Explication of Yeat’s “Leda and the Swan”


Boxx Version | “Leda and the Swan.” Jerzy Hulewicz [1928].

Yeats constructs “Leda and the Swan” around an allusion to the events central to Homer’s The Iliad, for the offspring engendered from the mythological forceful rape perpetrated by Zeus as swan upon the vulnerable Leda is Helen of Sparta whose willing defection ultimately crumbles the Trojan fortress. The parallel to Judeo-Christian lore is noteworthy: the spirit of God in the form of a white bird impregnating a virgin, the resultant child of historical import.

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?

W. B. Yeats —

       The poem’s first two quatrains relate Leda’s helplessness within a flurry of feathers, the closing septet: the aftermath. The dizzying rape rages within the sonnet’s pithiness. “A sudden blow” propels the attack in media res the moment that Leda is buffeted by Divine will (1). The phrase snatches the reader’s attention to the violent indifference of rape notwithstanding its heavenly origin. The alliterative parallel of “blow” and “beating” compressed in the first line highlights the clash against the edge of divine knowledge, an implicit meaning of the poem. Any tenderness suggested in “thighs caressed” is immediately challenged by metonymic portioning of the avian incarnation, the darkness of the webbed feet: webs suggestive of capture, not a willing interaction on the part of the virgin. Yeats then immediately proves the capturing motif with Zeus’ beak clamping another tender point of erogeneity. The last line of the first quatrain rounds the concerns of capture and awkward intimacy with more alliteration: “He holds her helpless breast upon his breast,” ensnarement in the H’s and impingement in the B’s — the thoracic repetition stresses the union, and more to the theme of approaching godlike power, the terror (4).

       The first line of the second continues contemplating the terror but in light of the disparity between the spiritual and the mundane by reversing expectations of reality, for the somatic attributes of Leda become insubstantial: her fingers “vague,” her thighs “loosening,” under the assault of the incarnated “white rush,” the spiritual blood propelled by heartbeat. Other snapshot phrases amidst the violent incursion underscore the disparity between god and mortal. The hurled bolts show up in certain bestial phraseology: “The great wings beating”, “dark webs”, “feathered glory” and a “white rush” (1-7). These make myth corporal.

       Oppositely, Leda is helpless against divine concupiscence; relegated to weak phraseology: “the staggering girl”, “caught” and “helpless” (2-4). The mystery of intimacy between the spirit and the clay contemplated by the poet appears in “Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop ?”; by posing the question at the end, Yeats plants a seed of contemplation within the reader’s mind, thereby extending the poems affect on the reader.

       “A shudder in the loins” marks the climax destined to spark war in Ileum some years hence (9). The progeny of this ill-fated union will generate crumbling Trojan walls, mentioned in synecdochic fragments: “broken wall” (10), “burning roof and tower” and “Agamemnon dead” (10-11).

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