Myth & History in Yeats - Leda and the Sivan & Easter 1916

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      Myth and history are aspects which are almost basic to Yeats’s poetry. His “system”, as propounded in A Vision, forms the theoretical base for his handling of history and myth in some of his poems. Many of his early poems are concerned with Irish myths interwoven with his special symbols. His view of history as a cyclic process involves the symbols of wheel and gyres (or cone). The gyres spin swiftly around a fixed center. At the beginning, a civilization is intense and narrow; as it progresses, it broadens and slowly loses its intensity and finally disintegrates. Simultaneously as one civilization is progressing towards disintegration, its “antithetic one is developing. Yeats considered the Greek civilization to be primary.

      In Leda and the Swan, Yeats’s theme is the birth of Homeric Greece. The mating of Zeus with Leda gave rise to the Graeco-Roman civilization with the birth of Helen and Clytemnestra. After the first lines giving a vivid, and powerful impression of the deed, there enters Yeats’s consciousness of history. That mating might have given rise to the events of the siege of Troy and the glorious and stormy Hellenic civilization.

      Myth is used in Leda and the Swan to express Yeats’s view of history. The Legend of the girl Leda being ravished by the Greek god Zeus in the guise of a swan is interpreted by Yeats to illustrate his view of history. The old Pagan civilization which preceded Christianity, was ushered, into and Clytemnestra from this union, came love and War. Helen was responsible for the Trojan War and Troy’s destniction. Clytemnestra was the instrument in the murder of Agamemnon, her own husband, as he returned home after the Trojan victory. These events, we may say, are basic to the Western culture, for its art and literature center around them. The poem ends with a question whether Leda was fully aware of the significance of the action in which she was forced to participate? In other words, is man merely an instrument of impersonal forces, or does he have a portion of divine intelligence himself?

      After the disintegration of the Graeco-Roman civilization, came the Christian civilization, which according to Yeats was now reaching its end. Superhuman agency was again involved in its birth, with the incarnation of god as man in Christ. In Easter 1916 we again see Yeats’s myth-making imagination at work. He transforms and modifies old myths to suit his purpose; he even creates new myths. The opening lines convey an impression that some legendary figures are coming out of the dead past to take part in the activity of the present. The Irish revolt merges into Yeats’s philosophy of history. Heroic intensity has transcended the cycles of ordinary life and achieved permanence in the midst of flux—just as the soul at a certain moment can achieve freedom from the cycle of birth and death.

University Questions

Write an essay and Yeats’s handling of myth and history with reference to Leda and the Sivan and Easter 1916.

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