Lead and The Swan: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      There was a sudden blow which brought with it a kind of sweep of wind. He (Zeus) holds her (Leda’s) helpless breast upon his own breast. During the process the great wings of the Swan whose shape Zeus has assumed to make love to Leda keep beating. The girl (Leda) has been left staggering by this sudden assault made by Zeus who was infatuated by her beauty after seeing her naked body while she was bathing in the river Furatos. When the process is on, Leda’s thighs are constantly caressed, i.e” touched softly by the dark webs of the Swan’s feet. Leda’s nape i.e., the back of her neck is held fast by his (Zeus’s) bill.

Stanza II

      Leda’s power to resist the assault was gone. How could her fingers have pushed away the glory of Zeus (which just now is a feathered glory due to his assuming the shape of a Swan) away from her. loosening thighs? Her fingers had been rendered inactive by the mixture of confusion and terror occasioned by this sudden attack. At the; same time how was it possible (for a while she was fully covered by the white feather of the Swan) not to feel the beating of the heart of the Swan (Zeus) even when the heart-heat had a strange touch about it? It was human or rather a divine heart beating in the body of a Swan.

Stanza III

      What follows this attack and the consequent breaking down of Leda’s resistance is the consummation of the sexual act represented by the shudder which is occasioned (engendere) in the loins of the two participants in the sexual act. The outcome of the act is Helen who is responsible not with bumping towers and broken wall and the burning roof-top but also for the death of Agamemnon, who was killed by his wife.

Stanza IV

      The final question that arises out of the whole episode is whether any positive gains also came out of this sexual act? When she was caught up like this, when she was being mastered in this way by the the brute blood of the air, (divinity entering a Swan’s body) was she able to take on to herself part of the divine knowledge and power of Zeus before he became indifferent to her? When he finally became indifferent to her after the sexual act was over and he was no longer interested in her physicality, his beak (as he was in the shape of a Swan) dropped her. This is but natural. Most males become indifferent to the female body after the sexual act is over.

Critical Analysis


      Leda and The Swan is written in the form of sonnet and remarkable for its artistic perfection, its presentation of a vast expanse within little space.

      Leda was raped by the god Zeus, in disguise of a Swan, out of this encounter was born Helen of Troy, and so that whole saga of the Trojan war followed. This union of the human (Leda) with the superhuman (Zeus) led to the birth of the heroes and heroines who created the Athenian civilization.

      The poem has a unique majesty about it and its boldness is that of a very skilled and ambitious poet. Around the time Yeats wrote Leda and the Swan, he was fascinated by the critical moments in history, by sexual frenzy, and by supernatural inspiration. His great achievement in the poem is that he fuses all these elements into a controlled and at the same time vividly physical poem. ‘The brute blood of the air’ to which Yeats refers in the poem is a superb example of this fusion of the spiritual, the animal and the ethereal. Yeats saw this fusion as a mark of the pagan genius he admired so much in the pre-Christian Europe.

Development of Thought

      The poem is essentially in assembly of images. The first four lines draw a memorable picture of the whole incident with remarkable economy of phrasing. The phrase ‘A sudden blow’ is suggestive of the arrow of Cupid. Seeing Leda bathing naked in the river, Zeus feels enamored to her and takes the form of a Swan to make love to her. The process initiated by the sudden blow is continued with the great wings beating still above the staggering girl. In other words, the assault is so sudden that it leaves Leda staggering. At the time the actual process of love making by Zeus goes on, Leda’s thighs are caressed by the dark webs and her nape is caught in Zeus’s bill. In this state of helplessness, Zeus holds her helpless breast upon his breast.

      The poem is a sonnet and is divided into two parts—an octave and a sestet. The second stanza of the poem forms the second part of the octave.

      This stanza poses a question. The poet makes it clear that Leda was greatly terrified by this sudden onslaught and ask “How can those terrified vague fingers push. The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? Yeats says that her fingers, in fact her whole body was in a state of confusion making it difficult for them to push Zeus, in the shape of a Swan, off from her loosening thighs. Yeats compares Zeus to a Swan (“The feathered glory”). Then Yeats goes on to ask further : (“And how can body, laid in that white rush. But feel the strange heart beating where it lies ?”) Yeats here brings in very rich suggestive imagery. ‘Feathered glory’, ‘white rush’, etc., are examples of this. The sheer physicality of the imagery is striking.

      The third and the fourth stanzas together form the sestet which technically is the second part of the poem. The third stanza sums up the historical and mythological implications of this union and the reference to “the broken wall and the burning roof and tower” and Agamemnon makes the historical echoes of the war very clear. Yeats implies that the siege of Troy and all the radiant and stormy Hellenic civilization that followed it are in one way the offspring of this act. The line “A shudder in the loins engenders there” refers to the Trojan War which was occasioned by Helen who was supposedly born out of this union. Agamemnon was the King of Argos and as commander of the Greek army, he went to Troy to recover Helen. He was later murdered by his wife.

      The first two lines of the fourth stanza refer to the helplessness of Leda but the next two lines ask as to whether this union with a supernatural being made Leda imbibe in herself his supernatural knowledge and power before (Zeus) he became indifferent to her when the act was over. Yeats’s question really is that when she was caught up like this, and when the brute blood of the air, symbolized by the Swan had mastered her in this way did some of the knowledge and power of Zeus pass on to her before the act was over and before he dropped her from his beak. The suggestion is that Zeus became indifferent and lost his passionate interest in her when the sexual act was over.


      The poem is at once bold, obscure and majestic. Through a cluster of images it fuses myth and vision into one composite whole. There is also the suggestion in the poem that beautiful women have always been destructive.

      The formal perfection and artistic economy of the poem are remarkable. Yeats has shown much skill in his handling of the sonnet and has divided it into an octave and a sestet. The artistic triumph of the poem lies in making the moment of Helen’s conception the interesting point of opposing flows of passion. In this way a kind of communion takes place at the structural center of the poem. Everything in the poem contributes to this design. The rhythms and the movements are calculated to achieve precisely this effect.

      At the same time, the poem is remarkable for the complexity, richness and suggestive quality of its imagery and for its ability to give an impression of vastness within so small a compass. The amount of history, mythology and sensuality which is packed in just a few lines in highly impressive.

Critical Opinion

      R.P. Blackonur in his essay The Later Poetry of W.B. Yeats published in Southern Review (vol. 2 No. 2 1936) says: “There is an extraordinary sensual immediacy. The words meet and move like speaking lips—and a profound combination of the generally available or literary symbol and the hidden magical symbol of the intellectual, philosophical and impersonal order.”

Critical Comments

      These lines capture the exact situation at the time, when Zeus in the shape of a swan landed on the bathing Leda. What is so remarkable about the style of these lines is the economy of phrasing and their picturesque quality. The whole scene comes alive before the eyes of the reader. Also the poem is remarkable for its handling of mythology which was one of the chief characteristics of Yeats’s poetry.

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