Leda and the Swan - W.B. Yeats

'Leda and the Swan', composed by Yeats in 1923 and published in 1924, is one of Yeats's masterpieces. In this sonnet Yeats fuses the classical myth of Zeus's rape of Leda and the conception of Helen of Troy with the modern context of revolution and the First World War in a mix of classical and Shakespearean forms. Here is the 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?


Leda's sonnet body is an agony-as-ecstasy blend of Petrarchan octet divided in space into Shakespearean rhymed quatrains, abab-cdcd, while the half-joined and half-broken sestet reverses into Petrarchan efg-efg while shifting the Shakespearean volta into line eleven to question point of death:

And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up

in the 'indifferent beak' of a pitiless God as beast to which the dying human animal is bound. The percussive iambs in hard dd-b-b-gg-g-d push against Leda's anapests in soft s-l's to metrically reflect the interchanging lenses of Leda in lines 1-2 and 4-5 with swan-god in lines 3-4 before the question joins them to us as the meter mixes their shared heart:

And how can body, laid in that white rush
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

The mortal and immortal time-paradigms fuse in a double point-of-view in omniscient third person. This double perspective acts as a way to hold both sickness and transcendence together.

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