Leda and the Swan

Essay by ce33eeCollege, UndergraduateB, March 2009

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"Leda and the Swan" is a sonnet by William Butler Yeats first published in 1924, it tells the tale of Zeus, the ruler of the Greek Gods who disguises himself as a swan in order to seduce and rape Leda the Queen of Sparta. The subject matter is extremely non-traditional with vicious rape as opposed to the typical love poems written by Yeats. At first glance, the sonnet seems to simply be referring to the myth, yet Yeats is effectively relating the myth with harsh real life issues. Rape has been, and probably always will be one of the most severe crimes.

Yeats assumes that the reader is familiar with the Greek mythology referred to in the title. Considerable background knowledge of this particular myth and the Trojan War is essential for interpreting this poem. Therefore the title of the poem itself is extremely important. It is the only indication of the characters who are the subject of the poem.

Throughout the fourteen lines, Yeats never uses the names of either of the characters, Zeus and Leda's names do not appear in the text of the poem. The reader is expected to understand that the mighty Greek God had disguised himself as a swan.

"Leda and the Swan" is a sonnet, constructed of 14 lines, with a varied rhyme scheme of ABAB CDCD EFGEFG making it a Petrarchan (Italian) sonnet. It is divided into two sections, the octave which consists of the first eight lines, and the sestet - the final six lines. It is written in iambic pentameter, which helps clarify the meaning of the poem when it is being read. Despite its violent concept and disturbing content, the structure of the poem gives a feeling of peace and artistic beauty.

The poem begins in a dark, aggressive tone...