The Poems of WB Yeats Leda and the Swan
Ambiguity and The Undermining of The Feminine in “Leda and The Swan”
The message of “Leda and the Swan” is often interpreted in drastically different ways due to the ambiguity of the text. Much of this ambiguity can be attributed to intentional contradiction by the author, William Butler Yeats. This contradiction emphasizes the nature of sexism, for sexism is often portrayed as a misdirected view of the victim. Several of the following critics offer differing interpretations of the poem, portraying the ambiguous nature of the text and therefore the larger theme of sexism in the poem’s various supplications of a forced sexual encounter. Johnsen summarizes the poem as such, “Textual/Sexual politics never had a better example than ‘Leda and the Swan’ a sonnet depicting rape as a welcome sign of a better future” (Johnsen 80). Johnsen interprets the poem’s ambiguity as an indication that Leda welcomes the rape as a positive instance. Along similar lines, Mckenna states, “The final form of the poem. . . reaffirms the tragic consequences of Leda’s rape but also affirms her potential for self- awareness” (Mckenna 425). Like Johnsen, Mckenna agrees that Leda is better from the experience, but Mckenna also argues that the consequences of the rape (the destruction of Troy), are what is tragic. Barnwell argues differently, stating, “Often read as a rape-poem, ‘Leda and the Swan’ offers perhaps the clearest example of the extreme importance of Yeat’s copulation ‘personae’ who act and are acted upon in various ways to learn certain lessons” (Barnwell 63). Barnwell thus argues that the poem’s center on rape and ambiguity of text offers differing possibilities as to who is really the victim. Leda and Zeus could both be victims, or neither. Lastly, Neigh argues, “When I take Yeats’s sonnet personally and pursue my identifications with the text . . . I identify with Leda and her experience of sexist victimization” (146). Neigh differs drastically from both Barnwell and Johnsen in that she interprets Leda as the sole victim. Empson contributes this to the following, “[Ambiguity] occurs when a statement says nothing…so that the reader is forced to invent statements of his own and they are liable to conflict with one another” (Empson 176).Each critic has substantial and convincing evidence for their argument, yet all interpret the poem’s depiction of a forced sexual encounter in quite different ways. Arguably, it is intentional contradiction in “Leda and the Swan” that creates ambiguity, creating a larger theme of sexism because of its undermining of the oppression of the women.
In Yeats’ description of a sexual encounter, there is perhaps an inevitable ambiguity due to the nature of poetry itself, creating a contradictory effort to depict a forced sexual encounter clearly. The result of this ambiguity creates an undermining of the feminine; a theme of sexism. Holden describes the somewhat inevitable undermining as follows, “Poetry which attempts to describe in concrete detail sexual intercourse will usually disappoint and possible offend” (83). As Holden describes, an artist’s effort to depict a sexual encounter without it being interpreted in differing ways is somewhat inevitable. Holden explains that due to sexual encounter being a form of absolute knowledge, even poetry is unequal in approaching it with exaction, instead, it can simply point toward a concept of sexual encounter. (84). This idea can be seen in “Leda and the Swan,” where an artist’s depictions of a forced sexual encounter becomes muddled because of the inevitable layers found in good poetry. Barnwell notes the following:“Leda” is in fact a profound and provocative dramatization of the ambiguities of sexual encounter for Yeats, and questions as well as answers the major premise in his scheme of thought: the idea of a perfect order in the universe that supports, guides, and affirms all of man’s endeavors in various ways. (62) Barnwell argues that sexual encounters are by nature ambiguous, and in “Leda and the Swan,” the ambiguity acts as a question to sexism– whether or not men are guided and therefore excused for their actions because of a greater scheme. Scott describes various interpretations of a forced sexual encounter in art as such, “Whether it’s deliberate or not, people can and do fail to see the oppression of women because they fail to see macroscopically and hence fail to see the various elements of the situation as systematically related in larger schemes” (16). In “Leda and Swan” and undermining of the feminine is created through the highly ambiguous nature of the poem, which can be attributed to the contradictory nature of ambiguous poetry and the absoluteness of sexual encounter.
