WBYeats And Leda And The Swan Essay

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W.B.Yeats And Leda And The Swan Essay, Research Paper W.B.Yeats and Leda and the Swan Given the odd tales brought to us by Greek mythology, one could very well imagine the stories having been unearthed from some antique tabloid magazine. In the case of Leda, subject of W. B. Yeats’ poem “Leda and the Swan,” the banner headline may have run as follows: “WOMAN IMPREGNATED BY SWAN, FOUR CHILDREN HATCH FROM EGGS”. Kind of brings new meaning to the phrase “love nest,” doesn’t it? All joking aside, the myth of Leda and the swan features Zeus (most powerful among the Greek gods) coming down to earth in the form of a swan to woo Leda, wife of Tyndareus. She winds up giving birth to four children, two mortal (Castor and Clytemnestra) and two immortal (Polydeuces and

Helen). Yeats’ poem focuses not on the monumental events that Leda’s offspring went on to experience (and cause), but rather on the moment of the meeting of woman and winged one. As for the classical mythological history of Leda and Zeus, Carlos Parada’s Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology tells us that Zeus, in swan form, joined with Leda, on the same night that her husband had. Zeus’s children, Polydeuces and Helen, were born from an egg laid by Leda and Tyndareus’ children were Castor and Clytemnestra. However, some say that Helen was a daughter of Nemesis and Zeus and brought (in egg form) to Leda by a shepherd. When the egg hatched, Leda brought her up. Legends also say that Leda died of shame for her daughter Helen. As an aside, Castor and Polydeuces were also

known as Castor and Pollux, the twins of Gemini. The first quatrain of Yeats’ work describes the initial encounter between woman and bird. The swan, normally a symbol of beauty, is here depicted as brutish, holding Leda’s nape (back of the neck) with his bill, and forcing himself on her. Yet, paradoxically, the bestial swan is also tender, the webs of his wings caressing her thighs. This is also a factor in the next stanza Quatrain two finds Leda perhaps beginning to yield to the Zeus-swan, because of the swan’s beauty more than anything else. We see an inner struggle as Leda wants to push away the bird, but is stopped by its “feathered glory” (6). Its “strange heart beating where it lies” (8) fascinates her, this feathered body pressed against her own. The speaker

invites our apprehension with his questions. “How can…” we are asked, Leda refuse this god-bird? What about the creature entrances her to such an extent that she cannot bring herself to fight against it? The first half of the sestet is a brief flash of the future, but as of yet, we, the readers are uncertain whether it is seen by Leda herself, or presented only to us. Is the “shudder” (9) a shudder of ecstasy or a shudder at the violence of the complete destruction this union will engender? We witness the fall of Troy, and the death of Leda’s husband’s brother, Agamemnon1. Agamemnon was actually killed by Leda’s mortal daughter, Clytemnestra (in a bathtub, no less). All this is guaranteed by the climax of the swan and Leda, the destined children, their destined

deeds. The final half of the sestet leaves us wondering if it was, in fact, Leda who saw these visions, and tries to offer some explanation for the possibility. The reader is asked if, before the Zeus-swan released her, she received some sort of psychic link to the destiny of two of her children, the mortal daughter of her husband Tyndareus (Clytemnestra), and the immortal daughter of Zeus (Helen). We are left wondering if Leda knew the destinies of the children that had been set into motion with Zeus’ rape of her. Writing the poem in a Petrarchan sonnet, Yeats sets a tone from the first three words: “A sudden blow” (1). Immediately, we are emotionally involved in the poem. His words indicate to the readers how suddenly and unexpectedly the rape of Leda begins. Yeats writes