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Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan” Essay

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Updated: Dec 20th, 2021

Leda and the Swan have been believed to be one of the most technically brilliant poems ever written in English and world literature. The original story of Leda is derived from Greek mythology. Leda was the wife of the Spartan king Tyndareus. She did not waver to alter her royal husband for a god, even though he came to her as a swan. Four eggs that she had later gave birth to Castor, Polydeukes, Clytemnestra, and the famous Helen of the Trojan war.

William Butler Yeats’s venturesome sonnet depicts the details of the rape of Leda by the god Zeus. Leda and the Swan are criticized to be passionate, sexually definite artwork. Features of rhythmic power, plain enunciation, and allusions to mystical relationships of people and divine creatures can be observed in this poem. Though there exists an opinion that this poem can be considered as a key step towards future tragic events: the result of Leda’s assault was the birth of Helen of Troy. Because of her, the following destruction of Greek civilization came and a new era began. The poem has also been suggested to pay attention to the violence that took place in Yeats’s homeland during the Irish Civil War of 1922–1923.

Considering the technical part of the poem we can say that Yeats’s variant of the traditional fourteen lines sonnet form is made in a more radical, modernist style. A set of unforgettable, weird images of instant physical contact are made using abstract depictions in terse language. At the same time, it offers a distant view of that event over time. Critics have seen this poem as an outstanding example of how thoughts central to the poet’s life can be expressed in his poetry.

Though the main theme of the poem is derived from the Greek mythology and the plot is clear enough, critics have always been searching for a symbolic and psychological explanation of the poem’s images.

As Keesey fairly notices, “psychology helps us to talk about what the novelist knows, but fiction helps us to know what the psychologist is talking about” (222). The main impulse of realistic fiction is mimetic. Any artwork of psychological realism appeals for detailed psychological analysis. Psychological approaches allow analyzing important characters of the fiction and to examine the consciousness of the author and his moral message to the reader.

The swan in this poem is not the swan one can feed at the local pond in the parking area. This bird came with a mission from Mount Olympus. He is Zeus, the Greek god in disfiguring. Further, we catch only separate swan-like features of this creature. Using synecdoche, when a part of the bird is implied to represent the whole creature, the author tends to convey the mysterious content of the story. In the meantime, Yeats emphasizes the nature and animal instincts of the bird.

Leda and the Swan is a poem that illustrates violent sexual contact between a bird and a woman. If one finds himself humane to the Ancient Greek perspective, he might suppose the encounter to be a sacred and mystical experience. If one has a more modern vision of the poem images, he can be totally scared. Nevertheless, the poem provides both viewpoints understanding. Poetic language is properly selected to describe the violent and uncaring nature of swam but in the meantime divine origin and seductive ability.

Leda and the Swan seem to be the key point between the two cycles. Leda’s world is full of myths and legends. But she gave birth to her children in another world ruled by political power.

Though “women have in all historical periods been seats of consciousness and moral agents” (Keesey, 226), they are presented in the literature as a different subordinate group of objects “of interest only insofar as they serve or detract from the goals of the male protagonist” (Keesey, 225).

For it is now apparent that certain patterns occur nearly universally in women’s historical-cultural experience. These appear to obtain in nearly all racial, ethnic, and cultural groups and classes, providing a common denominator for the group experience of women. Second, it appears probable that these historical structures have contributed to the formation of a particularly female epistemology and ethic (Donovan, 184).

Female characters do not lack authenticity if they are depicted as complicated and unique persons. Sometimes women are merely presented as stereotypes that provide the male protagonist the opportunity to define the role for himself and fulfill his egoism.

In answer to this incorrect representation of women in literature, feminist criticism aimed at resisting stereotyped images of women. This led to its negative position for understanding. Despite this fact, feminist criticism continues to function as a liberating moral criticism.

As a rule, the stereotypes of women in literature are divided into spiritual (good) or material (evil) parts. Such binary opposition results in an inauthentic depiction of characters. The “good” woman exists to benefit the male. She may be a wife or mother who, in a sense, is a servant to the male. Perhaps the female figure who best illustrates this positive but inauthentic persona is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She serves as an inspiration and as a virginal ideal. The first woman Eve, however, is an example of the “evil”, materialistic female stereotype. Literature and art provide many examples of women like Eve who are nothing but hindrances for men (Fish, Perkins).

Feminist criticism “attempts to redress the moral balance” of the portrayal of gender in literature. It “asserts that the standard of critical judgment should be changed so that literature will no longer function as propaganda furthering sexist ideology” (230).

There are some disputes that characters cannot be researched like real people. Paris maintains the idea that fictional characters need to be examined according to the aesthetic functions they aim to fulfill in a congruous structure of an artwork. However, the characters “are what the novel exists for; it exists to reveal them” (216). The author of realistic fiction even if it is based on some myths and legends, tends to show what real life is similar to the experiences, stands, and actions of human beings.

Instead of creating a character with more general features, the author tries to make the unique one that possesses authentic human qualities and has experiences real-life events. The goal of every artist is to make the character seem alive for the reader. Making characters more real the author should let them “have a motivational life of their own” (219).

While the god is both swam and god, Leda remains Leda. Yeats tries to imagine Leda as a person rather than a medium through which the god acts. This question implies a further question: if Leda, knowing what the god knows, seeing what the god sees, still has a face, how do we envisage it? The idea insinuated is the insufferable one of a human being having to foresee all that consequence (Hartman, 35).

In conclusion, I would like to point out that unfortunately, female characters often are used as props for male characters as “vehicle[s] for the male’s growth in self-awareness but they gain no insight” (225). Authentic female characters are self-defined. They possess qualities and features that distinguish them from others. They are no more stereotyped objects for different men’s purposes.

Leda is such a brilliant example of this theory, proving that wickedness or virtue matter a lot if the female character has the opportunity for life experience to grow, obtain wisdom, and achieve moral resolution.

Bibliography

Domovan, Josefine. Feminist Theory: The Intellectual Traditions of American Feminism. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000.

Fish, Tom, Perkins, Jennifer. Donovan Essay. The Literally Criticism Web.

Hartman, Geoffrey H. Criticism in the Wilderness: the Study of Literature Today. Yale University Press, 2007.

Keesey, Donald. Contexts for Criticism. McGraw-Hill, 2002.

Paris, Bernard. The Uses of Psychology. A Psychological Approach to fiction. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1998.

Yeats, William Butler. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Wordsworth Editions, 2000.

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