The “Leda and the Swan” Poem by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats is thought of as one of the most eminent poets in the history of English literature. Nevertheless, the author’s poetic techniques and narrative manner have drastically changed throughout his poetic career. Despite his impact on English literature, some of his poems remain contradictory to the public. Today, literary critics argue that the language used in some of his poems is highly controversial, as the stylistic means are used to depict brutal events, including wars or assaults. “Leda and the Swan” is considered a controversial piece of writing; therefore, it is crucial to conduct an in-depth analysis of the form and language means and their influence on the poem’s meaning.

“Leda and the Swan” is one of the most popularized poems published by W. B. Yeats in 1924. The poem’s style is quite unusual for Yeats since he chose to write it in the form of a sonnet. It narrates the rape of the Greek woman Leda by the God Zeus, who took the form of a swan. Numerous critics have argued the poem’s storyline since each of them could interpret its meaning differently.

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Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” depicts Greek mythology; in particular, it portrays the intercourse between Zeus (or Jupiter) and Leda and how this event became a tipping point in mythology. The author recites this story using vivid, dramatic, and ingenious language to emphasize every little detail. The poem is increasingly rich in stylistic potential, and its sounding and rhythm enhance the general meaning.

“Leda and the Swan” is a 14-line Petrarchan sonnet, composed of three stanzas, and the last line is divided into two to emphasize the dramatic end. Yeats chose a sonnet form traditionally associated with romance and love to emphasize the irony – it is full-scale rape, a controversial topic for the closely related structure of the sonnet. The poem has a theme shift after the eighth line which is unusual for sonnets. The first eight lines depict the sexual assault from Leda’s point of view, while the last lines describe the consequences of the rape for the humanity.

The poem’s rhyme is iambic pentameter which presumes that each line is accompanied by ten steady beats, where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed one. Yet, there are only several lines conforming to this rhythm which are the fourth and fourteenth. The first lines are presented with five stresses, including iambic and spondaic, which help better depict the rape scene where Leda is shocked and helpless to resist. The use of enjambment is a peculiar feature of this poem as well. It occurs when one line connects with another with no punctuation and with the preservation of meaning. Then, the caesura follows, which presumes a pause in the middle of the line made to depict a physical act. Yeats chose the loose pattern of the sonnet which can be schemed in the following way: ABAB CDCD EFGEFG. Therefore, while the first lines have complete rhythm, the most of the final rhymes are slant push/rush, up/drop.

What is more, alliteration plays a vital role in conveying the sounds of the background: “he holds her helpless breast upon his breast”. This stylistic device conveys the sound [h], which helps ‘hear’ the breathing or moaning of the characters. The reader, therefore, cannot doubt this first quatrain: a barbaric act was indeed committed by this beautiful but vicious god disguised as a pure white swan.

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The second quatrain begins with two iambic questions, which intensify Leda’s predicament as the swan keeps assaulting her. These are serious things. Zeus is omnipotent and determined to saturate a defenseless woman who seems to be unable to rest him. Here one may observe the language of anatomy, which created a sense of actual copulation between human beings: fingers/thighs/body/nape/breast/heart beating. These words were also used to highlight the human nature of Zeus in the swan’s body.

The eight lines are followed by volta, where answers to the previous lines are presented, and a conclusion is drawn. Notably, the poet ends the sonnet in a very unusual way. The eleventh line brings closure to the entire dirty deed of aggression and the subsequent birth of a child. The full stop is positioned at the end of the last line, a definite end of the poem.

The stylistic potential of the poem is vital as well as some specific words intensify the meaning. Yeats uses comparison and metaphor to describe his characters. For instance, Zeus was pictured as a large bird, a swan with enormous wings. However, at the same time, he is depicted as a sudden blow to a woman who was bathing bare in a pond. Yeats portrays a sexual scene of a bird hovering over Leda and touching her thighs, holding her head with its beak, and pressing her thin body to his chest. It seems as if such an interaction was a complete shock for a girl. When Zeus was turned into a bird, he was craving prey.

Therefore, the poem’s central theme is sexual violence since Zeus being a swan, assaults Leda from the very beginning. Perhaps, the feministic views see this beginning as terrifying since it deals with the outrageous rape of an innocent girl, which can be seen as a symbol of the exploitation of women by men in a patriarchal society. The poem begins when the god Zeus disguised as a swan, flies above Leda, a Greek queen, and hits her with his robust wings. The phrase “a sudden blow” indicates that it was a rape indeed. These lines immediately shape the speaker’s point of view, which is very similar to Leda’s. The first three words precisely describe both readers and Leda’s bewilderment: neither she nor the readers could sense swan approaching.

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Moreover, the poet used such words as “staggering” and “helpless” to highlight that Leda was defenseless against Zeus and was taken by force. In addition, the phrase “loosening thighs” points out the fact that the swan parted her hips to assault her intentionally, and she merely could not resist his aggressive actions. These lines seem very controversial since it feels as if she was amazed but, at the same time, severely horrified. Not only was she caught off guard, but also she was seriously injured, which is why his legs are barely able to withstand this attack. The poem thus reflects Leda’s post-attack resistance, which emphasized a woman’s fragility and gentleness.

The swan held the girl by the back of her head, neck, pressing her breasts tightly to his chest. It is a vivid description with luscious but direct language “he holds her helpless breasts upon his breast.” This line suggests that there was nothing romantic about this integration. Even though the scene reveals the violence, some details suggest that Leda may have enjoyed copulation. For instance, the phrase “shudder in the loins” could mean Leda’s secret desire to make love with a swan and feel its touch. Nevertheless, the scene was so powerful that numerous artists have attempted to recreate this scene in different art forms for many years.

The sexual act ends with the impregnation of Leda, and there comes a blast followed by the birth of future war. The siege of Troy would take place during the Trojan War, a 10-year-long conflict between the kingdoms of Troy and Greece. The following lines prove this: “a shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof, and tower.”. The words of the second line signify the beginning of the conflict when everything starts to fall apart.

Finally, Leda’s ambiguous description of rape suggests that it cannot be understood only as an act of sexual violence. Instead, it represents a turning point in history that further impacted numerous fields, including literature, myths, warfare, and others. Yet, one can only trace the causes and effects since there was no right and wrong. The moral dilemma caused by the abuse of Leda’s body is not the most acute problem of the poem. The author, however, draws attention to Leda’s panic and fear; Yeats does not ignore the damage caused by Zeus, but he contextualizes this damage in the broader context of mythology and history.

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Hence, Leda became indirectly responsible for everything that followed because she had given birth to Helen, who became the reason for the Trojan War when Paris kidnapped her from her husband, Menelaus. These actions were utterly disruptive on the mythological scale, as the war was the only way to solve significant problems. The sequence of events is quite complex; yet, the poem attempted to emphasize that the consequences of one action can have a devastating effect on many people.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the poems of William Yeats were of great importance to English literature, but there was much debate about his use of rhythm and language to mask human vices. One of these poems is Leda and the Swan, which describes what would seem to be an act of love yet reveals the theme of violence. The use of specific words, phrases, and rhymes helped Yeats to transmit the atmosphere of violence. The author managed to implement the stylistic and rhythmic potential to awaken feelings in a reader. In general, the poem is appealing because of the contradictory mood it creates.

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