An Analysis of Leda and The Swan By W. B. Yeats

An Analysis of Leda and The Swan By W. B. Yeats
Leda and the Swan by Michelangelo
In this modern world, the line between consensual sex and rape has been blurred. And the mythological story of the supreme Greek god Zeus raping the Leda, Queen of Sparta, is perfect example of this blurred line. The story has inspired many great artist like Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Antonio de Correggio, to render one of their classics. And also poets like W.B. Yeats to produce one of their literary masterpieces.

However, Yeats version of Leda and the Swan story is much more than a simple commentary on the greek myth. When Yeats first published his poem, Leda and the Swan, in 1923, it became subject of high voltage discussions among literary and educated class. Though the poem, seems to glorify the subject of rape, but if you critically analyze the poem, it is unapologetic commentary on political and social scene of modern society in one of most ribald form.

Yeats beautifully describes how Zeus camouflages himself in form of a great swan rapes Leda, the queen of Sparta in one of her most intimate moments. A symbol of purity with one of heinous acts. Thus, the act results in birth of two of Zeus bastard children,[1] Helen and Clytemnestra, who played a major role in later Trojan war. Defining how an act can have implications in infinite course of the time.

Yeats designed the poem in form of sonnet, which is also a symbol of purity and love, to describe the the heinous act. Use of imagery, such as “nape”, “helpless breast”, “vague fingers”, and “loosening thighs”, suggest that Leda, has no choice but being raped by a powerful men. And the imagery associated with Zeus (in disguise form of a swan) such as “great wings”, “dark webs”, “his bill” and “his breast” signify the social and political power of him. Even if she had consent in the act. as some suggest because of last two lines in the sonnet, it was terrible act which changed course of the time.

And now if we analyze the poem in reference to modern world perspective, we will come to know, how relevant Yeats’s argument, even today? Leda’s situation is somewhat similar to women being subjected to sexual abuse in modern society. Like Leda was being blamed for the whole rape incidence, young women are being blamed for their rape, it is said that they have their consensus in the act, but thing is different from reality. Even if it is consensual sex, for example, a sex on promise of prospective marriage, it is a breach of promise, and trust, and in my point of view, should be identified as rape. The act between two person could be said consensual only if there are no such false promises being made, and there is no breach of trust. And which is rarity in such cases.

Also Read: How to tell a 9 Year Old Kid About Rape?

Though at that time, when Yeats published the poem in 1923, Ireland was going through a great social and political transition. Ireland, achieved their independence from the Great Britain after a great civil war in 1921. The British were accused of raping Irish, by harassing the Irish community rights. The unemployment was high, so was the disparity among the social class of Ireland. The poem, also comments on unjust order in Ireland also, poor children and young women being harassed and raped by powerful upper Irish strata and Church.

In respective of what was the situation when poem was first published. The real question arises, was it rape or consensual sex. Who draws the line? And should we just blame Leda for what happened?

1. There were four children bore by Leda, Helen and Clytemnestra (the twin sisters) and Castor and Polydeuces (the twin brother). It is said, Helen and Polydeuces were fathered by Zeus and Clytemnestra and Castor, by Tyndareus, the husband of Leda.

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