Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation

Yeats's Leda and the Swan is a sonnet based on Greek mythology, and one in which he interprets the rape of queen Leda by god Zeus as an incident of annunciation of a two thousand years' long phase of civilizational cycle in history. Yeats first dramatically presents the moment of the mythical rape of a Greek queen Leda by god Zeus in the form of a wild swan; then he goes on to contemplate its significance and consequence.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

For Yeats, this was the annunciation (announcement or marking point) of the whole era of destruction of a civilization especially in the Trojan War. This poem also illustrates Yeats’s philosophy that history moves in cycles of two thousand years; each cycle is begun by the intervention (interfering) of the divine force and conception of divine being and ominous being alternately every two thousand years. The poem is also a unique sonnet. The sonnet "Leda and the Swan" is a metaphorical treatment of the moment of annunciation, prompted by Yeats's felling that some studying point for a new cycle was imminent in his own period. He sees Grecian civilization beginning with the myth of her eggs came love and war. The symbol of Leda is enriched by the previous poems, which focus upon Helen and the ruin of Troy. The problem posed in this poem is whether opposites ever coincide.

This is a symbolic poem about history, but it also plays word games like in suggesting the intercourse in "broken wall". Another feature is its unique form of a sonnet. The poem is based on an episode of ancient Greek mythology. Zeus, changing himself into a huge swan, raped the princess Leda, and out of that union was born Helen, whose elopement with Paris subsequently led to the Trojan War. In the form of sonnet, this poem pictures Zeus’s rape of Leda and, in conclusion poses a question. Zeus, by his rape of Leda, begot not only Helen but also the whole consequence of Helen: the fall of Troy, and the death of the Greek heroes.

Yeats has employed Freudian imagery in the poem-the white rush the broken wall, the burning roof and tower, etc. In the octave, Yeats has built up the imagery of the event in its sheer physicality. The sestet gives us its moral equivalent. The physical concreteness of the octave is symbolic; the sestet tells us what it is symbolic of. The poem ends with the interesting question whether Leda, having been impregnated by the god with his power to create the future, had my awareness of how the future was now working through her. But this poem brings us not to a set attitude but it to a problem; is man merely the creature of impersonal forces, himself only a passive vehicle of an indifferent divinity? Or does he have a portion of divine intelligence within himself?

 Yeats's theme is the birth of the Homeric civilization, which is where his imaginative understanding of history begins. But the sonnet does not borrow its power from the significance of the theme. The octave describes the god Zeus' forced impregnation of Leda and her ineffectual human efforts at resisting this sudden implosion in her "loosening thighs". The sestet's first sentence reveals the consequent engendering of the Greek Age of Homer. The second sentence of the sestet poses a question not so relevant to the Greeks, who thinking often of women as booty rather accepted the inexorable, blind run of fate and the inevitability of tragic human destiny. But this poem brings us not to a set attitude but to a problem; is man merely the creature of impersonal forces, himself only a passive vehicle of an indifferent divinity? Or does he have a portion of divine intelligence within himself? The poem's final question, however, is highly relevant to Yeats's ultimate meaning "Did she put on his knowledge with his power?" could Leda fathom Zeus's knowledge before being dropped? The real answer is beyond the merely logical categories of yes and no; since the real poem transcends the categories of the myths it utilizes to lead the reader to an inward vision.

The poem can be seen as a criticism of beauty too. Helen is criticized for lack of wisdom. She left her legitimate husband and eloped with Paris, which was so much devastating that it created havoc all around. Similarly, beautiful Clytemnestra killed her own husband. It is an act which could never be forgiven. Both women had beauty but no knowledge at all. Yeats criticizes a beauty where there is a lack of wisdom. Beauty without knowledge can be devastating and the above poem serves the same example.

This sonnet is a powerful description of the union between the human and divine. This poem is a perfect blend of mythological story and Yeats’s imaginations about the history. The poem is beautiful in its descriptive narrative of sexual union also.

Yeats compacts this poem's terseness by using synecdoche: Only the "wines", "webs" and "bill" are attacking; only Leda's "finger's", "nape", and "things" are resisting, only a "wall", "roof', and "tower" represent the Greek Siege of Troy, though it was a war waged for ten years to recover Helen. The richness of the symbols, especially as they function organically within Yeats's overall poetic context, is astounding. The central dedication of all Yeats's work was always to the mystical. As the Swan-god's impregnation Leda initiated the Greek age. So did the Dove-God's impregnation of Mary initiate the Christian age. Since mythic ages last about two thousand years, this age must be on the cusp of a new revelation, an idea Yeats explores in "The Second Coming". In contrast to Leda, the Virgin Mary must have understood much, since she was given a choice: the Christian Annunciation is like a proposal, and Mary had free will in accepting the role of being the mother of God because Christianity cherished informed free will as the Greeks Cherished fated human destiny. Unlike the "brute blood of the air", the Dove the Christian age is holy, a physical and otherworldly.

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Sharma, K.N. "Leda and the Swan by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 5 June 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/leda-and-swan-critical-appreciation.html.