Leda and the Swan
In Leda and the Swan, Yeats ingeminates a Greek mythology tale, whereby, god Zeus, in form of a swan, rapes Leda, a young beautiful woman. Leda suddenly feels a might blow of great wings that sends her to the ground. Still terrified, Leda tries to free herself, however, the swan holds her firmly to the ground. The swan finally opens her little legs and after a session of caressing, he rapes her. Unfortunately, Leda conceives and the speaker posits that she would bear Helen of Troy, the genesis of Trojan War.
The speaker finishes the poem by wondering whether Leda knew anything about Zeus. Was she aware that she was having a sexual intercourse with a god? Unfortunately, she did not have much time to ponder on the issue for after Zeus was through with his rape mission, he threw her to the ground, leaving her for the worst. At face value, this poem may appear as a mere fictional work, however, it unites supernatural to human and myth to history.
As aforementioned, Swan in this poem is Zeus, a god in disguise and this is the supernatural part of the poem. On the other part, Leda is a young beautiful woman and this represents the human side of the poem. The night after Zeus had raped Leda, she had sex with her husband resulting to deposition of two eggs in her uterus. These two eggs hatched giving rise to Helen, and Castor. Because of these events, it is hard to tell the child belonging to Zeus the god and Tyndareus, Leda's mortal husband. There is a mix up between supernatural and human and this gave rise to half-immortal beings.
By writing this poem, whereby a god has a sexual encounter with a human being, William Butler marries supernatural to the natural. As I write, there is unity between supernatural and human and Butler brings this union by letting Zeus, a god, rape Leda a human being. Butler also unites the two by letting a god to sire human beings. The fact that a god fathered human beings, it is a clear implication of how supernatural associates with human in this poem.
According to Greek mythology, Zeus admired Leda, a daughter to Thestius and a wife to Tyndareus. From Greek mythology, Helen was born from the egg that Zeus deposited in Leda. This explained why she was the prettiest woman in the world by then. The mythological part of it is that, Theseus kidnapped Helen while she was a kid and because she was too young to be married, he sent her to Aethra his mother living in Aphidnane. However, Dioscuri, her brother, delivered her and took Aethra hostage thereafter. Due to Helen's beauty, both great and small suitors across Greece were interested in her even before she was marriageable. This prompted Tyndareus, her human father, or rather her mother's hubby, to summon all the suitors and make them take an oath to protect Helen even if they do not get a chance to marry her.
To facilitate his plans, Tyndareus consulted Odysseus to give a decree to all suitors to take the oath. This would mean that these suitors had to, “support the marriage rights of the successful candidate” (Hunter Para. 4). After intense consultations and disapprovals, Tyndareus chose Menelaus as the suitable suitor of Helen. The two married, brought forth a daughter, Hermione, and lived happily thereafter but only for ten years.
After ten years of marriage, Helen either was kidnapped by son of Priam, the king of Troy. The son was known as Paris. This enraged Menelaus who summoned all suitors under the oath to help in rescuing Helen. Greek leaders came up with the largest army ever in the history of Greece. Agamemnon was the chief commander of this army and they attacked Troy resulting to what is famously known as the Trojan War. Yeats brings out this issue clearly in his poem when he says, “A shudder in the loins engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agamemnon dead” (Yeats line 9-11). This is the mythological part of it.
On the other side, there is a clear indication that Yeats marries history to this mythology. Leda is involved in activities of gods that sojourn the earth from time to time. However, she lives in a world ruled by kings and governments not deities. Line 10, where the speaker talks of burnt walls, gives insight to the historical part of this poem. “The Burning of Troy set the stage for the future rise of the Roman Empire and, much later, the rise of modern Europe” (Hunter Para. 6).
Apart from bringing out the Greek mythology in this poem, Yeats also hints something about history. The power that Agamemnon had during the Trojan War resonates well with the nature of Roman Empire. Roma Empire was a very strong empire and given the time that Yeats wrote this poem, that is 1928, he may be speaking about the historical events that happened in the Roman Empire. It is true that the issue of Zeus impregnating Leda and the subsequent birth of Helen is purely mythological.
Greeks believe that Trojan War took place at around 14 BC and this is purely historical. Moreover, the insinuation that Roman Empire and modern Europe rose from this war, gives a historical impression. Therefore, even though Yeats does not come out clearly to separate what is mythological from what is historical, these derivations are clear indicators that history blends with mythology well in this poem.
Leda and the Swan, is a mythological Greek tale where Zeus, a god, disguising as a swan attacks Leda, a young beautiful woman and rapes her. Even though Leda tries to resist the swan, he has strong wings that keep her pegged to the ground as he caresses her neck using his neck. Still terrified, the swan opens Leda's little legs and rapes her. Yeats goes ahead to describe the events of the Trojan War, which resulted from this rape. Here Agamemnon, the commander of Greek army that attacked Troy, dies and the walls of Troy come down. The greatest question remains whether Leda knew she was having sexual intercourse with a divinity.
Yeats brings together the supernatural and human. Zeus represents the supernatural while Leda represents the human. Yeats uses sexual relationship to unite the two. Zeus, a god, rapes Leda a human being thus uniting supernatural to human. On the other side, Yeats unites history with mythology. The issue of Zeus raping Leda is a Greek mythology. From this rape, Helen was born and she was the cause of the Trojan War. Yeats points this war in his poem when he talks of Agamemnon and the fall of Trojan walls. This mythological part of this poem fits well in history given the probability that the Trojan War gave way to the rise of Roman Empire. This poem does not point out clearly the relationship between myth and history; however, subsequent analyses draw clear relationship between the two.
Hunter, James. “Helen.” 2004. Web. 17 Mar. 2010. <http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/helen.html>
Yeats, Butler. “Leda and the Swan.” In Ramazani, Jahan, Ellmann, Richard & O'Clair, Robert. (Eds.). The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Vol. 1: Modern Poetry. New York; W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.