Leda and the Swan
Symbol, Imagery and Wordplay
The swan in this poem isn't a kind of swan you can throw crackers to at your local pond. This swan came down to earth from Mount Olympus with a mission. The swan is a greek God Zeus in disguise. As the poem progresses, we catch only glimpses of the bird's 'swan-like' features. He simply moves too fast and has too much single-minded focus for us to pin him down. Accordingly, the poem contains lots of synedoche, where a part of the bird is used to represent the whole. Also, despite being a god, Yeats chooses to highlight the swans instinct and animal nature.
Line 1: The poem opens with an image of the swan descending on Leda. His 'great wings' are the first thing described.
Line 3-4: The 'dark webs' refers to the swan's webbed feet by only the webbed part, an example of synedoche. He grabs her neck with his bill and presses himself against her chest.
Line 6: The phrase 'feathered glory' is probably a metaphor to describe the swans genitals. (A glory is something associated with gods or the divine)
Line 12: Another synedoche: the poem makes reference to the swan by one of his parts, the 'brute blood' in his veins. To complicate things, the phrase 'brute blood of the air' has another meaning as a metaphor- as if the air were a living thing with its own blood.
Line 14: Ok, one more synedoche. The 'indifferent beak' really refers to the indifference of Zeus-as-swan. A part of the bird is used to describe the whole. The beak is personified as having a human emotion.
'Leda and the Swan' is essentially a depiction of a violent sexual encounter between a woman and a bird. If you find yourself sympathetic to the Ancient Greek perspective, you might think that the encounter is a divine and mystical experience. If you find yourself approaching the poem from a more modern perspective, you might be horrified. The poem caters to both viewpoints. Yeat's language seems to imply that the swan is violent and uncaring but also mysterious and seductive.
Line 4: Leda's breast is personified as helpless. In fact, Leda is the helpless one.
Line 5-6: Again, Leda's fingers cant be 'terrified', only Leda can be terrified. It's a classic example of personification of an inhuman object.
Line 9: Yeats provides an image for the moment of sex: the swan's (or possibly Leda's, as Yeats didn't use a pronoun here) loins or thighs shudder.
Yeats believed that History moved between different and contrary cycles. Leda and the Swan seems to be set at the exact turning point between two such cycles. Leda's world is populated by myths and divinities that come down to earth. But the world to which she gives 'birth' is ruled by politics and power, not the gods. The burning of Troy set thr stage for the future rise of the Roman Empire and much…