“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:
(The entire section is 450 words.)