Leda and the Swan

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Leda and the swan was written in 1928 by William Butler Yeats. It is a petrarchan sonnet, in iambic pentameter; it has a rhyme pattern in ABAB CDCD EFGEFG. This is the most famous poem in the collection The tower, and the one with most imagery. Despite its ABAB rhyme scheme, the poem is breathtaking due to enjambments. Leda and the Swan was first published in a different version in 1924. Yeats is well known for his symbolist style, and interest for Irish folklore and mythology. He believed that history moved between different and contrary cycles. Leda and the Swan seems to happen at the exact turning point between two cycles. It is important to know the Trojan War’s impact: it brought the end of the ancient mythological era and the birth of modern history. The Burning of Troy set the stage for the future rise of the Roman Empire and, much later, the rise of modern Europe. We can say that Leda and the Swan represents something like the beginning of modern history. In order to study this poem we can wonder is the poem simply referring to a myth? How can we link this poem to Yeats’ personal life and society? So in order to answer these questions we will first study the paradox of the poem and the possible meanings of the poem, and then we will link it to Yeats’ background considering Leda as a personification of Ireland facing her oppressor Zeus, personification of England.

In Greek mythology Leda was the daughter of Thestius, king of Aetolia, and wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta. She was rape by Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods assuming the form of a swan, and from that union she bore two eggs from which hatched, Castor and Pollux, from one egg, and Helen and Clytemnestra from the second. Helen, who became the breathtakingly beautiful wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta, was abducted by Paris, a Trojan prince. This kidnapping led to the Trojan war, indeed Menelaus asked his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae to help him take his wife back. So Agamemnon and his troupes besieged and destroyed Troy, but when he came back home, Agamemnon was murdered by his wife Clytemnestra. After the first reading, a paradox emerges: the poem is written in a traditional form, using a traditional rhyme scheme, yet the subject matter is non-traditional: a violent rape. This paradox is representative of the many oppositional elements in the text. The rhyme scheme is traditional (ABAB CDCD EFG EFG) but four of the rhymes are not perfect: “push” and “rush”, “up” and “drop”. This again is another oppositional element. Yeats created a sonnet that is both violent with a structure that conveys feelings of safety and beauty. The first line immediately grabs the reader's attention. The poem starts In Medias Rès. There is no set up for the story that follows. There is only the loud and violent action opening the sonnet: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still”, which brings the reader dramatically into the conflict. There is a blow of some kind, and the sound of large wings beating in the air. The reader is startled by the blow, and after having only partially absorbed the shock of it, hears the whoosh of beating wings. The reader does not know where the assault comes from or to who the wings belong to. This beginning takes us by surprise, as Leda is surprised by the ambush of the bird. The reader is thrown in the rest of the story “Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed/ By dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, / He holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (lines 2-4). There is beating, staggering, caressing, catching, and holding in a whirl so fast the reader doesn't have time to prepare a response to the attack. The reader endures the attack along with Leda, barely able to visualize the swirl of motion packed in the first four lines. We see the world the way would see it if we were smacked. As we only catch glimpse of images it reinforce our disorientation, which could also be Leda’s disorientation. The first...
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