A summary of a classic Yeats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Leda and the Swan’ (published in 1924) is one of W. B. Yeats’s most widely anthologised poems. The poem, which somewhat unusually for Yeats is a sonnet, is about the ravishing of the Greek girl Leda by the god Zeus, who has assumed the form of a swan. Here is ‘Leda and the Swan’ and some notes towards an analysis of this intriguing and enigmatic Yeats poem.
Leda and the Swan
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.
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 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?
In summary, ‘Leda and the Swan’ is a sonnet that focuses on the story from Greek myth in which Zeus, having adopted the form of a swan, ravishes the girl Leda and impregnates her with the child who will become Helen of Troy. This single act, Yeats tells us, brings about the Trojan War and, with it, the end of Greek civilisation and the dawn of a new (largely Christian) age. Because in raping Leda, Zeus made her conceive Helen of Troy, whose beauty would bring about the outbreak of the Trojan War. This is a great cataclysmic moment in history (merging history with myth) for Yeats.
Yeats was interested in such momentous events. He believed that civilisation progressed on a cycle, where each epoch lasted roughly two millennia. In 2,000 BC, the violation of Leda by Zeus (as a swan) inaugurated the next epoch; 2,000 years later, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary would signal the arrival of a new era. Another of Yeats’s poems, ‘The Second Coming’, explores the idea that another epoch-changing moment may be approaching in the modern age. More specifically, Yeats believed that something he called ‘annunciation’ – which involved gods interfering in human affairs and using their divine energy to breathe new life into human civilisation.
This is what Zeus – as a swan – is doing, in a rather hands-on (or wings-on) way in ‘Leda and the Swan’. What’s more, a dove was often used in Renaissance paintings depicting the Annunciation scene, in which the Holy Spirit merges with the Virgin Mary – as with the story of Leda and the Swan from Greek myth, fusing the mortal with the divine.
Yeats’s portrayal of this seismic moment is brutal: ‘A sudden blow’, the poem begins, suddenly; there is no preamble here. Zeus assaults at once. Yet what is often overlooked in analysis of ‘Leda and the Swan’ is the fact that Yeats merges the violence of the incident with a more sinister softness: Zeus is, after all, a swan (not, as he would be with Europa, a bull), a delicate though sometimes unpredictable bird; and note how Leda’s ‘thighs’ are ‘caressed’ by the swan’s wings.
Yet these are also described as ‘dark webs’, suggesting gossamer-thin softness but also something designed, after all, to ensnare prey; similarly, Leda’s nape is ‘caught in his bill’. Later, she is ‘caught up’. Swans, the story goes, mate for life, so although this overture is unlooked-for, there is a suggestion of its permanence too.
The ‘shudder in the loins’, Zeus’ orgasm, brings about ‘The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead’: all references to the Trojan War. But what does the final question in Yeats’s poem mean? Does it suggest that Leda should have learned from her experience with Zeus, and that what follows – the Trojan War, begun because of a woman she brought into the world – is partly her fault? Or is this too uncharitable a view of Yeats’s perceived uncharitableness? It remains a baffling question, with no clear answer. Perhaps the ‘knowledge’ is simply knowledge of what is to come, regardless of what Leda does.
As well as giving birth to Helen of Troy, Leda will also conceive Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon; Clytemnestra will later kill her husband, after the Trojan War, for sacrificing their daughter in exchange for fair winds from the gods. When Zeus overcame Leda with his divine power during the moment of his assault, did he also impart foreknowledge of what this event would cause, before – once it was all over – he dropped her, having done what he came to do?
‘Leda and the Swan’ remains an ambiguous poem, partly because of the wealth of (unanswered and perhaps unanswerable) questions Yeats sets up in just fourteen lines. This analysis hasn’t endeavoured to provide neat and glib (and false) answers to these questions, but we’ve sought to highlight the subtle way in which Yeats describes the brute violence of the act while also hinting at its momentous importance for history – or, at any rate, one version of history.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
Discover more of Yeats’s greatest poetry with The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). For more discussion of his work, see our analysis of Yeats’s ‘Among School Children’, our summary of his ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, and our thoughts on his ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Engraving of Leda and the Swan by Cornelis Bos (16th century), via Wikimedia Commons.