Leda and the Swan Summary
by William Butler Yeats

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Leda and the Swan Summary

(Poetry for Students)

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.

Lines 1–4
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.

Lines 5–8
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.”

Lines 9–11
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 entire section is 1,288 words.)