August 18, 2009

From Gerald R. Lucas
Leda and the Swan[1]
By: W. B. Yeats (1923)

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 helpless breast upon his breast.

How can those terrified vague fingers push 5
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall,[2] the burning roof and tower[3]10
And Agamemnon dead.[4]
                                                  Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?[5]

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  1. In Greek mythology, Zeus appears to Leda in the form of a swan and rapes her. She gives birth to Helen and Clytemnestra. This act marks the beginning of Greek civilization for Yeats.
  2. Continuing the images of penetration and destruction—here, this alludes to Troy’s walls being breached by the Argives, but it also suggests that Leda was a virgin.
  3. The destruction of Troy.
  4. Agamemnon was murdered by Clytemnestra’s lover upon his return from Troy. He pretty much deserved it. The fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon signify the end of an era.
  5. Compare this to the ending of “The Second Coming” where Yeats also asks an ambiguous and unanswerable question.