The theme of violence in “Leda and the Swan” is contrasted with the theme of erotica, creating an ambiguity that muddles the oppression of Leda, and so can be interpreted as a larger representation of sexism. The poem depicts a rape scene, and unintentionally or otherwise, allows for a more permissive outlook on the depiction of sexual violence, seen in the poems erotic diction and ambiguity towards victimization. This is seen in lines like the following, “The feathered glory from her loosening thighs” (Yeats 6). There is a sort of paradox discovered in “Leda and the Swan,” where a reader’s effort to understand a possible instance of rape culture– which Scott identifies as, “the myth of an uncontrollable male sex drive serves to ensure male sexual right of access to women by presenting it as a natural need, thus enforcing the expectation of women’s sexual availability”– is mingled with passion and the erotic (340). Leda’s rape by Zeus depicts this circumstance; Zeus’ attraction to Leda led to his forceful and “indifferent” taking of her in order to fulfill his uncontrollable needs (Yeats 15). This aggression is juxtaposed by images of sexual intercourse that question whether Leda’s rape endows her with some form of power or knowledge. “Did she put on his knowledge with his power?” (14). An idea of misdirection is portrayed in “Leda and the Swan,” where a violent action is heavily contrasted by erotic descriptions. This duality of violence and the erotic creates an ambiguity that represents issues surrounding sexism, where the victim is often marginalized due to misdirection of attention.
The style of the poem, specifically point of view and structure, portrays intentional contradictions that create ambiguity and undermine the feminine. The point of view in “Leda and the Swan” invites ambiguity with its duality of perspective. Neigh states, “The detached third person narrator ironically invites rather than discourages identification, because the narrator gives no direction” (148). Neigh argues that the reader is forced to identify at differing times with both the swan and Leda. This contradiction in perspective undermines the position of Leda and represents a larger theme of sexism. Additionally, both perspectives, the swan and Leda, shift moods that are contradictory to one another. “A noteworthy point is the changed moods of both Swan and Leda. At the beginning of the poem, Swan was passionate, while Leda was terrified and helpless. At the end of the poem, Leda is caught up in Swan’s passion, while Swan becomes indifferent” (Modern English Literature 11). Furthermore, the poem is breathless in its structure; with the first stanza itself composed of four lines and only one sentence. The first three words of “A sudden blow,” followed by a colon, creates a quickness as all following lines are a supplication, a list, to the statement “a sudden blow”(1). Additionally, commas are interspersed to strengthen the fluidity of the stanza. This breathlessness created by just the first stanza reflects a passion that is contradictory of a rape scene and of Leda’s fear. A sense of indecision is as well created as the following stanza beings a list of rhetorical questions. “How can those terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?/ And how can body, laid in that white rush/ But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?”(5-8). As the narrator poses these questions, it creates an ambiguity as towards victimization, and ultimately undermines Leda and her situation. The passionate and breathless structure of the poem, while depicting a forced sexual encounter, adds to the ambiguity as to what level it is indeed forced. The third stanza, like the first, is one full sentence. This quickness is followed through by the last stanza, which parallels the structure of the second stanza in its listing of rhetorical questions, ultimately ending the poem with a question, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power/ Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” (14-15). By ending with a question, the entirety of the poem is given an indecisive air. By portraying ambiguity in point of view and structure, the poem creates a larger theme of sexism in its undermining of Leda and her position as a rape victim.
