The following essay was written by a student in a Year 13 class in early 2012. It remains the copyright of the student and – at the foot of the essay – there are points that the student might have considered had they wanted to revise and improve this submission.
“The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/And Agamemnon dead.”
Discuss Yeats’ presentation of violence in ‘Leda and the Swan’
‘Leda and the Swan’ was composed in 1923 and alludes to the myth of the rape of Leda, wife of Tyndareus, by Zeus in the form of a swan. Yeats interprets the rape of Leda as an ‘annunciation that founded Greece’ because it conceived Helen and she was the catalyst for the Trojan War. The war was fought over Helen’s abduction by Paris from her husband, Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon. Furthermore Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, was murdered by Clytemnestra who was also a daughter of Leda; thus ultimately ‘a shudder in the loins engenders’ a violent war.
Preoccupied by the act and consequence of the rape, this poem illustrates a continuous theme of Yeats: the destructive nature of beauty. Similarities can also be read into ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ where Yeats desires the ‘artifice of eternity’ but when he metaphorically seeks the beauty of omniscience, he is disappointed as it is of no use to anyone but him. In ‘Leda and the Swan’, Yeats describes the destructive nature of Troy as: ‘the broken wall, the burning roof and tower / and Agamemnon dead.’ This stricken statement is the result of the rape and thus the parallel between the violent acts of war and rape run throughout the poem.
The contrast in tenses used before and after the volta alters the immediacy of the events described. The present tense of verbs such as ‘holds’ and ‘push’, before the volta make the events of the rape seem immediate and vivid, whereas the past tenses of ‘caught’ and ‘mastered’ make the rhetorical questions seem more pensive, distant and retrospective. In addition technical devices such as alliteration, ‘he holds her’, iambic pentameter, and the irregular distribution of sentences and caesura all contribute towards the intensity and shock of the subject manner**. The random distribution echoes the gasping and throbbing pulsations of the rape by its irregularity and the caesuras interrupt the flow of the sentences furthering the intensity of the situation. The chaotic tempo of the rape’s description contrasts with the sudden stop where ‘Agamemnon dead’ is left suspended in the air ending both the violence and the rape.
Yeats wrote his poem in the traditional form of a Petrarchan sonnet. Yet, paradoxically the violent context of the poem in contrast to the usual subject of love in a sonnet is highly untraditional and thus comes across as shocking. The first three words ‘A sudden blow:’ instantly portrays the forceful connection between Leda and Zeus. The caesura that proceeds ‘blow’ emphasizes this impact and the surprise felt by Leda, which is also reiterated by the use of ‘sudden’. The power of the poem is reflected in its compression since it is a sonnet and the tight rhyme scheme controls the force. The first two quatrains*** dramatize the rape in a violent, physical manner that stresses Leda’s helplessness to resist the ‘white rush’ of the swan****. However the following two questions suggest something more intimate and mysterious about the beating of the ‘strange heart’ felt by Leda in contrast with the mere physical intimacy between the ‘dark webs’ of Zeus and the ‘helpless breast’ of Leda expressed previously. This foreshadows the change of tone after the Volta, and thus the second half of the poem possibly reveals what Leda might have thought and felt: she was ‘mastered’, experiencing the ‘power’ of Zeus and also whether she shared ‘his knowledge’ while the intimacy lasted. Here, Yeats suggests that Leda shared his knowledge of all the historical implications of the event and how it would lead to the destruction of Troy. Yeats is ambiguous about the relationship between violence, power and knowledge in these closing lines.
Moreover, Yeats explores the contrast of language between the omnipotent Zeus and the decrepit Leda. The grotesque, violent imagery of the swan’s ‘dark webs’ in comparison to the ‘staggering’ Leda is harmonized. This can be interpreted as the conflict between Yeats’ mixed frustrations about the state of Ireland. The critic Declan Kiberd suggested that this poem is ‘an allegory of Yeats’ complicated feelings about England’s relation to Ireland.’ Thus ‘Leda and the Swan’ can be seen as a metaphor for the destruction of Ireland and Kiberd further interprets the swan as the ‘invading occupier’ and Leda as a ‘ravished Ireland’. This suggests that Yeats was offering a deep and prophetic commentary on the consequences of colonialism. The Greek mythological context that he uses could further indicate that Ireland after the withdrawal of England – dropping of the ‘indifferent beak’ – was destined to be chaotic and violent. Therefore ‘Leda and the Swan’ can be seen simply as England’s ‘rape’ of Ireland*****.
In addition, the poem can be read as a metaphor for reoccurring themes throughout Yeats’ poetry particularly his unrequited love for his main muse, Maud Gonne. In ‘Among School Children’ he dreams of ‘A Leadaean body’, representing Maud not just in the form Leda, but also as Helen of Troy. Both Leda and Helen are beautiful but they also cause destruction****** as did Maud Gonne due to her involvement with the IRA. On the other hand, perhaps Yeats equates Maud with Zeus because she is destructive with her powerful position and obsessive involvement with the war in Ireland. However regardless of the allegorical interpretation of this poem, whether its about the ‘rape’ of Ireland by England, Maud as a destructive beauty, or Maud as Zeus because of her power in the IRA, it remains ambiguous. Although Yeats started writing the poem with respect to politics, he later went on to say that ‘bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics went out of it’.
In conclusion, ‘Leda and the Swan’ is a poem that presents violence in a dramatic and intense way, but the conclusion remains to relate the subject of the rape to the wider questions that are frequently raised in Yeats’ previous poems. In Easter 1916, he focuses on how the violence of the Irish war affected people, especially him, and how ‘all changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born’. Frequently he discusses how the changing cycles of human history and how violence and destruction is ultimately the consequence of both beauty, in terms of Leda, and ‘indifference’ in terms of Zeus.
For development [notes from Mrs Cornell):
1. Explain how/why the use of the volta is traditional in Sonnet Structure.
2. **At the point marked use more examples from the primary text to illustrate/prove your observations.
3. ***Explain that quatrain use in sonnets is usual and further explain why Yeats might have chosen to divide his sonnet so.
4. ****Analysis of ‘white rush’ is probably due: sexual pleasure? Lust? Orgasm? Semen? Something else?
5. ***** Good links to other Yeats poems (‘Easter 1916’ ‘September 1913’ ‘The Second Coming’) can be made off the back of this point – you should have developed this more.
6. ****** A potential link to be made to ‘In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth…’