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On "Leda and the Swan" by Yeats


Harold Bloom questions whether the price paid for the sonority of "Leda and the Swan" is a "loss of knowledge." This hidden sonnet, broken into four stanzas, resounds with a power that is brutish and violent, "staggering the girl." The first part of Bloom's assertion is supported by the poems imagery. Evidence of a "loss of knowledge" is not seen within the poem.

There are several power images, not only of the swan's initial power in taking Leda, but of a loss of some of that power before the poem ends. At first, overwhelmed by the suddenness of the attack, Leda is held "helpless breast upon breast,". . ."her nape caught in his bill." The power and results of this attack continue to resonate long afterward as "the broken wall, the burning roof and tower" of Troy as well as Agamemnon's death are engendered there. But the swan is not in full mastery of his victim by the end of the poem. Leda has put on some of the swan's power before his "indifferent beak could let her drop. Despite these brutal images, we can see more than brute force at work. Leda is unable to push away the "feathered glory" and acquiesces; she "feels that strange heart beating" and takes on some of its power.

In going beyond the mere words of the poem, and calling upon a knowledge of Greek mythology to fill in the gaps, we can open the poem further. Leda would have known the legends about the Greek gods even better than Yeats did. She would have realized the "brutish blood of the air" was some member of the Greek pantheon. We can surmise that her acquiescence was a result of this knowledge. The power she would have expected to gain would have in part been that the offspring thus engendered would be demi- gods. In the poem, the power she put on is that imperfect power of which Greek tragedy is made; it is as raw and brutish as her attacker. This is the power to destroy; it is the power to act without being able to control or anticipate consequences. It leaves Troy in ruins, and leads to Agamemnon's death. If the power put on by Leda is imperfect, the knowledge she puts on is more so. She knows she has been chosen by one of the gods. She knows some heroic fate awaits her children. More than this she does not know. Whether or not the swan foresees the ruin that will follow,he is indifferent to it. The taking on of knowledge does not seem important to the transaction.