The Poem

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“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.

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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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Being so caught up,So mastered by the brute blood of the air,Did she put on his knowledge with his powerBefore the indifferent beak could let her drop?

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The fated and tragic character of the Greek mentality, in which superhuman deities (often all too human in their emotional rages of jealousy, anger, vengeance, and lust) would sport with nearly helpless human creatures, is immediately clear and powerfully felt at the opening of the poem: “A sudden blow.” Zeus never courted Leda, never announced his coming (as, say, God told Mary through His archangel Gabriel), and never spoke a word throughout. The enormous tension is heightened by the seeming casualness of the nearly regular iambic pentameter of the first line. “Great wings” creates a midline spondee (a double-accented foot), in order to stress Zeus’s overwhelming power. Leda, as a mere mortal (and a woman), has no active role in this drama: She suffers the divine play of human destiny to be acted out through the medium of her frail body. Like the Genesis story in which the woman causes the fall from grace, this is a male-dominated myth. Yeats, with his leading rhetorical questions, however, can at the same time retain the inextricable bond between mortal beauty and its tragic passing even while he transcends the contexts of both the Greek and the Judeo-Christian myths.

Historical Context

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The history of Yeats’s homeland of Ireland has been one of struggle for self-determination since the twelfth century, when Britain was formally granted overlordship of the island. In addition to the fight for independence and home rule, Ireland has, since the seventeenth century, been beset with a bitter religious contention between Catholics and Protestants. When Yeats wrote “Leda and the Swan” in 1923, Ireland was in the midst of a bloody civil war that was the result of the Anglo-Irish conflict as well as the discord between the largely Catholic south and the Protestant north.

The failure of the British government to implement home rule led, in 1916, to the Easter Rising, during which many prominent leaders of the movement for independence were killed. The militant organization Sinn Féin, which had been founded among Irish Catholics, emerged as the dominant nationalist group during that time. They declared themselves the Irish Assembly and proclaimed an Irish republic in 1918. The group was outlawed by the British and began then to wage war underground.

The Anglo-Irish War that broke out in 1919 saw guerrilla attacks by Irish insurgents (later called the Irish Republican Army—or IRA) on British forces as well as vigorous retaliations by the British. Yeats staunchly supported the Irish cause and strongly denounced the British, in particular the tactics used by the Black and Tans, the British anti-terrorist forces. In 1920, a new Home Rule bill provided for the partition of Ireland into two separate entities. A 1922 treaty with the British finalized the partition of Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. However, the Irish Free State and most Irish Catholics refused to recognize the finality of the partition because the close relations between Northern Ireland and Britain posed a threat to the Catholic minority in the north, and civil war broke out. Although Yeats had always supported the Irish against the British, choosing sides in the struggle of Irish against Irish was difficult for him. He elected to back the Irish Free State and was even appointed to a six-year term in the new government’s Senate. The bitter civil strife ended in April 1923.

Much of Yeats’s poetry written during the Anglo-Irish and Civil Wars reflects his bitterness toward those conflicts. The poem “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen” is a harsh and relentless portrait of the destruction of civilized values and the helplessness and hopelessness left in its wake. “Meditations in Time of Civil War” (1923) is a pessimistic poem that speaks of meaningless violence, social chaos, and a fallen world.

“Leda and the Swan” makes no overt references to politics, the Anglo-Irish struggle, or the civil war, but it may be seen as representing the violence of the political events during the time. Yeats declared that he wrote the poem as he was meditating on the Irish situation, although he says, “as I wrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it.” No doubt the poem’s tone of brutal violence and subjugation took its inspiration from the political events facing Ireland. The use of diction like “sudden blow,” “staggering,” “caught,” “helpless,” “terrified,” “broken,” “dead,” and “brute blood” are certainly evocative of the savagery of war. Some critics have gone as far as to suggest that in the poem, Leda may be viewed as a symbol for Ireland, helpless and staggering underneath the brute power of her mighty British conqueror. Leda may also be seen as representative of the people and the swan as the force of law and tyrannical government.

It is also significant that the original version of the poem, called “Annunciation,” was written during a time when the new Irish government was beginning to institute censorship laws that targeted works whose content was counter to Catholic morality. Yeats had been a strong supporter of the Irish novelist James Joyce whose work Ulysses was embroiled in a famous and lengthy censorship battle in Britain and the United States before it was published in France in 1922. In writing “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats apparently hoped to arouse controversy and to flout what he thought were unjust laws targeting freedom of expression. The poem was denounced as obscene by much of the Catholic press.

Leda and the Swan

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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

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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.”

