Leda and the Swan is a Greek legend in which the all powerful God Zeus, taking the form of a beautiful swan, seduces Leda, Queen of Sparta, which yielded her four eggs. Out of which not only hatched Castor and Polydeukes, as well as Clytemnestra, but first and foremost the Helen of the Trojan War. The legend has been depicted several times by well known artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto, Michelangelo. The theme resembles the Conception of Mary by the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) in the Catholic Religion, predominant in Ireland. Yeats had initially called the poem Annunciation, a title related somehow to the Catholic apparition of an angel to Mary telling her of the sanctity of her impregnation. But in Yeats’ own symbolic system, the wheel of history revolved in two thousand year cycles, each started by annunciation (Zeus to Leda in 2000 B.C., the Holy Ghost to Mary in year 1, and a “rough beast” to appear in 2000 A.D.). Yeats started writing the poem for a political publication, presumably intending to inject political meaning into it, but he changed it several times before the final version that we know, with a new title. In his own words “all politics went out of it”, but we could believe that since he was a senator of the recently freed Ireland during the years he wrote it, the poem could bear some meaning of Irish nationalism.
The Technical Beauty:
Leda and the Swan is a sonnet, one of the most precise forms of literature known. An interesting paradox emerges, however, at first glance. The poem is written in a traditional form (sonnet), using a traditional rhyme scheme, yet the subject matter is extremely non-traditional (violent rape as opposed to the usual love sonnets). This paradox is representative of the many oppositional elements which abound in the text and which help from the basis for understanding the oppositions which influence both Yeats and the poem. The rhyme scheme is traditional (ABAB CDCD EFG EFG), yet interestingly imperfect in that four of the rhymes: “push” and “rush”, “up” and “drop”. This again is an oppositional element, typical of Yeats, and could be seen to symbolize the opposition between Yeats, the last Romantic, and Yeats, the Modernist. A transition exists in the poem’s language, from an aggressive intensity to a vague distance. The poem may be divided into two halves. The first comprises the violent encounter of Zeus and Leda ending in “a shudder in the loins”, whereas in the second both spatial and temporal perspectives widen into infinity. The partition matches the division of the sonnet into octave and sestet. It is marked by the two bold phrasings: “A sudden blow” initiates the octave and “a shudder in the loins” the sestet. It also coincided with shift in the temporal perspective. In the first half of this partition the unstoppable unfolding of the proceedings is depicted. In the second shorter half, the deeper meaning of the event is fathomed. Verbs play a major role in understanding the poem. They are in present tense through the octave and the first part of the sestet (“holds”, “push”, “feel”, “engenders”). They then shift to past tense in the last part of the sestet (“caught”, “mastered”, “did”). The verbs in the present tense imply an intense immediacy while those in the past tense distance the reader from what has just happened. The first quatrain presents the assault. The second quatrain reflects Leda’s emotions. The sensation of violence is prevalent throughout the poem with words like “helpless”, “caught” and “terrified”. The sensation lingers in the third stanza when the swan is called “the brute blood of the air”. Yet the verses contain hints that the act is sensual; “her thighs caressed” and “her loosening thighs” indicate some amount of savoir-faire on the part of the bird god. “The terrified vague fingers”...