Themes and Meanings

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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 Annunciation is like a proposal, and Mary had free will in accepting the role of being the mother of God because Christianity cherishes informed free will as the Greeks cherished fated human destiny. Unlike the “brute blood of the air,” the Dove of the Christian age is holy, aphysical, and otherworldly. To even think of the Virgin’s “loosening thighs” would be sacrilegious, and any question of her sexual arousal would simply not pertain. There are built-in parameters, limitations, and presuppositions in every mythology, yet therein lies the nemesis of the Christian dispensation: Under Plato’s influence, the body (the “mere flesh”) for the Christian myth is all but irrelevant. In the end, the reign of the Dove, like the reign of the Swan, must pass away—for no myth can embody all truth, and certainly not for all time. If Leda, as mortal life, as vehicle for beauty that is inherently tragic, and as aesthetic affirmation, is momentarily thought of as the poet, the artificer of eternity, the bard of wisdom, then the implosion of the divine into the human can be understood in a yet more profound manner: as Annunciation not divorced from Epiphany.

Yeats intends ultimately to share with his reader the visionary truth of this conjunction of the divine and the human: It is not merely a symbol of what has already happened historically at Bethlehem or beneath some Olympian cloud, for both Dove and Swan pass away. The fortunate reader of Yeats, however, if not prejudiced against the brute flesh or biased in favor of the fleshless spirit, can, by meditating upon these symbols that pass away, attain the visionary moment of knowledge and power, the timeless now where (as Yeats described it in “Among School Children”) the dancer need not be distinguished from the dance.


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“Leda and the Swan” is a difficult poem to grasp fully on a casual reading because it assumes considerable background knowledge on the part of the reader of the event being described and its place in Greek mythology. The poem is also inspired by Yeats’s strange and...

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difficult theory of historical cy- cles. Even when one is acquainted with Yeats’s sources and theories, the poem is a challenge for the student because of the complexity of the ideas to which it makes subtle reference. However, the lyrical quality and force of description in the poem can be appreciated even by those who find the ideas hard to follow. Thus the poem can be enjoyed on two levels. It is both a chilling, bizarre description of a violent act of rape and a sophisticated exploration of Yeats’s ideas about the nature of cosmic history and the place of humans in it.

The ancient Greek myth that Yeats used as the source of his poem is that of Leda, the daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius. According to one version of the myth (there are at least half a dozen variations), the beautiful mortal Leda caught the eye of the god Zeus (the ruler of the Greek deities) after she had married the Spartan Tyndareus. Leda resisted the god’s advances, and so he seduced her in the form of a swan. Leda gave birth, by laying eggs, to four children: the twin girls Helen and Clytemnestra and the twin boys Castor and Polydeuces. Helen, greatly famed for her beauty, later married Menelaus but then fell in love with Paris, and the couple fled together to Paris’s homeland of Troy. Menelaus’s attempt to win back his wife gave rise to the Trojan War. Under the command of Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon (also the husband of Clytemnestra), the Greeks besieged Troy for nine years, and the city finally fell. On Agamemnon’s return home to Mycenae, he was murdered by his wife and her lover. The Trojan War’s lasting impact was that it marked the end of the ancient Greek mythological era and the birth of modern history.

Most accounts of the Leda myth do not describe it in terms of rape but as a seduction, yet in his poem Yeats emphasizes the unwillingness and terror of the mortal victim at the mercy of the beastgod. It is not an account of Zeus winning over Leda but of a brutal sexual assault. It is often suggested that Yeats might have based the poem on the Michelangelo painting of the Leda story (he owned a reproduction of it) or a picture of a bas-relief from an art history book, but it is likely that with the poem the poet is creating his own, idealized version of the scene.

Violence and Helplessness
Yeats wrote “Leda and the Swan” during the turbulent days of the Irish Civil War. In 1922, Britain and Ireland signed a treaty that established the Irish Free State, which gave Ireland some measure of autonomy but kept it under the firm authority of Britain. This resulted in civil war between supporters of the treaty and its opponents. Yeats, who became an Irish senator in 1922, supported the Free State, but he deplored the violence used on both sides in the war. Yeats declared that his inspiration for “Leda and the Swan” was his meditation on Ireland’s place in world politics. For centuries Ireland had struggled for independence against Britain. Although there are no explicit references to Ireland or to politics in the poem, the subjugation of Leda can be seen as reflecting the brutality inflicted upon Ireland by its powerful aggressor, and the violence of the poem can be seen as an emblem of the violence of the civil war.

