The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Leda and the Swan” is a sonnet that, like the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet, divides into an octave that presents a narrative and a sestet that comments on the narrative. Although the rhyme scheme of the first eight lines follows the typical Shakespearean form (abab, cdcd), the next six lines follow the expected Petrarchan (efg, efg) rhyme scheme.

The octave essentially describes the god Zeus’s forced and unannounced impregnation of Leda and her ineffectual human efforts at resisting this sudden implosion in her “loosening thighs.” The sestet’s first sentence has been called William ButlerYeats’s most brilliant sentence and even the capstone of his magnificent The Tower (1928). This line reveals the consequent engendering of the Greek Age of Homer (but Aeschylus, Euripides, and even Vergil also profit), because springing from this union of the king of the gods and the mortal woman were both Helen of Troy, who caused the Trojan War, and Clytemnestra, who slew the returning, conquering Agamemnon at the war’s end—primary themes of the Greek Age. The second sentence of the sestet poses a question not so relevant to the Greeks, who, thinking often of women as booty, rather accepted the inexorable, blind run of fate and the inevitability of tragic human destiny. The poem’s final question, however, is highly relevant to Yeats’s ultimate meaning:

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

The history of Yeats’s homeland of Ireland has been one of struggle for self-determination since the twelfth century, when Britain was...

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Leda and the Swan

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Yeats expects his readers to recognize as archetypal the encounter between mortal woman and godhead. A gentler version of Leda’s visit from the swan, after all, is the beginning of Christianity. Each event, for Yeats, constitutes the annunciation of a great cycle of history. As the impregnation of Mary by the Holy Spirit sets in motion the Christian era, so does Leda’s union with the swan set in motion the heroic age. In conceiving the beautiful Helen of Troy and the vengeful Clytemnestra, Leda conceives love, war--even the evolution of justice. Her encounter with Zeus is the cultural genesis more fully chronicled in Homer’s ILIAD and Aeschylus’ ORESTEIA.

To contain these ideas in a sonnet--a form requiring maximum economy of expression--is a challenge that the poet meets with great resourcefulness. For example, he artfully casts his account of the sexual consummation in language at once prophetic of the Trojan War and suggestive of defloration and orgasm: “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower.” The full stop in line 11, along with the typographical break, represents the termination of sexual activity and the onset of post-coital lassitude (brilliantly captured in the half-rhyme of “up” and “drop”). The poem’s energies seem to flag with the sated swan’s.

The question that ends the poem--does Leda have access to the god’s knowledge as she experiences his power?--calls to mind the nuances of “knowing.” If Leda “knows” the god sexually, does she also “know” his mind?

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The sonnet’s extreme precision allows much to be said and implied, and Yeats further compacts this poem’s terseness by using synecdoche: Only the “wings,” “webs,” and “bill” are attacking; only Leda’s “fingers,” “nape,” and “thighs” are resisting. Only a “wall,” “roof,” and “tower” represent the Greek siege of Troy, though it was a war waged for ten years to recover Helen. The richness of the symbols, especially as they function organically within Yeats’s overall poetic context, is astounding.

References to Helen of Troy, in particular, and to many enduring myths of the Greek, Celtic, Christian, Buddhist, or Byzantine eras abound in Yeats’s poems. Because the central dedication of all Yeats’s work as a poet-seer (the true bard of human culture) was always to the mystical, he was drawn constantly to the deep, still waters of humankind’s most profound illuminations, which he tirelessly labored all his life to mold into a unity of vision. The framework upon which he would weave this unified tapestry of mythology was provided by A Vision (1925, 1937); however, the mystical “voices” who communicated the ideas of A Vision (through the medium of his wife Georgie’s automatic writing) guided him carefully so that he would not take the finger (of the system) for the moon (of the mythological poetry): “We have come,” they insisted, “to give you metaphors for poetry.”


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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Recurring Image
The swan is an image that is found in many of Yeats’s poems. (His poetry, in fact, is full of birds of various...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1922: Ireland is partitioned, after a treaty deal with the British, into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Britain...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Research the different forms of the Leda myth as they are told in ancient Greek sources. Examine how the story is represented in various...

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

The Nobel Internet Archive maintains a Yeats web page at literature/1923a.html (last accessed April 2001)...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Numerous poets have used the story of Leda as a source for their poetry. The most famous of the poems about the Greek myth are Rainer Maria...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler, “Pornography and Canonicity: The Case of Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’” in Law,...

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