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Yeats’s Poetry

William Butler Yeats

“Leda and the Swan”

“Sailing to Byzantium”

“Byzantium”

Summary

The speaker retells a story from Greek mythology, the rape of the girl Leda by the god Zeus, who had assumed the form of a swan. Leda felt a sudden blow, with the “great wings” of the swan still beating above her. Her thighs were caressed by “the dark webs,” and the nape of her neck was caught in his bill; he held “her helpless breast upon his breast.” How, the speaker asks, could Leda’s “terrified vague fingers” push the feathered glory of the swan from between her thighs? And how could her body help but feel “the strange heart beating where it lies”? A shudder in the loins engenders “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower, and Agamemnon dead.” The speaker wonders whether Leda, caught up by the swan and “mastered by the brute blood of the air,” assumed his knowledge as well as his power “Before the indifferent beak could let her drop.”

Form

“Leda and the Swan” is a sonnet, a traditional fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter. The structure of this sonnet is Petrarchan with a clear separation between the first eight lines (the “octave”) and the final six (the “sestet”), the dividing line being the moment of ejaculation—the “shudder in the loins.” The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is ABAB CDCD EFGEFG.

Commentary

Like “The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan” describes a moment that represented a change of era in Yeats’s historical model of gyres, which he offers in A Vision, his mystical theory of the universe. But where “The Second Coming” represents (in Yeats’s conception) the end of modern history, “Leda and the Swan” represents something like its beginning; as Yeats understands it, the “history” of Leda is that, raped by the god Zeus in the form of a swan, she laid eggs, which hatched into Clytemnestra and Helen and the war-gods Castor and Polydeuces—and thereby brought about the Trojan War (“The broken wall, the burning roof and tower, / And Agamemnon dead”). The details of the story of the Trojan War are quite elaborate: briefly, the Greek Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, was kidnapped by the Trojans, so the Greeks besieged the city of Troy; after the war, Clytemnestra, the wife of the Greek leader Agamemnon, had her husband murdered. Here, however, it is important to know only the war’s lasting impact: it brought about the end of the ancient mythological era and the birth of modern history.

Also like “The Second Coming,” “Leda and the Swan” is valuable more for its powerful and evocative language—which manages to imagine vividly such a bizarre phenomenon as a girl’s rape by a massive swan—than for its place in Yeats’s occult history of the world. As an aesthetic experience, the sonnet is remarkable; Yeats combines words indicating powerful action (sudden blow, beating, staggering, beating, shudder, mastered, burning, mastered) with adjectives and descriptive words that indicate Leda’s weakness and helplessness (caressed, helpless, terrified, vague, loosening), thus increasing the sensory impact of the poem.

More Help

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The Second Coming

by nataliadelina, January 24, 2013

The Second Coming has many biblical references within the poem in my point of view. It talks about ideas from the book of revelations. In revelations an angel "opened an abyss"(Revelation 9:2) in which Yeats describes a "widening gyre"- a deep and bottomless pit. The bible also describes the world in its last days filled with: "abomination filled with desolation)". Yeats also discribes a world filled with chaos: "falcon cannot hear the falconer, anarchy, innocence drowned, best lack all conviction, blood- dimmed tide, and passionate intensit... Read more

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178 out of 199 people found this helpful

Yeats help

by marnie94, April 11, 2013

This might give you a bit of context...

http://marnielangeroodiblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/09/poetry-makes-nothing-happen/


Good luck, and please follow!

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1 out of 2 people found this helpful

Terrible Explication

by rosetastoned, August 05, 2013

This is a terrible explication. I would be foolish to attempt to add to this inane conversation.

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7 out of 34 people found this helpful

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