W.B. Yeats – ‘Leda And The Swan’

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still 

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark web, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.


How can those terrified vague fingers push  

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush, 

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?


A shudder in the loins endangers there 

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

                      Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

Did she put on his knowledge with his power,

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

When first hearing about this particular piece of Yeats’ work I was both baffled and intrigued. The subject matter of the poem, being based on that of Greek mythology, whereby Zeus takes the form of a swan and rapes a young girl Leda. Unsurprisingly it was this that first drew my attention to the poem an upon an analyse I have found it to in my opinion, one of Yeats’most interesting pieces. As mentioned in my post yesterday, it is not uncommon for pieces of literature to relate to pieces of art work, in the case of the particular it certainly calls to mind paintings by Da Vinci and Michelangelo who both take on the subject matter of this piece of Green mythology. 

The poem display an uncomfortable degree of beauty in relation to the subject matter which places the reader in a precarious position of having to identify both Leda and her rapist, Zeus. 

Upheaval. change, force, violence and power are all dominating themes in the poem. Leda is overpowered by the god Zeus and in her moment of violent action with the swan she becomes impregnated with his powerful offspring-Helen of Troy, this then conveys to the reader a sense of an act of evil only gives birth to more evil. Along with becoming impregnated, Leda also absorbs the dark knowledge of the fate of Troy. In the moment when she is “caught up” and “mastered by the brute blood of air” she is exposed to the dangerous and volatile idea that change comes through violence and aggression. This mimics Yeats own ideas. Yeats believed that change was cyclical. As Troy lost to Grecian forces because of the sin committed by Zeus against Leda the sins of England would likewise be visited upon them as Ireland gained independence through revolution, and change 

Just as Greece entered a new age, beginning with the rape of Leda, Ireland will enter a new complex and questioning age of societal and governmental change.Yeats is tackling more than just the dynamic between Leda and Zeus or Ireland and England. Yeats is also tackling the conflict between the human and the divine.

Camille Paglia, who called the poem “the greatest poem of the twentieth century,” and said “all human beings, like Leda, are caught up moment by moment in the ‘white rush’ of experience. For Yeats, the only salvation is the shapeliness and stillness of art.” 

This criticism is something that I largely agree with. I have found this piece to be, personally Yeats’  most interesting, due to its challenging and complex subject matter and the interesting, yet questionable degree of beauty.  


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