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W.B. Yeats Poetry | Leda and the Swan

winwoodedu | Wednesday September 21, 2011

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Context

This poem can be seen in reference to The Second Coming; it describes a moment that represented a change of era in Yeats’ model of gyres. But where Yeats’ poem The Second Coming represents the end of modern history, Leda and the Swan represents something like its beginning; the rape of Leda by Zeus resulted in the birth/hatching of Clytemnestra, Helen, Castro and Polydeuces (Castor and Polydeuces were war gods) and this brought about the Trojan War which in turn brought about the end of the ancient mythological era and the birth of modern history.

Yeats combines words indicating powerful action (sudden blow, beating, staggering, beating, shudder, mastered, burning, mastered) with adjectives and descriptive words that indicate Leda’s weakness and helplessness (caressed, helpless, terrifies, vague, loosening) thus increasing the sensory impact of the poem.

Structure

This poem is written as a classical Petrarchan sonnet – 14 lines of iambic pentameter, an 8 line octave followed by a 6 line sestet; the dividing line is the moment of ejaculation.

The poem opens with ‘a sudden blow’; this has an immediate impact in the poem. There is no gentle introduction; the reader is thrust right into the action. ‘[G]reat wings beating’ gives a sense of the size and the power of the swan. The phrase ‘the staggering girl’ gives a sense of the vulnerability and helplessness of Leda.

The phrase ‘her thighs caressed’ initially sounds tender but contrast it with ‘dark webs’ and it sounds menacing and sinister. ‘[H]er nape caught in his bill’ gives a sense of being subdued; Leda has no power to resist. The phrase ‘her helpless breast’ again shows the powerlessness of Leda. The phrase ‘upon his breast’ shows Zeus / swan in a dominant posture; there is a possible reference to hugging or a tender moment.

The interrogative ‘how can’ suggests the question inviting the reader to put themselves in Leda’s...


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