Beauty and Violence: Placing the Emotions of “Leda and the Swan” in Political and Historical Context
William Butler Yeats was an Irish Nationalist who wrote poetry all his life. His poems had themes of beauty and violence, Maud Gonne and executed freedom fighters. He had philosophies about changing times and the influence of deities, spirits and the phases of the supernatural world upon our lives. (Anon. 2018) Bringing many of these aspects together is, perhaps his most disturbing poem, Leda and the Swan. It chronicles the gruesome act of a swan, the disguised Zeus, raping Leda, a Greek woman. This essay will first structurally analyse the sonnet, before exposing the content of the poem from the perspective of the contrast of beauty and violence interpreted. Evidence from both history and the poem will be supplied to substantiate the theory as Yeats is, in essence, retelling an old Greek myth with ties to real history once again.
It was not common for Yeats to write sonnets, but Leda and the Swan is Patrician Sonnet, but it is unusual seeing as the octave is divided into two stanzas and the sixain has a split in it as well. (Anon. 2018) There is a strange visual divide between ‘And Agamemnon dead.’ and ‘Being so caught up,’ in line 11. (Yeats, 1939) The first stanza sets the scene physically and the second describes in philosophically. In line 9 the act is done as the swan fills the girl with his seed and the poem takes a route into the future of what this consummation means. Helen would be born from this violence and that would start the events leading up to the Trojan War. After the shocking divide of Agamemnon’s death and the end of Helen’s direct influence as the cause of the events to follow the poem comes back to Leda’s perspective. It is almost as if Leda sees the flashing images of the future as the swan orgasms and now she is back in her own body. Does she now possess that knowledge of the future? If she does, it still remains inevitable as the swan drops her; the deed has been done. (Yeats, 1939)
Leda and the Swan is also an incomplete iambic pentameter as every line conforms to this meter of 10 beats per line with an unstressed beat, followed by a stressed beat up until the final line. Line 14 suddenly breaks away, just as Leda is released by the swan, from the pattern and consists of 11 beats. The poem began as a political metaphor, but as he wrote Yeats got lost in the holy and infinite battle of beauty versus violence. The soft, beautiful curves of the swan reflect in the water as Zeus approaches his victim. The soft, beautiful curves of the woman sway as Leda walks alone. That soft beauty is destroyed as the poem begins with ‘A sudden blow’ and violence takes over. (Yeats, 1939) The bird’s great wings arch over her, in line 1, making him seem larger and more powerful than a swan ought to be. The soft beauty is repeated as he gently caresses her, in line 2, while violently invading her. The two beauties meet with their soft breasts coming together in a violent, forceful embrace in line 4.
How could this be? These two strange opposites coming together to start a cycle. A cycle of war and love. For her daughter, Helen, born of this deed would be lovely and known as the greatest beauty yet to tread the earth. That same Helen would spread the violence of her consummation by bringing about a war that would see Troy sieged for a decade and the great city in ruins. (Cartwright, 2012) The fleeing Trojans would settle in a new land, where Rome would finally repeat the cycle with the beauty of civilization and art and the violence of war and tyrannical emperors.
Then there is the curious lack of divine allusions in the poem. The swan was Zeus transformed. Helen is given to Paris as a bribe by Aphrodite. (Cartwright, 2012) The walls of Troy were built by Poseidon and Apollo and Athena ultimately helps the Greeks to breach it. (Yeats, 1939) There is much significance in these myths and yet there is no reference to them save line 7 where ‘that white rush’ is an allusion to Prothalamion, a poem describing the same event by Edmund Spencer. Spencer mentions Zeus and his lust for Leda by the name Jove and also describes the beauty of the violent event. (Spencer, 1596)
Did never whiter shew,
Nor Jove himself, when he a swan would be
For love of Leda, whiter did appear:
Yet Leda was they say as white as he,
Yet not so white as these, nor nothing near. . .
The author is much cruder and brutally honest in his depiction of a scene which must have been violent if not romanticized. He does not consider the gods as war is ultimately the act of men and so this essay also will not dwell on them.
Yeats wrote Leda and the Swan as an honest account of a woman’s experience and what that violence would later lead to. It would bring the greatest beauty that ever lived as well as the merciless slaughter and destruction of a once noble and prosperous city. Yeats used stylistic devices such as form and meter to aid in conveying the meaning and impact of the poem through form and meter. The spiritual cycles that Yeats saw in all of life are also evident in the constant contract of beauty and softness with harsh violence. The poem does not include the gods as this was a simple and horrific act between a woman and a swan.
Anon. 2018. William Butler Yeats, Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-butler-yeats Date of Access: 9 March 2018
Cartwright, M. 2012 Troy, Ancient History Encyclopaedia https://www.ancient.eu/troy/ Date of Access: 10 March 2018
Spencer, E. 1596. Prothalamion, Poetry Foundation https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45217/prothalamion-56d224a0e2feb Date of Access: 10 March 2018
Yeats W.B. 1939 Leda and the Swan, Poets.org https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/leda-and-swan Date of Access 11 March 2018
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