Leda and the Swan

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

Analysis

  • 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.

Cross-references

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.

43 thoughts on “Leda and the Swan

    • In this poem Yeats shows the possibility that art may help contain the randomness and violence of life. Like Leda, we are all caught up in the ‘white rush’ of living life moment by moment, and Yeats might be suggesting that art can provide a ‘shape’ to the apparent randomness of life.

  1. Stan Smith: Yeats uses “the verb ‘push’ and the noun ‘rush’ [to] stress the intense brutality of the rape in contrast with the weakness and terror of ‘those terrified vague fingers’.”
    So the active and violent verbs used: ‘push’, ‘shudder’ and the adjectives in the description of the ‘broken wall, the burning roof’ further highlight the violent nature of the encounter. Hope it helps (:

      • The Second Coming would be the most obvious answer, with the ‘ceremony of innocence’ that is ‘drowned’, and ‘vexed to a nightmare’ by a ‘rocking cradle’. These verbs and adjectives have the effect of further unnerving the reader, which, coupled with the apocalyptic imagery that ‘describes a time of horrific destruction’ (Nicholas Drake), we are left with feelings of fear for the unsure future.

  2. Yeats uses various methods to do so, however the use of double meaning verbs, such as: “staggering”, “shuddering”,and “looseing”, as this portrays either the power of the superior Swan, or rather the weakness of Leda.
    The structure of the poem also can insinuate violence in this poem. As the poem is a sonnet, this could suggest a love poem, however Leda and the Swan, is far from a love poem, quite the contadiction; an unconventional “love” poem. The octet of the poem shows the struggle of the attack, amid the violence, and the sestet showing the resolution and the calm after the attack.

      • If you read the poem as a metaphor for the destruction of Ireland by England, then Leda is the powerless Ireland, and Zeus the swan is the all-powerful England… but any way you read it, Leda’s weakness is just a reiteration of her feminine inferiority and helplessness I guess.

  3. Leda is descibed as the “staggering girl”. This is significant for the reason that the word ‘staggering’ has a double meaning. “Staggering” could be seen as Leda being ‘stunned’, however this could also mean Leda is ‘stunning’. The idea of Leda being ‘stunned’ suggest that Leda was scared and “terrified”. This portrays the violence of the swan. Yeats also uses contrast to present violence throughout the poem. The swan is described to be a strong, agressive and violent character, whereas Leda is descirbed to be innocent, weak, vulnerable and powerless.

  4. I beleive that the innuendo’s are the most important technique in order to read the poem as the rape of leda, the realtionship between Ireland and England and the fall of troy. I think this innuendo technique been used in ‘ An Irish Airman as well, ” In Balance with this life, tthis death” The balance can be seen as the balance between life or death, the balance of right or wrong or the literal meaning of the balance of the aeroplane

    • Or perhaps the story of Leda and the Swan is simply a metaphor for the destruction of Ireland… especially where Yeats writes how she was ‘dropped from his beak’ after he had satisfied himself, which is symbolic of how the British take over Ireland, and suck all the value out of the country, destroying the religion and historical values and then just drop Ireland (not allowing them to fight in the war for Britain etc)

  5. ”brute blood”, ”great wings beating” and ”his bill” describe the swan, while Leda is described with words such as ”staggering”. This use of powerful ‘b’ plosive sounds and soft, weaker sounds such as ‘s’ contrast Leda and the Swan, with the swan being in control over Leda. This in turn represents the relationship between Ireland and England. Yeats saw England’s control over Ireland as destroying the simplistic, natural culture of it. This is shown in the contrast in ways in which Yeats represents nature in his early poem ‘The Fisherman’ and later in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’. in ‘The Fisherman’ Nature in Ireland is seen as positive, however in ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ nature is inferior to ancient art as it is mortal and will die.

    • Why is nature an important theme in the poetry of Yeats ?

      • Because he had a fascination with nature,, especially Irish nature, as he saw it as on a par with arty literature-ish stuff (hence Byzantium and also Leda… with Troy also being symbolic of the ancient literature) but yeah, his fascination with nature was more prominent in his older poems (the stolen child) where he uses it in conjunction with the folklore and mythology, also an important theme he repeatedly uses in his poems.

  6. Reeaaaalllly hope this poem comes up, it’s great to analyse in terms of form, language, tone and imagery. Great quotes and comparisons here.

    • A tough one: any poetry without some sort of ambiguity (either of meaning or language) would probably be quite dull. In many senses ambiguity and the ‘shifting sands’ of language are what many literary artists would consider their main ‘tool’. Yeats of course, lived during a period of flux, upheaval and change (especially political and social change); much of Yeats’ ambiguity throughout his canon can be read as a response to these changes and the many ‘internal conflicts’ (romantic entanglements and unclear political ideology) that he had. Equally, ambiguity in a poem places a demand on the reader to search deeper and look longer; it causes the reader to engage with the puzzle, thus lingering longer in their quest to discover the possible intention of the poet. Sometimes the intentions of poets is/was just to create a sort of ‘language web’ in which the reader can/could become irrevocably caught.