Diction in “Leda and the Swan” contributes to the intentional ambiguity, and the larger theme of sexism, in that the images created are dual and contradictory in meaning. In the text, phrases and words given such as “her thighs caressed/ By the dark webs,” “Breast upon his breast,” “terrified vague fingers” and“burning” offer ambiguity that muddle and undermine the rape (2-3, 4, 5, 10). “Her thighs caressed” offers a romantic, almost tender connotation, but is followed by the following line “By the dark webs” (2-3). This eerie contradiction creates an ambiguity as to the nature of the sexual encounter. “Breast upon his breast,” in its connotation of femininity, seems to suggest the masculine is not present (4). Neigh writes, “The image of ‘breast upon breast’ suggests the possibility of an erasure of the masculine altogether” (148). This image creates additional ambiguity for the text, in its lack of distinction of gender, confusing and even undermining what it is to be feminine. The phrase “terrified vague fingers” creates contradiction with “terrified” and “vague,” with the former suggesting that Leda is, in short, highly afraid, while “vague” suggests a more passive mood on her part (5). The confusion, like previous phrases, undermines her position as a rape victim. Additionally, the word “burning” is highly ambiguous in that it connotes sexual passion and destruction (10). Neigh argues,”’Burning’ clearly express sexual desire, which thwarts the interpretation of rape in the poem” (148). As with other phrases, the author’s chosen diction and creation of ambiguous images undermines Leda’s situation and creates confusion as to her situation. Zeus’ transformation into a swan depicts a conjunction and contradiction of both the masculine and the feminine, reinforcing the poem’s ambiguity and larger representation of sexism. Neigh argues, “With the swan’s indistinguishable gender, these ambiguities encourage readers to identify both with a raped human and the pleasure of a rapist”(148). With Zeus taking the form of a feminine creature, yet with his actions highly aggressive, there is an ambiguity created as to what is feminine or masculine. The ambiguity in imagery thus portrays a larger theme of sexism in which a rape scene is portrayed as both a rape scene and a positive sexual encounter.
The mythological basis of the poem is contradictory as well in its ambiguity of the long-lasting consequences of Zeus’ rape. Yeats states the following , “A shudder in the loins engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead” (9-11). This foreshadowing of Leda and Zeus’ posterity is interpreted in differing ways, and reflects whether Zeus’ act is seen as a punishment or as “the idea of a perfect order in the universe that supports, guides, and affirms all of man’s endeavors in various ways” (Barnwell 62). Helen, born by Leda and Zeus, brings destruction and decimation to the land. “This act of violence exerted by god on the human leads to the destruction of Troy” (Rezaei 2). However, mythological history also offers the interpretation that Zeus’s act brought about new beginnings. “Thus Zeus’ act in raping Leda meant the beginning of a new chapter in the history of the Greek. In other words, it is the beginning of a new civilization” (Modern English Literature 11). This ambiguity of consequence undermines Leda’s position as a rape victim in that her suffering is interpreted as being part of a grander scheme, or even as necessary. The ambiguity of victimization in “Leda and the Swan” reflects a larger theme of sexism in which societal tendencies dismiss objectification of women in favor of erotic imagery, or do not focus on the rape victim and instead turn attention to other aspects of effects. The poem harbours distinct and intentional contradictions that undermine femininity and portray sexism. “For Yeats, Zeus’s violence proves his divinity and Leda’s morality; his freedom, her bondage; violence father Love and War on her. All things are by antithesis” (Johnsen 85). By this use of contradiction and ambiguity, a variety of interpretations can be argued, however, all interpretations serve to show how Leda’s rape, significant in representing sexual violence, can be marginalized through poetry and analysis itself.
Works CitedBarnwell, W. C. “The Rapist in” Leda and the Swan”.” South Atlantic Bulletin, vol. 42, no. 1, 1977, pp. 62-68.
Empson, William. Seven types of ambiguity. Vol. 645. Random House, 2004.
Holden, Jonathan. “Sex and Poetry.” Harvard Review, no. 9, 1995, pp. 83–87.
Johnsen, William. “Textual/Sexual Politics in Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.’.” Yeats and Postmodernism, 1991, pp. 80-89.
McKenna, Bernard. “Violence, Transcendence, and Resistance in the Manuscripts of Yeats’s ” Leda and the Swan”.” Philological Quarterly, vol. 90, no. 4, 2011, pp. 425.
