Leda and the Swan

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"Leda and the Swan" is a sonnet written by William Butler Yeats. The subject matter is taken from one of the many stories in Greek mythology. The swan is the god Zeus in disguise. He forces himself on Leda and because she had also had sex with her husband, the Spartan king Tyndareus, she becomes pregnant with four fetuses. The most important of these offspring on the development of the Western civilization is Helen of the Trojan War. A close study of "Leda and the Swan" reveals how Yeats turns the violent rape into a work of art. The sonnet is a traditional fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter. The structure is Petrarchan with a clear division between the first eight lines and the final six. The rhyme scheme is ABAB CDCD EFGEFG. There is no irony in the fact that the dividing line is the orgasm, the "shudder in the loins." Each section begins with a bold phrase that summarizes the event. ‘A sudden blow' initiates the octave and ‘a shudder in the loins' the sestet. The octave is written in the present tense. The first three lines of the sestet look to the future, ‘Agamemnon dead'. The last three lines look back on the violent encounter. The two-part structure is repeated again in the grammatical construction. Each half contains two sentences, each a complete stanza. The first and third sentences are declarations, the second and fourth are interrogations. Yeats uses the alternating statements and questions to lead the reader to alternate identifying with the swan during the affirmative sentences and Leda in the interrogative ones. Zeus, the swan is depicted as a strong, beautiful creature with phrases such as ‘great wings', ‘feathered glory', and ‘brute blood of the air'. In contrast, Leda is just a ‘girl' with ‘vague fingers'. The powerful action of the massive swan is depicted in the words ‘beating', ‘staggering', ‘beating', ‘shudder', ‘mastered', ‘burning', and ‘mastered'. The adjectives and...
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