The Big Bad Swan
In nature, there are many amazing and bizarre acts. Take, for example, the Preying Mantis. The Preying Mantis is a relatively large insect that performs a most barbaric act: after the docile and exquisite female mates with her aggressive and overpowering male counterpart, she eats him. Instinctively, the powerful male seeks out his mate and impregnates her, fulfilling his mating duties. However, the male expends all of his strength in the sexual encounter, and the female is able to return the animal favor by ruthlessly eating the unsuspecting male limb by limb. Clearly, things are not what they might initially seem to be in nature, as in this case the seemingly mighty male is abruptly destroyed by his sexual victim. Much along the same lines is Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” Using the binary oppositions of the beauty and viciousness of Zeus as a swan and the helplessness and eventual strength of Leda, Yeats reveals that even the mightiest entities may suffer the consequences of their misuse of power. Picture swans in your mind. You see the snow white feathers, the piercing eyes, and the powerful wings. These are extraordinary creatures often used to signify love and tenderness. On the surface, they appear tranquil and docile, yet their physical attributes are only a facade for their truly mean spirit. Swans are rather territorial animals who tend to be quite nasty when confronted with an undesirable situation. In “Leda and the Swan,” the beauty of the swan is skin-deep as well. Despite having the glorious physical attributes of a swan he is also a vicious brute who acts out his male animalistic power over his female prey, demonstrating the raw male and female relationships in nature. Swan are huge birds, and as pointed out in the Internet site “The Swan and Leda” (a poem on the same subject as “Leda and the Swan”) “Swans, unlike most birds, have external genitals” (1). Thus, the swan is a perfect animal for such a hideous crime as Zeus performs on Leda. In further developing the underlying repercussion theme, the basis of the poem must be analyzed. In Greek Mythology, Zeus disguises himself as a swan in order to lure the pure and sexually ripe Leda into violence. Critical Survey of Poetry, edited by Frank N. Magill, says, “In the tale from antiquity, a Spartan Queen, Leda, was so beautiful that Zeus, ruler of the Gods, decided that he must have her. Since the immortals usually did not present themselves to humankind in their divine forms, Zeus changed himself into a great swan and in that shape ravished the helpless girl” (3716). Zeus as the swan is described as being “great” and of “feathered glory” (lines 1-6). He is a terrific product of nature, yet his male sexual tendencies get the better of him, and he gives into his uncontrollable lust for Leda. Zeus is a selfish male who uses his superhuman powers to exploit an innocent human. Clearly, the oppositions Yeats uses provoke intriguing yet disgusting feelings. Rape is ugly yet the swan is beautiful, in effect disguising Zeus’ sickening act. Through the use of these startling contrasts of vocabulary and imagery, Yeats propels the power and intensity of the poem. Critical Survey of Poetry states that “Virtually all commentators dwell upon the power, economy, and impact of the poem’s language and imagery, especially in the opening sections, which seem to be concerned predominantly, if not exclusively, with mere description of the scene and events themselves” (3716). Yeats fuses the myth and the potent language together in a sonnet of intense proportions. In Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, R.P. Blackmur says, “’Leda and the Swan’ gives us the nearly perfect example of the fusion of mythology and system and intuitive assertion so dramatized in crises as to provide an...
Cited: Archibald, Douglas. Yeats. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1983.
Blackmur, R.P. “Yeats.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1989. 397.
Lucas, John. “Yeats.” World Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1992. 4110.
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