Violence in Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan'

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The poem Leda and the Swan was inspired by the Greek myth, in which Leda is seduced and raped by Zeus in the guise of a sawn. In his poem, Yeats explores the idea of a single action unfolding into violence and destruction. This could be seen as a metaphor for Yeats’s frustration with the decline of Ireland and its culture, echoed here by the fall of Troy. Yeats also presents the violence of the rape with an ambiguity that is both unsettling and intriguing, leading many critics to question whether Yeats does in fact present a violent episode, or whether he instead portrays the victim with a degree of complicity.

One of the most powerful aspects of the poem is Yeats’s vivid depiction of action and motion. This is evident from the very beginning, with the resounding first line, ‘a sudden blow’, plunging the reader straight into the violent scene and opening the poem with an impact that echoes Leda’s surprise. This dramatic opening could be compared with that of The Cold Heaven. Yeats emphasises the physicality of the attack in his deliberate omission of any names or characters, referring to the swan as ‘the great wings’, and Leda as ‘the staggering girl’. By presenting the rape as simply a series of motions, with little hint at human thought or emotion, Yeats creates a feeling of strange detachment. Furthermore, Yeats chooses to use verbs in the progressive form, such as ‘beating’, ‘staggering’ and ‘loosening’, making the rape seem immediate and vivid, and creating the uneasy feeling that the reader is watching as the violence unfolds before their eyes. This is a technique also seen in The Second Coming, where Yeats creates a sense of immediacy and looming threat: ‘turning and turning in the widening gyre’, ‘moving its slow thighs’. In addition, Yeats emphasises the poem’s feeling of motion through his use of metre. It is written largely in iambic pentameter, which gives the poem an almost pulsating rhythm, echoing perhaps the ‘great wings beating’, or even the...
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