Neigh, Janet. “Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.’” Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, 2006, pp. 145–160.
Rezaei, Hassan, and Mehdi Azari Samani. “A Study of WB Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” through the Perspective of Halliday’s Systemic Functional Grammar.”
Scott, Bonnie Kime, et al., eds. Women in Culture: An Intersectional Anthology for Gender and Women’s Studies. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
Yeats, W. B. “2. Leda and the Swan.” Modern English Literature, 1935, pp. 8.
Yeats, William Butler. “Leda and the Swan.” The Literature Network, 2017.
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
The Treatment of the Swan Iconography in “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Leda and the Swan.”
The image of the swan is thoroughly explored throughout Yeats’ poetry, in which it not only heightens the overall textual integrity but also allows the reader to ingest the suggestions that are intricate and simultaneous as posed by each Yeats text. Although the image and its meaning is distinct within each poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Leda and the Swan”, the treatment of the swan as a muse is recognised through its ability to bind various themes and key ideas together in both poems.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” demonstrates Yeats himself in the midst of temporal shifts as he attempts to seek an eternal sense of himself. Within this flux of time, Yeats demonstrates his despair by creating a comparison between his eternal self as well as the swan iconography within nature’s seemingless beauty. Yeats’ romantic notions of sublime nature and time are used to structure his poem into six sestets; all in which exemplify his emotions through the swan iconography as he seeks solace and resolve.
The first sestet establishes the setting and time in which Yeats places himself in; “The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry”. The juxtaposition between the “beauty” of the autumn trees and the “dry” paths exemplifies the contrast between nature’s perfection against emotion. This contrast allows the reader to experience Yeats’ own autumnal season; his inner bareness and despair. Yeats then uses imagery to create a metaphorical representation; “the water Mirrors a still sky”. This use of imagery allows the reader to connect with Yeats on a personal level as the “mirroring” alludes to his state of reflection. The first allusion of his muse then occurs through Yeats’ use of symbolism; “… nine-and-fifty-swans”. The reader is drawn to this precise number as it builds on natures sublimity suggesting the incomplete pair. This symbolic representation given by the quantitative measure of the swans further allows the reader to connect with Yeats on an emotional level of feeling incomplete.
The continuity of the swans and their cyclic migration in the poem can be read as a metaphysical yearning as Yeats builds on the idea of the swan iconography coexisting with his change. Yeats contextualizes his emotional state in the past through the swan iconography; “I looked upon those brilliant creatures”. This past tense clause is juxtaposed with his use of synecdoche in the present tense; “And now my heart is sore” which represents Yeats’ emotional distraught having been affected through the flux of time. This idea is demonstrated through the juxtaposition between the dimensions of time; the past and the present. Yeats then builds on swan iconography; “Unwearied still, lover by lover”. The short clause builds on the idea of pairing up for life which affects Yeats emotionally due to his personal experiences with unrequited love.
Yeats gradually begins to shift his tone towards the end of the poem as he starts to accept his inevitable impermanence through his forseement. Yeats employs a rhetoric; “When I awake someday To find they have flown away?” The rhetorical clause implies that Yeats is finally finding the eternal sense of himself and he is ready to move on – just how the swans will also move and and be seen by other “men’s eyes”. The connection between the swan and Yeats himself allows the reader to connect to these themes of impermanence.
Conversely, “Leda and the Swan” employs the swan iconography to communicate different themes and ideas. The poem which is structured into a hybrid sonnet (Shakespearean + Petrarchan) captures Yeats’ political voice by exploring themes of violence through sensuality as well as its consequences within a historical allusion. The swan is no longer an elegant entity within the beauty of nature – instead it takes the form of a violent mythic (Zeus).
