the subject of the poem. In the poem, Yeats assumes that the reader is familiar with the myth referred to in the title. Throughout the fourteen lines, he never uses the...
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The title of the poem is important, because it is the only indication of the characters who are the subject of the poem. In the poem, Yeats assumes that the reader is familiar with the myth referred to in the title. Throughout the fourteen lines, he never uses the names of either of the characters. Zeus’s name in fact appears neither in the title nor the text of the poem; the reader is expected to understand that the swan is an incarnation of the all-powerful god.
The structure of the sonnet is Petrarchan, an Italian form of the sonnet that characteristically divides its theme into an octave, in which a problem or emotion is stated, and a sestet, in which the problem or emotional tension is resolved. There is a clear separation between the first eight lines (the octave) and the final six (the sestet).
The octave is divided into two four-line stanzas, or quatrains. The first quatrain opens with a recounting of the occurrence in mid-scene. It begins abruptly, as the swan assaults Leda with “a sudden blow,” which is most likely a reference to an act of sexual penetration. The use of that simple, powerful phrase (not a complete sentence) and a break before the line continues emphasizes the explosive violence of the act.
Line 1 continues with a description of the great swan hanging in the air above the girl with its wings beating. There is a pun on the word still; the bird’s wings continue to beat and are also still as it hovers above without moving. In line 2 there is a description of Leda that indicates her physical (and perhaps psychological) state, as she staggers under her assailant. The swan has its body over Leda as she falters under him; he caresses her thighs with his webbed feet. There is an almost sensuous description in the phrase “her thighs caressed,” but this is followed immediately by the grotesque image of the swan’s “dark webs” in line 3 and the image of Leda’s neck in his bill as he holds her helpless against him. The swan is never referred to directly as a swan, but its presence is expressed in ordinary images like “great wings” and “dark webs” that in the context of the poem seem quite extraordinary. Leda is simply “the girl” who is caught in the bird’s beak like a small helpless animal. In line 4 the crushing movement of the girl pinned against the bird is reinforced by the repetition of the word breast as the two are joined together unwillingly as one.
The second quatrain of the octave continues with a description of the rape, but it is presented here in the form of two rhetorical questions. How, asks the speaker, can this mere mortal girl resist the power of this beast-god as he subjugates her? And how can she help but feel the beating of his heart (or his sexual organ) as he lies with her? Leda’s fingers are “terrified” and “vague” because they are powerless amidst the “feathered glory” that surrounds her; and she acquiesces to the assault because she is helpless to resist; she cannot push the god’s body from her “loosening thighs.” She loses her identify with the continuing attack; she is no longer even “girl” but merely “body” laid in a “white rush” (referring to the bird’s feathers but punning on an image of ejaculation). She feels the pulsation of the bird’s “strange heart” (which, again, could refer to its penis) against her. Again in this stanza the picture of the bird is rendered in simple images using a combination of abstract and concrete descriptors that emphasize its divine and incomprehensible nature: it is a “feathered glory” with a “strange heart.” The details of Leda’s psychological state and physical body are presented with skillful compression and interconnectedness, with references to her “terrified” fingers and “loosening thighs.”
In the final sestet the poem moves away from the description of the rape to its effect, shifting from an immediate physical description of the present to an abstract dramatization of the future. While the first part of the poem concentrated on the physicality of the act, the last stanza steps back from the present and situates it in the larger pattern of history. Also, while the first two stanzas of the poem had references to the whiteness of the swan and the blackness of its webs, the images in the final stanza are vivid with references to fire and blood.
Line 9 begins with the swan’s orgasm and ejaculation, the “shudder in the loins” that, it is explained, engenders, or gives rise to, a startling series of events. The act of rape just described, the speaker says, spawns “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.” This compressed line and a half describe the fall of Troy (walls broken and roofs burned) and the death of Agamemnon at the conclusion of the Trojan War. That is, with the union of Leda and the swan will come the birth of Helen, and with that the series of events that culminates in the siege and fall of Troy, which signals the collapse of early Greek civilization and ushers in a new, modern age. The phrases “broken wall,” “burning roof,” and “tower” also have sexual connotations. The broken wall refers to the breaking of the female hymen in sexual intercourse; the burning roof refers to the vagina; the tower is a symbol of the phallus. Fire traditionally symbolizes sexual passion and represents the divine union with the human.
The break in line 11 is the only deviation from the traditional form of the sonnet, and the division stresses the completeness of thought presented in the previous eighteen words that express a vast historical process. This single event, the impregnation of the mortal woman Leda by the god Zeus signals the beginning of a new time in history. Here, in a few short lines, Yeats makes reference to his theory of history that claims that every two thousand years a new era of civilization is ushered in because of the reversal of the gyres. The mortal Leda is caught in this cosmic pattern, a helpless victim of divine forces that use her merely as a means to a larger end.
After the break in line 11 the speaker again changes tenses (this time to past) and ends the poem with another question. The use of the past tense serves to further distance the act and see it in terms of its historical significance. The speaker asks if Leda, as she was taken and ravaged so savagely by this “brute blood of the air,” the god in the form of a swan, knew the consequences of what was happening to her. When she is violated by and in union with the god, does she come to some sort of divine knowledge? Does she know, as he obviously must because of his divinity, that this act portends the end of a civilization? In these lines, the description of the swan as the “brute blood of the air” identifies Zeus with a cosmic force; he is a being that is physical, animal, and divine. The poem ends in the last line with an image of the swan, after its orgasm, as it releases its captor carelessly from its beak. He has satisfied his desire and lets her drop, indifferent to his victim’s terrifying experience. The question the reader is left with is whether Leda knew that her experience would inaugurate a new cycle and whether in her terrifying union with the god she gains some type of mystical or cosmic insight.