Critical Overview

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When Yeats first published a version of “Leda and the Swan” in 1924 in the radical monthly paper To-morrow, it was met with criticism from many conservatives who deplored its sexually explicit subject matter. Yeats later revised the poem (not because of the criticism but because he constantly reworked his poetry), and it appeared in his prose work A Vision in 1925 in a slightly amended form and as an epigraph to a lengthy discussion of his cyclical theory of history. The poem was revised four more times and appeared in its final version in the 1928 collection, The Tower. That volume was received enthusiastically by reviewers, and it is still regarded as one of the poet’s greatest works.

Some early readers again found the sexual explicitness of “Leda and the Swan” troublesome, but for the most part it was greatly admired. Contemporary critics have been extremely generous with their praise of the poem. John Unterecker, in his Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, calls it “a nearly perfect sonnet,” and Balachandra Rajan considers it “one of the most unimprovable poems ever written.” Many critics have commented on the poem’s intricacy of thought within the narrow confines of the sonnet, remarking at the masterful use of language and rhythm to create lyricism and complexity. A few commentators have faulted the work for its oblique references to the poet’s complicated philosophical theories. Yvor Winters, for example, in his article “Leda and the Swan,” says that the ideas in the poem “constitute Yeats’s private fairy tale,” and that they are “foolish.” A few feminist writers, notably Elizabeth Butler Cullingford, have found that the poem “flirts with pornography” because of its violently sexual nature and the subjugation of Leda. Others, such as Scott C. Holstad, have suggested that in the poem Yeats plays out a rape fantasy that is the result of his unrequited love for Maud Gonne. Even critics who have found the topic of the poem troubling or distasteful, however, have conceded that “Leda and the Swan” is one of the most technically brilliant poems ever written in the English language. Yeats’s choice of diction and his use of language, imagery, and rhyme, it is agreed, contribute to a powerful total effect. As Richard Ellman has written in his The Identity of Yeats, “He gathers his intensity and force, which have hardly been equalled in modern verse, by creating, with the aid of symbol, myth, and ritual, patterns where thoughts and feelings find unexampled voice.”

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Essays and Criticism