The opening of the sonnet enforces a sense of violent, dramatic immediacy which is indicated by the adjective “sudden”. Yeats begins by building on the image of sensuality with violence as he uses a synecdoche; “the great wings”. This synecdoche along with the adjective “great” enforces the dominant image of the swan which also lies “Above the staggering girl”. The use of the adjective “staggering” suggests that the girl (Leda) is vulnerable and weak, thus emphasizing the swans’ dominance. Yeats then further reiterates the theme of utter dominance as the beast begins to establish its violent contact with Leda; “her nape caught in his bill”. This use of imagery allows the reader to visualise the total powerlessness and surrender of Leda through this ‘capture’ which accentuates the swan’s dominance. This establishment of power in the first quatrain also alludes to the similar violent relationship between England and Ireland in terms of political power where England is the dominant figure. The swan is used in this quatrain to express Ireland’s’ helplessness and vulnerability.
A complete shift in tone occurs at the volta of the poem where Yeats breaks from the Shakespearean form moving into the Petrarchan; “A shudder in the loins engenders there”. The volta implicates the completion of the rape through the verb “shudder”, as Yeats begins to examine its consequences; “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead.” This double entendre draws the line towards the destruction of Troy within the Trojan War as Yeats implies that the violent act of the rape only lead to more violence and destruction. The entendre further expresses Yeats’ political voice; which alludes to England’s colonization of Ireland and the subsequent history of violence that Ireland gave birth to.
Although both poems present contrary themes, the use of the swan as an icon is prominent. The poems challenge the reader in connecting different key ideas and themes whilst it also draws on social, political and historical contexts. Yeats expresses both his personal and political voice which heightens the overall textual integrity.
The Valiant Past vs. the Banal Present in Modernist Poetry
The modernism movement has paved way for the present and future of writing in a lot of ways. After World War I had ended, life had changed drastically in contrast to before it had begun. After society had been exposed to the horrific realities of war, as well as technological advances and industrial expansion, there had been a radical change socially and culturally which in turn inevitably altered the way of writing in regards to form, structure and content. Modernism involves experimentation, innovation, an emphasis on inner streams of consciousness and rejection of chronological form. It is a reaction to the events of the time and a new way for artists to express without confining to the conventional. Modernists would write on ordinary, everyday life to display significant contrasts to the past. After reading and analyzing several modernist writers it is certainly apparent of the different perspectives in regards to the past and present. Specifically, both T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats, portrayed through their writing, yearn for the heroic past and traditions while juxtaposing it with the banal present. Their pessimistic view on the modern world as a spiritual and social rupture and their longing for the past is displayed continuously through their poetry. Both poets believe the modern world is disconnected immensely from the past and that far more has been lost than what was gained.
William Butler Yeats a poet from Dublin, Ireland, writing in the 1880’s and 1890’s fought to modernize himself on his own. Yeats was interested in using symbols from ordinary life and family traditions reflecting Irish civilization. Yeats uses emotion and passion while often demonstrating it alongside nature and myth due to his belief that emotions are very powerful and they should be perceived like Gods. Yeats also believes there had been a true loss of meaning in the world, and consequently, a loss of civilization. He uses these two notable beliefs in order to portray his ultimate yearning for the past. In Yeats’ poem September 1913 his fundamental juxtaposition is the romantic, simple Ireland, with the capitalistic petty greed and pursuit of money. Shown through the line, “Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone, It’s with O’Leary in the grave” (Yeats 2179) he describes his cynical perspective on modern humanity. In this poem he speaks of love and nationalism in terms of the brave soldiers going to war. He mentions this bravery as “delirium” (Yeats 2179) due to the fact that true love and courage merely lies behind politics. However, Yeats emphasizes that whether it is mistaken and delirious bravery, the past was still valiant. He stresses that the capitalistic, modern ways of society have led this heroic past and the romanticism of Ireland to the grave. He continues to stress that the past is significantly better than the “greasy till” (Yeats 2179) that he suggests the contemporary world has become. Elaborating further on this notion, author Elizabeth Cullingford writes “Yeats thought that the great movement of his time was the movement against modern civilization … His own nationalism became inextricably entwined with anti-capitalism and economic egalitarianism, for he believed that economic inequality produces cultural stagnation” (Cullingford 10). This drives home the point that Yeats was seriously concerned with the capitalistic direction the modern world was moving toward and as a patriot longed for the return of a romanticized, traditional society.