Yeats’s A Vision is an elaborate system of the cycles of human ages, with archetypal as well as individual incarnations within the various gyres—both Helen, sprung from Leda, and Yeats’s own beloved Maud Gonne, for example, appear in phase fourteen of the “Phases of the Moon.” Yet grasping all the terrifying, vague features of Yeats’s system may not be as important in this case as simply catching the large clues Yeats offers at the start of the final book of A Vision. There he explains that the present time, 1925, is nearing the peak of one “Historical Cone” of the gyre (the spiraling wheel of time that waxed from the year zero to the year 1050 and wanes to its nadir in the twentieth century). The text of this fifth book of A Vision starts off with the next critical clue, “One must bear in mind that the Christian Era, like the two thousand years, let us say, that went before it, is an entire wheel.” As if to be certain that the complex gyres, wheels, phases, and cones of his visionary symbology do not intrude upon the poetry, Yeats calls the final book of A Vision “Dove or Swan” and reprints there, as a kind of epigraph to the final chapter, the entire text of “Leda and the Swan.”

Yeats means for one to see “Leda and the Swan” in the broad context of A Vision if one is to understand its meaning: As the Swan-God’s impregnation of Leda initiated the Greek age, so did the Dove-God’s impregnation of Mary initiate the Christian age. Since mythic ages last about two thousand years, this age must be on the cusp of a new revelation—an idea Yeats explores in “The Second Coming.”

Literary Style

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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 sorts, from eagles to owls to parrots, but the swan is the most frequently recurrent bird sym- bol.) Although what the swan represents evolves in Yeats’s poetry, it seems for him to be essentially a symbol of mystery and passion. In “Leda and the Swan,” the swan is mysterious, divine, incomprehensible, violent, and brutally passionate. The use of the swan and other recurring images in Yeats’s poetry also serve to draw his entire body of work into a coherent whole. By using certain images over and over again, he creates a shorthand that allows readers to recognize complex ideas that may not be explicitly mentioned in a particular poem but are the focus of other works. The swan in some of Yeats’s other works, such as “The Wild Swans at Coole,” “The Tower,” and “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” represents wildness, rage, bitterness, and unsatisfied desire, and some of those thoughts will echo in this poem to a reader familiar with Yeats’s poetry.

Modernist Sonnet Form
“Leda and the Swan” is a sonnet, a traditional fourteen-line poem written in iambic pentameter. The poem uses the rhyme scheme of the Shakespearean sonnet for the first two quatrains (fourline stanzas), and the rhyme scheme of the Petrarchan sonnet for the last six lines: abab cdcd efgefg. (The rhyme scheme of the first two quatrains of the Petrarchan sonnet is abba abba; the rhyme scheme of the last six lines of the Shakespearean sonnet is efef gg.) However, the subject matter of the work is extremely nontraditional—most sonnets are about love or public matters, not violent rape. Yeats breaks with tradition and creates a sonnet in a daring modernist style. The poem is full of such paradoxes, or oppositional elements, which is one of the sources of its richness. For example, the sonnet is one of the most precise and tightly controlled forms of poetry, but Yeats chooses this structure to describe a situation of explosive power and intensity. An act of force and violence is described within a structure of order and control. The poem is written in iambic pentameter, so it moves along in a steady, pulsating way. But Yeats uses phrases to break up the traditional meter—there is an abrupt break after the opening words, for example, and again after the description of what is engendered by the union: “And Agamemnon dead.” The total effect is of a rhythm that reflects the event being explicated: a throbbing sensation is created that is broken up by dramatic moments of even greater intensity. The line break in the middle of the sestet is the only nontraditional element in terms of the sonnet’s formal structure, and it is used to emphasize the sudden end of the rape and to distance the reader from the event. The rhyme used in the poem is traditional for the sonnet form, but the mixture of perfect and imperfect rhymes (“push” and “rush” in lines 5 and 7, “up” and “drop” in lines 11 and 14) add variety and interest.

Language
Because Yeats uses such a narrow, tightly ordered structure for his poem, he uses words to their maximum effect. The language and images in the poem are a mixture of concrete and abstract, which conveys a sense of the immediacy of the event as well as its greater cosmic significance. The swan is never referred to as a swan, for example, but as “feathered glory” and “brute blood of the air,” which emphasizes its physical presence as well as its incomprehensible and divine nature. The use of body parts (and not their names) to refer to Leda and the swan (“thighs,” “fingers,” “nape,” “beak,” “webs,” “bill”) again stresses the physicality of the act. The diction in the poem is extremely simple, but the images created from them are vigorous (the “white rush,” for example, calls up an otherworldly image of the swan, as it indicates its physical whiteness as well as it power).

The use of strong, simple verbs (“caught,” “hold,” “push,” “drop”) further emphasizes the sense of action. Yeats also plays on words a great deal in the poem, thus communicating several meanings in the confines of taut phrases. The images of the “broken wall, the burning roof and tower” are references to the siege of Troy but are also sexual allusions. With the phrase “the staggering girl” he draws attention to Leda’s physical as well as her psychological state. Yeats manages to communicate extremely complex ideas about the ushering in of a new era through the violent union of human and divine and the cycle of history in very few words. He does this by presenting vivid images that have multiplicity of meanings and by carefully changing the tense in the poem from present to future to past to draw attention to the timelessness of the action that he has depicted in such immediate terms.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1922: Ireland is partitioned, after a treaty deal with the British, into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Britain maintains control of both provinces, and the Irish Civil War is fought between those who support the partition and those who oppose it.

