Leda and the Swan Commentary.

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Marc Barron

November 2, 2003

Period 7

Leda and the Swan Commentary

        The poem “Leda and the Swan” is based on the mythological story about the rape of Leda, a mortal woman who marries a mortal man, Tyndareus, but was sought out by Zeus, the god of the gods. As a result of this rape, Leda lays two eggs, one which hatches into the war-gods Castor and Polydeuces, and the other which hatches into Clytemnestra and Helen, who is to become the most beautiful woman alive. Yeats poem tells the actual situation of Zeus having sex with Leda in the form of a swan. Yeats use of structure and imagery show that the whole poem is a poem of contrasts.

        The poem is written in a traditional form, a sonnet, using a traditional rhyme scheme. However, the irony in the structure of this poem is extremely non-traditional.  The reader sees violent images of rape rather than a traditional love sonnet. The structure of the poem also matches the structure of the mythological incident.  The first quatrain depicts the assault of Leda (1-8), whereas “A sudden blow” initiates the octave; the second quatrain reflects Leda’s emotions, whereas “A shudder in the lions” initiates the sestet (9-15). Between the first half of the sestet, “A shudder in the lions,”(9) which represents the moment of ejaculation, and the second half of it, which shows a receding into memory and the question for meaning, a cut line, “Being so caught up,” (12) is inserted to illustrate a dramatic pause in the action.  The transition is a movement from aggressive intensity to a vague passive distance; the poem starts out with “a sudden blow” (1) and ends in a mental way with the speaker asking a question.  This shows a general change from the abstract to the concrete. Finally, the use of verbs plays a major role in the understanding of “Leda and the Swan.” Yeats uses present verbs in the octave and first part of the sestet, using verbs such as, “holds,” (4) “push,” (5) “feel,” (8) and “engenders” (9).  Yeats then shifts the verbs into the passive tense in the final part of the sestet, using verbs such as “caught,” (12) “mastered,” (13) and “did” (14). The effect on the reader is that the verbs in the present tense imply an intense immediacy while the verbs in the passive tense distance the reader from the rape and makes you reflect on the event.

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        The imagery, and the diction in general, is also representative, at first glance, of oppositional elements within the text. As stated before, a first reading shows Leda described in concrete terms and the swan described in abstract terms.  Leda is the “staggering girl” (2) and the poem refers to “Her thighs,” (2) “her nape,” (3) “her helpless breast,” (4) and “her loosening thighs” (6). The swan is never actually called Zeus or even the Swan.  The “Swan” is described as “great wings,” (1) “dark webs,” (3) “the feathered glory,” (6) “that white rush,” (7) “blood,” (13) and “indifferent beak” (15). ...

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