The Wild Swans at Coole, a later poem by Yeats offers a serene nature scene expressing his feelings. Upon analysis, it is evident that Yeats is suggesting more than just nature and attraction. Here he beautifully describes the unchanged, remaining state of swans and nature in which he witnesses every autumn and contrasts it with his ever-changing human life. He finds solace in nature as he ponders upon his own decline in the world, realizing that it truly does only go down from here. He interprets the swans not as individuals but as embodiments of life forces, mating and living as they have forever. He recognizes that nature’s scenes like this one has only given him an abundance of creativity throughout the years and he fears not only the literal departure of the swans when he writes “when I awake some day To find they have flown away?” (Yeats 2180) but fears the departure of his own creative power. This poem highlights his fear of nature’s demise due to the modern world, which in turn suggests fear of his own demise of writing since he relies heavily on the influence of nature for inspiration. Swans are a symbol for passion, and he refers to them as a vessel of life forces just as writers, like him, are a vessel for ideas to be expressed. Before anything even happens he is afraid of what the world is becoming, and insinuates nostalgia of the past. The contrast can also be exhibited through structure and form of this poem. In the second stanza, there is experience, a vitality of life and we can see and hear the swan scene. Yeats writes, “scatter wheeling in great broken rings Upon their clamorous wings” (Yeats 2180) provoking sound and a sense of energy and life. Moving to the third stanza, Yeats suggests an intense pain in beauty, “I have looked upon those brilliant creatures, And now my heart is sore” (Yeats 2180) and looking back vividly through his time. These energetic life forces who move through nature untouched is what he longs for, an endless flood of ideas and creativity, which the modern world cannot give to him.
Yeats’ 1919 poem The Second Coming is a poem of additional evidence establishing how he contrasts past with present. The Second Coming is a poem not of Christ’s second coming but a fictional type of anti-Christ that brings an end of days with no heaven or solace. Written a year after the first World War, Yeats is describing the bleak, and uninviting future that the world seems to have in store. He elucidates the fall of civilization as a whole, through his poem when he writes, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” (2183). His inability to regain hope or optimism is discernible. Recognizing the atrocities of the war, he indicates that the anarchy and chaos that has just occurred only lead to a “blood-dimmed tide” (2183). Using the religious belief of the Second Coming depicts irony as well as a criticism on the loss of the religion on the modern world. This pessimistic view of the future of the nation is quite evident as Yeats visualizes essentially the end of days completely. Ultimately, William Butler Yeats continuously indicates the significant losses the modern world has brought upon and contrasts the romantic, beautiful, heroic past with the undesirable, capitalistic, lustful modern present of his time through nature, and war.
Furthermore, T.S. Eliot, another incredibly influential modernist writer in the early 1900s, also demonstrates a substantial comparison between past and present in his poetry. Like Yeats, Eliot is one who reminisces of the past traditions, strongly believing that we have completely lost touch with history and religious customs. Unlike Yeats, Eliot is not a romanticist and uses detached and ruthless language to criticize the mundane present. Eliot has an unconventional poetic style, writing with an absence expression of feeling or passion and leaves out his personal introspection. Eliot has a very anti-progressive view of western culture and believes that the middle ages was a time of ideal community. One major characteristic that Eliot believes the modern world has robbed humanity of is confidence. Demonstrated through his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, the narrator continuously and irrationally questions himself with anxiety. The narrator asks things such as “Do I dare?” and repeats “how should I presume” (Eliot 2289) several times, displaying this lack of confidence. Eliot’s narrator is crippled by inhibition by his neurotic cognitions. This poem is Eliot’s critique on what he believes the people of modern society have become. Lost, floating in time and space trying to make decisions with no tradition or knowledge of history. He stresses that we do not know who we are ourselves without connections to the past, thus the endless state of anxiety, hesitant and indecisiveness that the narrator expresses.
