Monday, June 04, 2007

Poem of the Week 6/4/2007: Leda and the Swan

Leda and the Swan*

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
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
A broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
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?

William Butler Yeats 1924

*In Greek mythology, Leda, raped by Zeus, the supreme god, in teh guise of a swan, gave birth to Helen of Troy and the twins Castor and Pollux. Helen's abduction by Paris from her husband, Menelaus, caused the Trojan War. Leda was also the mother of Clytemnestra, who murdered her own husband, Agamemnon, on his return from the war. Yeats saw Leda as the recipient of an annunciation that would found Greek civilization, as the Annunciation to Mary would found Christianity.


As with many of Yeats' poems, there are a number of ways of approaching it; this does not bespeak the relativity of interpretation, but rather the layered meanings in each of his rich and complex poems. "Leda and the Swan" leaves open the question of the meaning of her suffering, which reflects the greater extent of human suffering.

1. the rape is described vividly, so that the body of the swan is pawing at ourselves
2. the consequences of that rape are given--not triumphant, but dark. Ests. causality and fate. Also narrative POV-some distance from the rape, though we are so close in with her, we sit in a position that knows beyond her but not within her. An uncomfortable place for the reader to be, becasue we feel the pain, we know the consequences, but we cannot find a bridge between the two, no way of unifying the experience.
3. the final stanza leaves the question completely open, for the possibilities are: knowledge is redeeming and power is transfered. the knowledge is dark, and power is acted over her. What do we do with her suffering? we are meant to be compromised and have no way of closing the wound, no way of settling ourselves, of reconciling cause and effect.

Sorry to leave this in outline format. I'll hopefully return to make it more elegant and more comprehensible. The above is the densest explanation of my thoughts about the poem as they currently stand.

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