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“Leda and the Swan” is a poem written by W.B. Yeats. It is a recreation of the Greek myth of the tale of the God Zeus and Leda.
About the Poet:
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was an eminent Irish poet and writer. He was a former Senator of the Irish Free State. Famous works of his include ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and ‘Easter, 1916’.
This poem closely resembles the form of a Shakespearean sonnet and a Petrarchan sonnet. However, the sestet of the same consists of 7 lines, not 6. Similarly, the rhyme scheme followed is also only somewhat similar– ‘abab cdcd’ followed by an inconsistent rhyme.
It is interesting to note that the third stanza of the poem resembles the form of a swan.
Explanation of the Stanzas:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
The poem begins with the two main protagonists– The Swan, who is Lord Zeus, and Leda, a mortal. Having captured the Lord’s eye, he takes the form of a Swan and swoops upon her in “A sudden blow”. With her “nape caught in his bill”, he “caressed” her forcefully, holding her tightly against him.
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?
A helpless Leda is unable to fend off his assault, unable to keep him away from her “loosened thighs”. All she could do was forced to feel his “strange heart beating” as he forcefully copulated with her.
A shudder in the loins engenders there The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead. Being so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air, Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
Here, the sexual act has come to a conclusion, with Lord Zeus having ejaculated in her “broken wall”. The poem ends with the persona wondering whether Leda could have known that this act would sire Helen of Troy, only to eventually end with “Agamemnon dead” before she was dropped by the “indifferent beak”.
This is a violent poem. Through the Greek myth, the poet brings out the violence involved with sexual assault, and how even the great God of the Universe was not above stooping to such deplorable deeds.