The focus of the poem is the violent rape, which is presented in intensely physical terms. Throughout, the helplessness of the mortal girl is contrasted with the incomprehensible and overwhelming power of the bird-god. The diction of the poem points to the swan’s domination and strength (“great wings,” “beating still,” “feathered glory”) in contrast to Leda’s passivity (she is “caught,” “caressed,” “helpless”). The violence of the poem is also heightened by the use of the tightly controlled form of the sonnet, which describes the rape in spare but forceful terms. The act that Yeats describes brings forth a new era and civilization, and the poem thus seems to indicate that all such far-reaching transformations in history must have violent and incomprehensible beginnings. Also, with the description of the “broken wall, the burning roof and tower” that are the result of the brutal assault of Leda, Yeats seems to be suggesting that violence generates continuing violence in human history.

“Leda and the Swan” is one of Yeats’s several “Annunciation” poems. In fact the original version of the poem, published in 1924 was called “Annunciation.” In the Christian tradition, the Annunciation is the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would have a child by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended upon Mary and fulfilled the angel’s words. The result of this union between the divine and human was Jesus Christ, whose birth signaled the destruction of an old order and ushered in a new age and a Christian civilization. In “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats describes an annunciation of a quite different type as the god Zeus, also in the form of a bird, descends upon Leda and impregnates her with Helen, who will be the cause of the destruction of Greek civilization and give rise to a new modern era. Yeats thus sees the rape of Leda by Zeus as an event parallel to the annunci- ation to the Virgin Mary. The children of Mary and Leda changed the world, and the moment of their conception is a pivotal moment for the universe. For Yeats, the annunciation is a moment in which the supernatural energy of a god is mingled with the human to revitalize a declining civilization.

In “Leda and the Swan,” as with Yeats’s other annunciation poems such as “The Magi,” “Two Songs from a Play,” “The Mother of God,” and “The Second Coming,” the violence and terror of the union of god and human is stressed. Yeats implies that any union of human and divine must be a horrifying experience. However, he thinks that there is a possibility that in that moment of merging, the mortal may attain supernatural or transcendent insight. Thus the speaker at the end of the poem asks if Leda, as she is mastered by the “brute blood of the air,” gains through her experience some form of divine knowledge and divine power.

The Cycle of History
Yeats viewed history as cyclical and believed that every two thousand years a new era would be ushered in that would be the antithesis, or opposite, of the one that was being replaced. Again, although he makes no overt reference to his theory of history in the poem, Yeats uses the subject of Leda and the swan to illustrate a moment in which the cycle is begun anew. The use of tense in the poem calls attention to the timelessness of the event and so the cyclical nature of history. The rape is described in the first eight lines using present tense, but, as seen in lines 9 to 11, the act engenders consequences that are yet to be experienced in the poem—they are in the future. The poem ends using the past tense, making it clear that the events described have already taken place. The entire effect is to convey the sense that the rape is more than an assault on a particular woman at a static moment in history, but it is also a symbol for universal and recurring—although certainly violent, painful, and destructive—elements of human experiences.

In “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats also seems to be pointing to his mystical theory of the universe, although he makes no overt references to it. The poem describes a moment that represents a change of era according to Yeats’s historical model of gyres, which he describes in his prose work A Vision. In that book, Yeats conceives of history as composed of two cones rotating in opposite directions. Every moment of time moves through these spirals and so contains two opposite but interpenetrating movements, as one cone widens and the other narrows. The spiralling motions are called gyres. The times of the greatest turbulence in history are when the gyres reverse their motions, which happens every two thousand years.

The rape of Leda by Zeus is an event that brings forth such a reversal. It brings forth a new era, one that is antithetical to the civilization out of which it sprang and which it replaces. Another example of an event that comes from the reversal of the gyres, according to Yeats, is the annunciation and descent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove to the Virgin Mary, which resulted in the birth of Christ. He held, in fact, that this event brought forth a reversal of the era that was spawned by the rape of Leda as described in “Leda and the Swan.”




Critical Essays