W.B.Yeats and Leda and the SwanGiven 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 stanzaQuatrain 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 in the octave the events prior to the union of Zeus and Leda, and the in sestet the ensuing events and visions of them. Though not immediately obvious due, in part, to the shocking aspect of the subject matter and beauty of Yeats’ language, we can see that the poem does indeed have a rhyme scheme, following the ababcdcd efgefg pattern.
In the octave, Yeats creates an image of time nearly standing still, with all these events of great magnitude happening to Leda. The reader may almost see the scene as a series of still photographs. The immediate immersion into the action puts the reader in a similar position to Leda, struggling to make sense of what is occurring, what is assaulting our senses. The initial flurry of activity, strangely, seems both shockingly real and somewhat muted, as though we were watching ourselves from a distance.
The immediacy of the situation, however, remains.Yeats sets the tone of the poem by contrasting the beauty and strength of the swan; “great wings” (1), “feathered glory” (6), “brute blood of the air” (11), “indifferent” (13), with the powerlessness of Leda; “staggering” (2), “helpless” (4), “terrified” (5), being “mastered by” Zeus (11). There is also a theme that runs through the poem, one of destiny. Mythology dictates that this event, the impregnation of Leda by Zeus in swan form, was to happen to bring about the kidnapping of Helen, the subsequent fall of Troy, and the murder of Agamemnon. Oracles often prophesied such events, and Yeats’ idea of destiny and cyclical history fits in quite well with this poem.
In some of Yeats’ other poems, most notably in his 1920 work, “A Second Coming,” he expresses his idea of history as occurring in cycles of about 2,000 years. Calling these cycles “gyres,” he diagrammed them as a series of cones, attached base to base and tip to tip. Once the maximum diameter had been reached, and the universe had expanded, in both a physical and cultural sense, a process taking about 2,000 years, it would begin to contract, in an antithetical phase to the first cone. The poem of “Leda and the Swan,” then, fits into Yeats’ antithetical gyre, with things wending their way towards cataclysm. Yeats himself describes his system: “When the old primary gyre becomes the new antithetical gyre, the old realisation of an objective moral law is changed into a subconscious turbulent instinct.. The world of rigid custom and law is broken up by ‘the uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor'” (Macrae 157).
Thus, his poems almost take on a dual mindset, and can be, at times categorized, much like William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence” and “Songs of Experience.” Yeats writes both on the ideal (for example, his poems on the birth of Christ, such as “The Magi”) and the antithetical. And thus, the system that Yeats subscribes to seems to roll on, regardless of individual gestures or events. Perhaps this is what allows Yeats to write of the atrocities Leda experiences with such clinical detachment.
. The poem leaves the reader with many questions. Did Leda realize the swan is Zeus? Did she try to resist at all? Did Leda glimpse the future irrevocably shaped by her children? All these questions posed by the poem are left to the reader to decide.
Again, in Yeats’ gyres, the answers to them have little, if any significance. Yet, to the reader, they can completely change the interpretation of the poem. Like many of Yeats’ other works, “Leda and the Swan” seems to be rather open-ended. Yet, in allowing the reader to decide for themselves the answers to the questions, Yeats achieves not only beautiful, but also highly personal poems. With each interpretation, the significance of the poem to the reader will be different.
And so, “Leda and the Swan” transcends culture and education and class, and even the Greek myth that it sprang from, to become a poem that asks its readers to think how their interpretation of the work affects history.Works CitedEncarta(r) 98 Desk Encyclopedia (c) ; 1996-97 Microsoft Corporation.Macrae. Alasdair D. F.
W. B. Yeats. St. Martin’s Press: New York.
1995Parada, Carlos. Genealogical Guide to Greek Mythology. Paul Anstroms Forlag: Jonsered.
Sweden. 1993. Online.
http://hsa.brown.edu/maicar/Leda.htmlWhitaker, Thomas R. Swan and Shadow: Yeats’s Dialogue with History. University of North Carolina: Chapel Hill. 19641 In Greek mythology, king of Mycenae, and commander of the Greek forces in the Trojan War.
He was the son of Atreus. To calm the winds delaying his army’s journey to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis. After a ten-year siege, Troy fell and Agamemnon returned to Mycenae. With him came Trojan princess Cassandra as a prize of war.
Upon his return, Clytemnestra, his wife, killed him with the help of her lover Aegisthus. (Encarta(r) 98 Desk Encyclopedia)