William Butler Yeats played an influential role in shaping modern literature through his use of innovative and figurative poetry. For Yeats, symbolism was not an artistic feature for embellishing his poetry, rather a means of effective and innovative expressing his thoughts on different themes.
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In the poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ Yeats presents the brutal rape of Leda a human, by a swan. The swan is actually Zeus, the Greek God in disguise, who assumes the different form only to rape Leda. The poem is a powerful presentation of the rape, which is a destructive act by a divine creature, Zeus, the Greek God.
Symbolism and vivid imagery have been used throughout the poem. The swan, a symbol of peace, innocence and purity has been used to conduct a ghastly, destructive and evil act. Yeats’ use of symbolic words and evocative language present the reader with the clear image of the bizarre act – a swan raping a human. In the following paragraph from the poem “Leda and the Swan”, W. B. Yeats vividly and symbolically expresses the cold and brutal act of Leda’s rape by the swan (Zeus).
“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 help less breast upon his breast.” (1-4)
These opening lines of the poem present a vivid and terrifying picture of the aggressive violent rape of Leda by the Greek God Zeus, who has transformed into a swan to preserve his identity. Yeats introduces the reader to the aggressive and horrific act creating a sense of urgency with the words, “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still”. The line prepares and initiates the reader into the violent act of rape which is about to occur.
Leda is a “staggering girl”, a helpless victim of rape by a swan with “the great wings”. The wings of the swan symbolize the strength, speed and power of the bird. Words such as “blow” “beating” “staggering” “dark webs” symbolize the atrociousness and the force of the act of rape. The term “great” symbolizes the divinity of Zeus who is the soul within the swan.
Leda is taken by surprise by the attack. It is almost suddenly that she finds “her thighs caressed by the dark webs” of the swan. The act of rape is in itself a presentation of the divine force, Zeus (the swan), attacking the weak human spirit Leda.
Zeus is divine as compared to Leda who is human; Zeus has “great wings” and “dark webs” while Leda is a weak “staggering girl”, a clear picture of helplessness with her neck “caught in his bill”. Zeus uses his might and force to control Leda as he yields a “sudden blow” to her.
These descriptive words lend a contrasting sense of power and obscurity to the swan, which is actually a symbol of peace, purity and elegance.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus, the Greek God takes the form of a swan to rape Leda. The bird, a swan is actually a symbol of peace, purity and beauty. Zeus disguises himself as a swan and gives it a frightening and destructive appearance with the horrific act. Yeats presents the swan symbolically to contrast Zeus’ ghastly act with the elegance and purity a swan represents. The swan has been used by Yeats as a symbol of violence and terror in contrast with the more popular motif of peace and beauty.