[ # 91 of My Favourite Short Poems ]
Detail from ‘The Swanmaster’ by Diana Thomson FRBS … sculpture at Staines-on-Thames, England. Photo WHB. ©
‘Leda and the Swan’ by W.B.Yeats
A sudden blow: 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.
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?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
The Irish poet, W.B.Yeats, wrote ‘Leda and the Swan’ in 1923, the year in which he was awarded the Nobel prize for Literature. Yeats, who had a great love of both folklore and mythology, chose to write his version of the story of Leda and the Swan as a Petrarchan sonnet. It tells the story of Zeus, the Father of the Greek Gods, and his seduction in the form of a swan, of Leda, daughter of King Thestius. One interpretation of the story as presented by Yeats, is to see its theme as a metaphor for British involvement in Ireland. Alternatively, it can be read as a generalised representation of the way western civilisation has developed. His choice to write the poem as a sonnet can also be viewed as an ironic comment, contrasting what is a rape with a poetic form normally associated with love and romance.