Leda and the Swan By William Butler Yeats

Published in Yeats’ collection of Later Poems in 1926, ‘Leda and the Swan’ is a sonnet based on a myth from Greek mythology. According to Greek myth, Leda was the mother of mankind. The king of Greek gods and goddesses living on Mount Olympus, Zeus or Jupiter appeared to Leda in the form of a Swan and made love to her. Out of this contact of a superhuman (Zeus) and a human woman (Leda) were born the great heroes and heroines who created Athenian civilization and whose exploits have been narrated in the Homeric epics.

Leda and the Swan By William Butler Yeats

 

Summary

The poem, ‘Leda and the Swan’ by William Butler Yeats, talks about the story of Greek mythology, the Copulation of Zeus (or Jupiter) and Leda. The poet narrates the story vividly, dramatically, and with almost a Dantesque concentration. A big bird, a swan with great wings has been represented as giving a sudden and staggering blow to the girl (Leda) bathing naked in a pond.

The bird fluttering over her, caressing her thighs, holding her nape with his beak, and pressing her helpless (bare) breast upon his chest, must have been a nerve-shattering experience for the terrified girl. She was helpless in the clutches of the brute blood of their air, and her helplessness is signified by the ‘loosening of her thighs’, which is an expression rich in overtones of sexuality.

In this way, an immortal god mated with a mortal girl. The event proved a fateful one as it set in motion a whole chain of events. The girl gave birth to Helen and the result was the Trojan War and the burning of the roof and ‘topless’ towers of Troy. She also gave birth to Clytemnestra and the result was the tragedy of Agamemnon. Clytemnestra was the queen of Agamemnon but she got so angry with him that she with the help of his children killed her own husband.

 

Analysis of Leda and the Swan

The fourteen lines of this sonnet are divisible into three quatrains (of four lines each) and a couplet (two lines). The sonnet is a dramatic and picturesque presentation of the sexual act between Leda, a mortal beautiful maiden, and Zeus (Jupiter), a god in Greek mythology that was in the form of a big bird: a Swan.

 

Stanza One

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still

Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed

By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,

He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

The above first quatrain (four lines) narrates dramatically, vividly, and with almost a Dante-like concentration, the story of mating a common girl and a god, while the former was bathing naked in a stream. Zeus, in the form of a big bird, Swan is represented as giving a sudden and staggering blow to the girl Leda bathing naked in a pool. The bird fluttering over her, caressing her thighs, holding her nape (neck) with her beak, and pressing her helpless breasts upon his chest, must have been a nerve-shattering experience for the terrified girl.

 

Stanza Two

How can those terrified vague fingers push

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

And how can body, laid in that white rush,

But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

The second quatrain (stanza two) shows the helplessness of the delicate and beautiful maiden Leda being subjected to sexual exploitation by the swan and Jupiter. The poet says that the naked bathing girl was unable to save herself from the mating by Jupiter in the form of swan. Her fingers of the hands were delicate and weak, and she was terrified enough, so she found herself unable to push off the big white bird with lots of feathers. She started being passionate and so her thighs started becoming loose to let the sex-act being performed without resistance. The delicate and frail body of Leda also began to beat inside with the vehemence of sexual desire. She started taking interest in the act with her cooperation.

 

Stanza Three

Lines 1-5

A shudder in the loins engenders there

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower

And Agamemnon dead.

Being so caught up,

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,

The third quatrain brings the sex act between Leda and the Swan to its ultimate satisfying conclusion. They both felt a shudder in their loins. Thus, a god mated with a mortal and the event proved a fateful one as it set in motion a whole chain of events. In the due course, the girl gave birth to Helen, who, in turn, became the cause of the Trojan War, and the burning of the roof and tower of Troy, and also of the destruction of the big wall around Troy. Leda later gave birth to another girl named Clytemnestra who caused the tragedy of Agamemnon. Agamemnon was the leader of the forces which defeated and destroyed Troy. Later on, on his return from the war to his country, Mycenae in Argos, Agamemnon was killed by his own wife Clytemnestra, who was also the daughter of Leda and Zeus (Jupiter).

 

Lines 6-7

Did she put on his knowledge with his power

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

The couplet, the last two lines of the sonnet conclude the poem with a rhetorical question. The poet wants to know if Leda imbibed the knowledge with the physical power of the god Zeus after the sex act, when the no longer interested beak of the Swan, released the nape (neck) of the girl.

 

Personal Comments

‘Leda and the Swan’ is a sonnet considered one of the most perfect poems of W.B. Yeats. This artistic perfection, as Ellman has pointed out, was achieved by the poet not spontaneously but through at least six stages of revision and modification. It now stands as the final fusion of history myth and vision, the force and richness of which arises from the fact that the poet has succeeded in enclosing vast immensities within a small compass. The poem in on sweep, before we realize what has taken place, sets in motion a train of events that resulted in the destruction of the Trojan War, and the various events narrated by Home in his epic, Illiad and Odessey.

 

About W.B. Yeats and His Works

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, at Sandymount near Dublin in Ireland. Though Yeats’s real interest lay in poetry, he started writing play after play with fantastic and incoherent plots, e.g. The Islands of Statutes, The Seeker, Mosado, etc. Fed up with this fad of playwriting, he explored theosophy, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and Rosicrucianism. He was influenced by Mohini Chatterjee, a theosophist. He also wrote a few poems in an Indian setting. Yeats wanted to evolve a system to believe and for this, he turned to spiritualism, magic, and occultism. Occultism in Yeats’ poetry has been discussed and enumerated by the famous Hindi poet Dr. Harivanshrai Bachachan in his Oxford University D. Phil. Dissertation, Occultism in Yeats.

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Dharmender Kumar
About
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
  • Avatar Brandi Elliott says:

    I disagree with the interpretation and analysis of this poem. This was the rape of Leda by Zeus. To describe it in terms of cooperation and even enjoyment by Leda is to misconstrue the entire dynamic of rape. There was no loosening of her thighs in acquiescence to the act. She was simply overcome by brute force and there is no “satisfying conclusion” for Leda.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I actually agree with you, although I understand why our writer has interpreted it the way they have. Just like in any case of rape where a woman decides not to “fight back” any longer, it doesn’t make them any less a victim. It’s obviously a sensitive subject and I think your opinion is great and you make a very salient point. Thank you for sharing it with us.

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