Leda and the Swan

– Leda and the Swan was first published by Yeats in American magazine ‘The Dial’ in 1924. Yeats retells the story from Greek mythology of the rape of Leda, the daughter of a king named Thestius, by Zeus, god of sky and thunder, who had assumed the form of a swan. In many versions of the story, Zeus merely seduces Leda. This is definitely not the case in Yeats’s graphic version. After the rape, Leda gets pregnant and gives birth to Helen of Troy. According to the story, Helen was hatched from an egg that later leads to the destruction of Troy and the subsequent strengthening of Greece. Yeats talks about Zeus using his powers for evil. – 

Similarly to his other poems, Yeats uses Greek Mythology references to explain his own thoughts at the time, in this case he relates the ‘making of Ireland’ to the Leda and the Swan myth as it was said to have been the ‘making of Greece’. In this poem, Yeats tries to put across the idea of evil breeding evil; the overall permeating result of this rape of Leda is destruction and death. It could be interpreted that Yeats also uses this myth as a representation of the Irish being metaphorically ‘raped’ by the English, and this too resulting in destruction and death. The idea of Zeus using his power for evil could also symbolise the Catholics in ‘September 1913’ as they are described as abusing their power, “greasy till”.

The poem favours the traditional form of the Petrarchan sonnet in iambic pentameter following an abab cdcd efg efg rhyme scheme. This use of half rhyme throughout the poem could suggest that something is ‘unfinished’. The fact the poem is composed like a sonnet is a paradox in itself as the subject of the poem is highly ‘untraditional’, the violent events are in stark contrast to the usual subject discussed in sonnets: love. However, this Petrarchan structure gives a clear separation between the first eight lines (the “octave”) and the final six (the “sextet”), the dividing line and turning point in the poem, possibly representing the moment of ejaculation—the “shudder in the loins.”

Yeats’s begins the poem in an abrupt manner, “A sudden blow”, bringing the reader dramatically into the fray, making them believe we are witnessing the events.This is similarly used in ‘The Cold Heaven’ beginning with “Suddenly”, also projecting a sense of urgency, immediately drawing the readers attention. The octet then deals with the ‘attack’. The swans power is immediately brought forward with it’s “great wings”, contrasting to the weakness of the “staggering girl”. Yeats uses violent language in this octet to make the reader empathise the girl,

“her nape caught in his bill”, “he holds her helpless breast upon his breast” .

In the second stanza, a common technique of Yeats is used; the rhetorical question. Yeats also creates ambiguity as to whether Leda consents here; “How can those terrified vague fingers push the feathered glory from her loosened thighs?” Her “thighs” might be “loosening” through choice and not by force as well as her thighs being “caressed”, which reflects a more affectionate scene. Yet Yeats also describes her “breast” as “helpless” which implies She has no choice over what happens – whether or not she is rendered “helpless” by her lust remains one of the key points for debate. This idea of the girl ‘letting it happen’ also links to the people of Ireland just ‘taking it’ during the Easter rising in ‘Easter 1916’. 

The three rhetorical questions in the poem, like in ‘September 1913’ are used by Yeats as a way to challenge the reader and leaves them wondering with thought. “And how can that body, laid in that white rush, but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?” The poem also ends with a rhetorical question, like in ‘Wild Swans at Coole’ and ‘the Second Coming’. “Did she put on his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” leaves the reader with the idea of the affects of rape and Zeus’ power and knowledge possibly transferring to Leda. The result of rape in this case reflects on Yeats’ idea of ‘violence breeding violence’ as Helen of Troy was born, she was later abducted from her husband by Paris, resulting in the violent Trojan war.

“Mastered by the brute of blood” along with the fact that the “beak could let her drop” again shows Zeus’ dominance. This final line, with the rest of the poem, could be symbolic of the Gods intervene in human affairs and then dropping it.

“A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead.” makes clear that the effects of this rape ends with not only the death of Agamemnon, but also the absolute destruction of Troy. If Leda did indeed consent to the union with Zeus, then she is effectively the catalyst for horror – this may be a reflection on the actions of some of the women Yeats knew or Yeats may even be discussing the consequences of his own actions. This refers to the idea of the consequences of one action being seen to unfold over decades of violence and destruction, in Yeats’ case, the destruction of culture – rendered as a motif here by the destruction of Troy.

Throughout the poem, Yeats uses vivid language to create intense imagery of the rape, “terrified”, “shudder”, “burning roof”. This contrasts with the semantic field of sexual intercourse used in the poem; “breast upon breast”, “loosening thighs”, “shudder in the loins”. This creates the sense of the violence into the sexual act, and that there isn’t any ‘love’ present. The idea of the ‘Swan is also a paradox to the ‘Wild Swans at Coole’, the Irish wild swans were seen as beautiful, peaceful and “brilliant creatures”, where as the Greek god swans are only forceful.



Thank you for reading, here are some websites which helped me in my research;








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