Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Van Duyn's Leda

Powerful Essays
Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Van Duyn's Leda

In Greek mythology, Leda, a Spartan queen, was so beautiful that Zeus, ruler of the gods, decided he must have her. Since immortals usually did not present themselves to humankind in their divine forms, Zeus changed himself into a great swan and in that shape ravished the helpless girl (Carey 58-59). Both William Butler Yeats and Mona Van Duyn base their poems "Leda and the Swan" and "Leda," respectively, on this story of a "mystic marriage." Yeats' focus on the sexual act itself, along with his allusions to Leda's progeny, manifest a grave and terrifying tone. While he raises Leda to a status similar to that of Mary, mother of Jesus, Van Duyn portrays Leda as a universal mother. By making both figures, Leda and Zeus, ordinary, she gives a "surprising twist" (Greiner 337) to the original myth, emphasized by her witty tone. In addition, whereas Yeats suggests that Leda has gained something from her encounter with Zeus, Van Duyn asserts that she has gained nothing, portraying women in general as primarily objects of men's satisfaction.

Yeats begins his poem by concentrating on the mere depiction of the rape scene. Words such as "beating, dark, helpless," and "terrified" provide this violent act of intrusion with negative connotations. The victim, Leda, is helpless against the power of the aggressor, Zeus, and terrified by his actions. Recalling the original Greek myth, Yeats clearly shows Leda's resistance at every step ("staggering girl," "helpless breast," "terrified vague fingers push"). Zeus' relationship with Leda parallels human interaction in general with either Satan or God. In Christianity, the prevailing religion of Yeats' time, pious men attempt to push away ...

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...f violence, and underlying religious motif. Overall, Yeats instills fear into the reader, while Van Duyn elicits an occasional laugh; however, both poems are equally effective, one for its religious message and the other for its man bashing.

Works Cited

Barnhart, Clarence L. and Robert K. The World Book Dictionary. Chicago:Doubleday, 1985.

Carey, Gary. Cliffs Notes on Mythology. Lincoln: C.K. Hillegass, 1973.

Greiner, Donald J. "American Poets since World War II." Dictionary of LiteraryBiographies. Detroit:Doubleday, 1980.

Heaney, Seamus. The Redress of Poetry . New York: Noonday, 1995.

Magill, Frank N. Critical Survey of Poetry. Engelwood Cliffs: Salem Press, 1982. Vol. 7

"Torah: The Five Books of Moses." Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication

Society, 1985.