    1949: The Republic of Ireland is proclaimed, and the country withdraws from the British Commonwealth. The British Parliament affirms the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Many Irish, including those supporting the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), continue to call for unification.

    1969: British troops are sent to Northern Ireland to contain continued violence that includes terrorist acts by the IRA and police retaliation. In 1971, imprisonment without trial is introduced in Northern Ireland as a measure to counter terrorism. In 1972, on what comes to be known as “Bloody Sunday,” British soldiers shoot and kill thirteen protestors at a civil rights march in Londonderry. The British abolish the Northern Ireland Parliament and impose direct rule.

    1998: A historic Northern Ireland peace agreement is reached. An accord is ratified by large majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

  • 1924: “Leda and the Swan” is condemned by members of the Irish Catholic clergy and press as filth.

    1959: An unexpurgated version of D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover is published for the first time in the United States. The novel, which explores in explicit detail the sexual relationship of a man and women from different social classes, had been deemed obscene and had been suppressed from publication for more than thirty years.

    1989: The live performances and song lyrics of the rap music group 2 Live Crew’s album Nasty as They Wanna Be provoke intense controversy. Some characterize the group’s work as obscene, while others defend the band against censorship.

    1999: An exhibition of works by British artists called “Sensation,” which includes a painting of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung, appears at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. New York mayor Rudolph Guiliani freezes the museum’s annual subsidy of more than $7 million, calling the exhibit sick.

Media Adaptations

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The Nobel Internet Archive maintains a Yeats web page at http://www.nobelprizes.com/nobel/ literature/1923a.html (last accessed April 2001) with links to other interesting sites.

An audiocassette titled The Poetry of William Butler Yeats, which features eighty-five of Yeats’s best known verses, including “Leda and the Swan,” was released in 1996 by Dove Books Audio.

The myth of Leda and the Swan has been the subject of numerous works of art, including sculptures and other decorative works from ancient times: Correggio’s painting “Leda with the Swan” (1531–1532); Tintoretto’s painting “Leda and the Swan” (1570–1575); Van Dongen’s watercolor “Leda and the Swan” (1922); and Salvador Dali’s painting “Leda atomica” (1949). Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo also produced paintings of the Leda myth, but both paintings have been lost—although a number of reproductions and copies of the artists’ sketches survive.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources
Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler, “Pornography and Canonicity: The Case of Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’” in Law, Literature, and Feminism, edited by Susan Sage, Heinzelman, and Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman, Duke University Press, 1994, pp. 165–88.

Ellmann, Richard, The Identity of Yeats, Oxford University Press, 1964.

Hargrove, Nancy D., “Aesthetic Distance in Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 39, 1983, pp. 235–45.

Holstad, Scott C., “Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’: Psycho- Sexual Therapy in Action,” in Notes on Modern Irish Literature, Vol. 7, No. 2, Fall 1995, pp. 45–52.

Levine, Bernard, “A Psychopoetic Analysis of Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan,’” in Bucknell Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1969, pp. 85–111.

O’Donnell, William H., The Poetry of William Butler Yeats: An Introduction, Ungar, 1986, pp. 99–102.

Perkins, David, A History of Modern Poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, Harvard University Press, 1976.

Raines, Charles A., “Yeats’ Metaphors of Permanence,” in Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1959, p. 1220.

Rajan, Balachandra, W. B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction, Hutchinson University Library, 1969, pp. 132–34.

Reid, B. L., “William Butler Yeats,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 19: British Poets, 1880–1914, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 399–452.

Smith, Stan, W. B. Yeats: A Critical Introduction, MacMillan, 1990, pp. 113–18.

Unterecker, John, A Reader’s Guide to William Butler Yeats, The Noonday Press, 1959, pp. 187–89.

Winters, Yvor, “‘Leda and the Swan,’” in Yeats: Poems, 1919–1935: A Casebook, edited by Elizabeth Cullingford, Macmillan Publishers, 1984, pp. 125–27.

For Further Study
Ellmann, Maud, “Daughters of the Swan,” in m/f, Vol. 11–12, 1986, pp. 119–62. This essay uses the methods of pscyhoanalysis and deconstruction to explore questions of gender and sexuality in Yeats’s poems and pays special attention to “Leda and the Swan.”

Ellmann, Richard, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, E. P. Dutton and Co., 1948. This is an informative introduction to Yeats and his ideas that combines biography and criticism.

Fletcher, Ian, “‘Leda and the Swan’ As Iconic Poem,” in Yeats Annual, No. 1, edited by Richard J. Finneran, Humanities Press, 1982, pp. 82–113. This book discusses the use of the Leda myth in other works of literature and art and uses them to illuminate Yeats’s treatment of the story.

Young, David, Troubled Mirror: A Study of Yeats’s “The Tower,” University of Iowa Press, 1987, pp. 73–84. Young provides a detailed account of the collection in which “Leda and the Swan” first appeared, exploring how the poems interact and discussing Yeats’s poetic method.

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