Notes by William Fairbairn
Mythical Background behind the ‘Ledean Body’
Interested (and keen) students will, no doubt, dash off to read ‘The Iliad’ to brush up on the full background to Yeats’ superb poem. If you have less time, but a keen interest, you may also enjoy Madeline Miller’s 2012 novel The Song of Achilles – this has recently been shortlisted for the Orange Prize and tells the story of ‘The Iliad’ from the point of view of Achilles’ lover Patroclus.
- In the key Greek myth which inspired Yeats’ poem, Leda is seduced by Zeus – who visits her in the guise of a swan. Their union produces three eggs. One doesn’t hatch – which could be representing metaphorical destruction, or a potent force yet to come (cross reference ‘The Second Coming’); one produces two (demi-god) children: Helen and Pollux – these are assumed to be the children of Zeus; and the last egg produces two (mortal) children – assumed to be the children of Leda’s mortal husband King Tyndareus: Castor and Clytemnestra. Pollux and Castor, although born from separate eggs, are often considered – and referenced as – twins, including in their representation as the constellation Gemini.
- Castor is mortally injured in battle, and Pollux, a demi-god, petitioned his father Zeus to share his divinity with his brother; Zeus agreed as so both brothers were granted a form of immortality as the constellation Gemini.
- Clytemnestra marries Agamemnon (brother of King Meneleus – married to Helen; Helen of course runs off with Paris to Troy: this is the event which ‘gives birth’ to the Trojan War). Clytemnestra kills Meneleus when he returns from the Trojan war along with his concubine Cassandra (cursed prophetess sister to Paris/Troilus/Hector etc – all are the children of Priam). This is partly on the basis that Agamemnon killed her daughter as a sacrifice to the gods so that there would be wind for the Greek armies to sail to Troy before the war had even started.
- It is key to note that the overall permeating result from the ‘rape’ of Leda is destruction and death. The female ‘Ledean’ bodies (Leda/Helen/Clytemnestra) all ultimately provoke or inspire death, warfare or murder through their actions and choices. If you run with this area of analysis into the Yeats poem, you can make strong links to ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth…’, ‘Among School Children’ and ‘Broken Dreams’ among others.
Historical Context to the poem ‘Leda and the Swan’
- First Published in June 1924, ‘because the editor of a political review asked [me] for a poem.’ – Yeats
- Yeats started writing the poem with respect to politics, perhaps representing the fall and corruption of Ireland in parallel with Troy, but ‘bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it’ – Yeats
- It favours the traditional form of the Petrarchan sonnet (abab cdcd efg efg)- Yeats rarely wrote these. Yet paradoxically the subject of the poem is highly untraditional as the violent events are in stark contrast to the usual subject discussed in sonnets: love.
- The caesura that proceeds ‘blow’ in line one emphasises the impact and surprise felt by Leda, that is reiterated by the use of ‘sudden’.
- Yeats creates ambiguity as to whether Leda consents. Her thighs are ‘caressed’ which reflects a more affectionate scene, and her ‘thighs’ might be ‘loosening’ through choice and not by force. yet Yeats also describes her ‘breast’ as ‘helpless’ which implies She has no choice over what happens – whether or not she is rendered ‘helpless’ by her lust remains one of the key points for debate.
- ‘A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.’
This quotation makes clear that the effects of this rape ends with not only the death of Agamemnon, but also the absolute destruction of Troy. It reiterates the point (as discussed earlier on this page) that the outcome of the potential rape is not merely one woman’s ‘subjugation’. If Leda did indeed consent to the union with Zeus, then she is effectively the catalyst for horror – this may be a reflection on the actions of some of the women Yeats knew or Yeats may even be discussing the consequences of his own actions. He often ponders if small decisions can later be seen to herald horrendous consequences (Cross reference ‘The Man and the Echo’). The consequences of one action are seen to unfold over decades of violence and destruction. This poem can also be seen to represent Yeats’ frustration with the decline of Ireland; perhaps the Irish were being ‘metaphorically’ raped by the English – the destruction of culture etc rendered as a motif here by the destruction of Troy.
- As is typical with Petrarchan sonnets, after the volta, Yeats reflects on the actions described in the first eight lines of the poem, and attempts to answer the questions he set up. However, he still does not come to a conclusion; he leaves the reader with the unanswerable question, ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?’
- Technical devices such as alliteration, [‘He holds her’ ‘brute blood’] iambic pentameter, and the irregular distribution of sentences and caesura all contribute towards making the effect of shock with respect to the subject matter. The irregular meter that this irregular distribution creates is that it echoes the gasping and throbbing pulsations of the rape by its irregularity, as the caesuras interrupt the flow of the sentences, and the stresses pentameter do not always comply with the natural word stresses. The line ‘How can those terrified vague fingers push’ jars the rhythm of the pentameter when read aloud, and hence causes the aforementioned effect.
- The abstract terms used to describe the un-named swan [‘great wings’ ‘dark webs’ ‘white rush’and ‘feathered glory’] are in stark contrast to the concrete and tangible terms used to describe Leda, [‘her loosening thighs’ ‘her nape’ and ‘her helpless breast’] which seem representative, factual and literal, and also present only one reading. however when the concrete and abstract diffuse into each-other later on in the poem – when we see Leda described as having ‘vague fingers’ and the swan with tangible body parts [‘wings’, ‘beak’ and ‘bill’.] It is interesting to note that the ways in which the two characters are described reflect the ambiguity and conflict that Yeats presents.
- The contrast in tenses used before and after the volta alter the immediacy of particular events in the reader’s mind. The present tense of ‘holds’, ‘push’ ‘loosening’ ‘feel’ and ‘lies’ before the volta make the events of the rape seem immediate and vivid, whereas the past tenses of ‘caught’ ‘mastered’ and ‘did’ make the rhetorical questions seem more pensive, distant and retrospective.
The voices of the verbs used to describe Leda, and the swan are juxtaposing. The swan ‘engenders’ and ‘holds’ actively, whereas Leda is ‘carressed’ ‘caught’ and ‘mastered’. One could infer from this that Leda has no choice in her rape.
Among Schoolchildren – ‘I dream of a Ledaean body..’ this represents Maud Gonne, but the reasons for which Yeats chooses to represent her by using the mythical ‘Leda’ are set out in the historical context of the myth told in Leda and the Swan
The Man and the Echo ‘Did that play of mine send out/ Certain men the English Shot?’ In Leda and the Swan Yeats represents the Irish being raped by the English. This is considered in a more literal sense here.