Moreover, Eliot experiments with streams of consciousness, specifically in his poem “The Waste Land”. The structure of the poem has no concrete chronological order and is told from several different perspectives. He leaves his personal experiences out of his writing and embodies creative fictional characters to comment on real world issues that he deems important. When reading and analyzing this poem it is very difficult at first due to the copious amount of allusions that an average reader may be unfamiliar with. Eliot strongly believes that there has been an immense loss of shared knowledge in education today and that were cut off from our own human history. Because of this, Eliot uses a wide range of allusions, to create a challenge while reading, evoking this sense of loss within the readers. He believes all writers should be doing this to remind us what the modern world has stripped from contemporary society. Found in the introduction of “The Waste Land” in The Longman Anthology of British Literature, a quote from Eliot himself, speaking on metaphysical poets, says, “We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. Our civilization comprehends great variety and complexity, playing upon a refined sensibility, must produce various and complex results” (Eliot 2297). He pushes contemporaries to follow the same intelligent, allusive path he has paved. Eliot uses these allusions in a significant way to juxtapose the past with the present. In part two “Game of Chess” of the poem, Eliot uses heroic language to describe banal figures of the present. He alludes to the myth of “Cupidon” and the story of Antony and Cleopatra (Eliot 2300) to describe the gallant past of true and meaningful love; a love that does not exist in the modern world, for now it is merely lust and habit. Additionally, Eliot continues on in the poem alluding to the story of Philomela to portray suffering in regards to the past and present (Eliot 2301). Suffering is central to human life and he sees the suffering in this story as meaningful and important. When contrasted with his view on the modern world, he sees suffering as without purpose or value. There is solely only boredom and meaningless interactions in contemporary culture where nothing is done for any significant cause. As mentioned before, Eliot believes there has been a loss of confidence, and along with this deficiency comes a loss of value. Characters are always searching for purpose in his poetry, when he writes “What shall we do tomorrow? What shall we ever do?” (Eliot 2302) illustrating this desperate search to find something purposeful in their modern lives. Confidence, suffering and tradition has all negatively redefined itself in Eliot’s modern world.
History tells us who we are, and connects us to our roots as a way of defining community. The modern world has become an individualistic society, and more self-determined. Eliot suggests in “The Waste Land” that civilization has become the living dead. In the fourth stanza he describes a scene of people flowing over the bridge and to their daily job. The line “I had not thought death had undone so many” (Eliot 2300) is describing how the once lively London bridge, filled with markets and commotion have become purely a simple path leading to their meaningless, capitalistic jobs. It is an image representation of the destruction of society, the people unnaturally flowing up the hill are trailing a path that leads them nowhere but death. These people are the ones Eliot is referring to as the modern world; they medically alive but spiritually dead, killed from any sense of meaning and purpose. Civilization has purely become a place for capitalism destroying any spiritual or cultural meaning. Lastly, the title itself is a comment by Eliot on how he sees the modern world; a literal waste land where life cannot flourish, or be reborn. He sees modernity as damaged and corrupt, and feels that it needs to return to its roots of religion and traditions in order to restore any community or hope for humanity.
Ultimately, both William Butler Yeats and T.S. Eliot, as writers in the modernism movement, are concerned with the significant losses that contemporary civilization has initiated. Immense losses of tradition, spirituality, and most importantly purpose and value in everyday life are displayed throughout their poetry using symbols and allusions. Their despairing perspective on the mundane present is made abundantly apparent through their precise use of juxtapositions with the valiant past.
Cullingford, Elizabeth. Yeats, Ireland and Fascism. London: The Macmillan Press LTD, 1981. Print.
Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2287-2291. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Eliot, T.S. “The Waste Land”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2298- 2310. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “September 1913”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2179-2180. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2183. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.
Yeats, William Butler. “The Wild Swans at Coole”. The Longman Anthology of British Literature, vol 2C, pp. 2180. Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.