  7. Could anyone explain what the meaning of the last two lines is? As my English class could only suggest that the use of ‘indifferent beak’ implies Zeus did not view it as an important event, creating irony as the events which occurred as a result were catastrophic. Are there any other interpretations??

    • It certainly suggests that Zeus’ position as God is to make humankind ‘his playthings’. The Grecian model of deities using mortals for their own amusement is clear here (as also seen in plenty of other myths). It suggests that this God (and perhaps a wider comment on other Gods, Old Testament God Christian God, for example) are not milksop, intangible deities, but rather petulant, feeling operatives with their own agenda.

    • You could interpret this as England’s attitude to Ireland. England and Ireland unified in 1800 with the Act of Union, and since that there had been a huge struggle for independence in Ireland, staring with the Fenian Risings in 1967. Yeats saw England as having “raped” Ireland of her culture, taking what it needed from Ireland in terms of resources and “let(ting) her drop”. It could symbolise how England had taken everything it needed from Ireland and then let her go, leaving her vulnerable, without any real care for its wants or needs. Hope this helps!

  8. what poems link in with this poem from the other 14?
    – the destruction of troy could perhaps mirror the destruction of ireland? so could you use easter/september/the fisherman to show this change? a metaphorical rape?
    – with among school children, the mention of ‘ledaean body’ what link could be made between these poems? is it just to show how beautiful maud was? but that both leda and maud caused destruction over time? ie leda caused destruction of troy if she consented to the rape whereas maud arguably caused the destruction of yeats?
    – what other links could be made?

    • In Among School Children, the ‘ledaean body’ is not Leda, it is the “beautiful” Helen, the daughter of Leda and Zeus. Zeus approached to Leda in form of a swan and had begotten the twins Castor and Pollux, and Helen. Helen was married to the King of Sparta and run away with Paris, the king of Troy. This was the reason for the Trojan War, which ended with the Greek destroying Troy.
      Helen’s beauty was the flashpoint of a war.

  9. Not that it matters too much but I feel a need to point out that Clytemnestra killed Agamemnon, and not Menelaus as stated.

  10. Pingback: Leda and the Swan | Laura Turley

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  12. I just cannot believe my feminist eyes. This is absolutely outrageous, the words of a true male pig! Leda is a beautiful young woman and is seen as a mere object in the poem! How could he do this? He doesn’t love women, maybe Yeats’ is gay (anyone ever thought about that hmmmm?) Everything about this poem, screams patriarchal society and it’s rape of all women and all things good! #YesAllWomen #YeatsIsAPig #SatansWork

    • Yeats uses the poem to represent his views about Ireland and its occupation by the British. Leda’s rape by the Swan serves as a metaphor of the British ‘rape’ of Ireland, either through Irish inability to resist or British overpowering of Ireland against her will. The question ‘How can those terrified vague fingers push/ the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?’ denotes the ambiguity of the rape. It seems to mock the bloodthirsty glory of imperial Britain, suggesting that Ireland would be foolish to resist such glories; it also serves to highlight a tone of desperation, suggesting that Leda and Ireland simply cannot ‘push the feathered glory’ away. The vulnerability of Leda is conveyed through the soft assonance used to describe her in phrases such as ‘helpless breast’. The breast is a most tender part of the women, further highlighting the complete dominance of the Swan over Leda, and so the British Empire over Ireland.

      The notion of the ‘glory’ of the Swan and the majesty of its descriptions denoting power in ‘great wings’ suggests the idea that Leda is stunned and encapsulated by the grandeur of the Swan. This is reflected in the form of the poem, a Petrarchan sonnet, traditionally a subject of love. Yeats mocks the indifference of the Irish to British rule by suggesting provocatively that the Irish are stunned by the glory of Britain: hence the structure. The irregular rhythm caused by caesuras and uneven dispersion of sentences serves to disrupt the flow and consistency of the poem, reflecting how British rule in Ireland disrupts the natural state of the country. The end stop of the line “and Agamemnon dead.” along with the dramatic pause serve to highlight the unjust murder of Agamemnon in the classical Greek myth that resulted from the Trojan War, provoked by Helen of Troy, who was born as a result of the rape of Leda. This serves to symbolise the destruction that has and will ensue from the ‘rape’ of Ireland by Britain. The volta, the turning point at the end of a sonnet that traditionally holds some kind of resolution and conclusion, results in a further question “before the indifferent beak could let her drop?”. This conveys the lack of resolution in sight in the case of Irish independence, significantly juxtaposes with a traditional sonnet. Finally, the word ‘drop?’ concludes the poem in a crescendo that foreshadows an ominous sense of doom for Ireland.

  13. Pingback: A Retort Yeats: Contra "Leda and the Swan" - Brechtian Device Brechtian Device

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