4 November 2018
The Emotional Effect of Poetic Structure on “Leda and the Swan”
The poem “Leda and the Swan” by W.B. Yeats is a poetic retelling of Zeus’s rape of Leda in Greek Mythology. According to the original myth, Zeus transformed himself physically into the form of a beautiful swan. As the swan, Zeus came to Leda and forced himself upon her, raping her. Poets make crucial choices every time they create a new work. They consider the stanza breaks and arrangements concerning spaces and lines, and these all affect how the audience is guided through the poem. “Leda and the Swan” is written in the form of a sonnet; specifically it takes the shape of both the Shakespearian and the Petrarchan sonnets. This poem is written with a modern take by combining the two forms, and is focused on the emotional tension being constructed through them. In “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats uses both the Shakespearian and the Petrarchan sonnet structures to draw attention to the nontraditional subject matter and the power shift of the poem by combining the two styles.
The poem “Leda and the Swan” by Yeats uses a combination of the two sonnet styles, Shakespearian and Petrarchan, in order to cover a content nontraditional to the either form. The subject matter of this poem is addressing the rape of Leda and describes the situation “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” (Yeats 749). Rape in any context is a disgusting and heart wrenching occurrence. The subject of rape is mostly avoided; most sonnets address matters of love and numerous other emotions, nature, and other societal matters, but never rape. Yeats uses these differing structures to create an atypical structure to present—what should be—an atypical event.
Similarly to Yeats’s use of structure to affect the poems atypical nature, Yeats also uses structure to draw attention to the explosive use of emotion and power. This poem is written in iambic pentameter—although loosely—which supplies the feeling of a strong steady pulsating beat that makes the reader feel the steady control and power the swan, Zeus, holds over the girl, Leda. However, Yeats breaks up the poems rhythm with sudden shifts causing an even greater source of tension with Leda’s struggle for control. The second stanza starts a series of questions consisting of ones such as “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?” (749). The first question discusses whether or not Leda could have prevented this attack, in reality she would never had the strength to fight off a god. The next question references Leda’s feelings of helplessness, being unable to get rid of the feeling of his chest against hers. However, the power truly changes when the line breaks in the sestet. Again this is a feature that heightens the drama by ending the rape scene, instantly separating the audience, and Leda, from that terrible event. The structure that Yeats chose for this poem truly holds power over the reader’s emotions and interpretations of this poem.
W.B. Yeats’s poem “Leda and the Swan” is powerful in its meaning, yet the structure in which it was written makes the poem inextricably more powerful. He makes the conscious decision to write the poem in an abnormal structure to amplify the poems more serious and lesser talked about issue, rape. Yeats also uses the overall shifts in the structure to discuss different parts of the event and create a greater level of tension for the audience. Ultimately, W.B. Yeats draws attention to the abnormal subject and the power shift of the poem through his use of structure.
Yeats, William Butler. “Leda and the Swan.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, Portable 12thed,. W.W. Norton & Company, 2017. pp. 749.