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Throughout many of William Butler Yeats’s works, he incorporates myths and history as a means of bringing together his imaginative views, with reality. This is made evident through Yeats’s poetic recreation of the Greek myth, “Leda and the Swan.” As Yeats masterfully imagines the science of Leda’s rape by the God Zeus in swan form, he successfully handles the history of the myth by making use of language, symbolism, and allusions all throughout. Yeats’s portrayal of “Leda and the Swan,” ultimately transforms the Greek myth by creating a bigger conflict between the characters and how the events of the present, essentially affected the future.
The tale of “Leda and the Swan” entails many different versions, with Yeats’s being the most commonly accepted. Nevertheless, it essentially states that a young Queen by the name of Leda, wife of Tyndareus, was bathing one day in a lake and caught the eye of Zeus. Upon his fascination with her, it is said that Zeus had taken the form of a swan and swooped down from Mt. Olympus, purposely falling onto Leda as a means of “escaping” the grasp of an eagle attempting to eat him. It is then that he seduced her, impregnating her with two of his children. However, in Yeats’s poem he creatively explores the sexual nature of this encounter and labels it a rape alluding it to a divine experience. Nevertheless, Yeats’s portrayal of “Leda and the Swan” depicts the Ancient Greek myth very well, as it combines his modernistic style with his sense of imagination.
Within the real of the storyline, Yeats interprets the act as the raping of Leda and further comments on the consequences of Zeus’s actions. As the poem begins, the first quatrain immediately placed the reader into the midst of the action, as the rape is happening. Told through third-person narration, the speaker wastes no time describing the brutal rape as Leda has been struck down by this swan, or Zeus, in a “sudden blow” and his body hovers over hers, as his wings are “beating still” (1). Leda is completely caught off guard by this act as Zeus pins her down by “her nape” with his bill and proceeds to caress her thighs. It is within this line, that Yeats makes use of enjambment to signify that the rape is continuous and it doesn’t stop, even in the line break. It is clear that Yeats wanted to express this sense of urgency by the swan through his aggressions towards Leda, as he sought to grasp her attention sexually. As the swan holds her “helpless breast upon his breast,” we can tell that these acts are being done with great force (3-4).
Although the swan happens to be some sort of strong-willed character and one of importance, this gives us the impression that Leda cannot and will not fight off the power and strength, in which this creature forces upon her. Within the second stanza, we are able to determine that this force that is being inflicted upon Leda, is one that she cannot control. The speaker questions
“how can those terrified vague fingers push / the feathered glory from her loosening thighs” (lines 5-6). In these lines, Leda is unable to throw the swan off of her and Yeats portrays this “loosening” aspect, as if she is giving into her aggressor out of hopelessness, or mere pleasure. This is further complicated in the following lines as Yeats characterizes the fall of Troy and the demise of Greek civilization through the “shuddering in the loins that engenders there.” Referring to Zeus’s ejaculation and the planting of his “seeds” within Leda, Yeats moves onto a different era of Grecian history.
Yeats’s approach to the historical aspect of the poem is explored through this notion of procreation. Because Zeus impregnates Leda, she gives birth, “by laying eggs, to four children: the twin girls Helen and Clytemnestra and the twin boys Castor and Polydeuces” (GaleStudies). Though it is unknown as to which child is mortal and which is immortal, it is through this sexual act that the “broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead” that ultimately proves, that Zeus’s orgasm begets the Trojan War through Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra (10-11). In the final stanza, the speaker ultimately questions the helplessness and knowledge of Leda as she is caught up in the act of penetration by this swan. Although Zeus could’ve taken Leda in human form, the speaker essentially wonders if she “put on his knowledge with his power,” did she know who this powerful being was “before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” (13-14).
As the first two stanzas flip back and forth between violent and sensual imagery, creating tension and confusion, the third stanza captures the flawed unity of a mortal and immortal and the violence that ensued as a result. By connecting the sexual misdoings with the imagery that describes the falling of Troy, the sexual union of Leda and this swan ultimately births the tale of Helen of Troy, or the Trojan War itself. Helen, who was depicted as an extremely beautiful woman, was married to King Menelaus of Sparta. However, it was “during his absence” that she ran off with the Prince of Troy, Paris, and caused thousands of soldiers to sail overseas waging war on Troy in their attempt to get her back (Britannica). Amongst these soldiers was her sister, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, who “had taken her by force” (GreekMythology). However, prior to leaving for Troy, “Agamemnon was forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia, as he had caused the wrath of Artemis” (GreekMythology). Because this angered Clytemnestra even more, she took a new lover in his absence and formulated a plan to kill him upon his return, hence Yeats’s line after the falling of Troy, which calls on Agamemnon’s death. As a result of Yeats’s imagining and proper use of Greek history, he ultimately transcended the myth of “Leda and the Swan.” 

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