Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In Yeats’s mythological poetry, the Christian revelation is not the only divinely inspired one; it is not unique. It does, however, share an honored place in concert with the world’s other great religious myths—though its truth is not everlasting. Things thought to be true for too long (for Yeats, that time is about two thousand years) eventually can no longer be believed: Myth is symbols in motion, for Yeats as for William Blake, and the symbols must always be renewed. After their validity is exhausted, myths undergo change, flux, and rebirth. Indeed, the very heart of the prevailing myth contains the seeds of its own destruction. That is one reason why “Leda and the Swan,” depicting the very inauguration of the predestined Greek era, concludes with the one question whose real answer is beyond the pale of the Greek imagination: Could Leda fathom Zeus’s knowledge before being dropped? Perhaps more to the point, can the poem’s reader comprehend the heart mysteries here? The real answer is beyond the merely logical categories of yes and no, since the real poem transcends the categories of the myths it utilizes to lead the reader to an inward vision. One might assume that no Greek would imagine Leda, being but a vessel for that august era, could “put on his knowledge with his power.” The question simply would not pertain.

In sharp contrast to Leda, the Virgin Mary must have understood much, since she was given a choice: the Christian...

(The entire section is 552 words.)