In the sonnet “Leda and the Swan,” William Butler Yeats uses the Italian or Petrarchan sonnet form of an octave consisting of eight lines and a sestet of six lines in iambic pentameter to explore human’s place in the world. Yeats uses a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCDEFGEFG with the octave setting up the situation of Leda’s struggle, and the sestet providing commentary on its effects. In this sonnet, Yeats questions his place in the world as an artist wondering if he has created something eternal.
At the beginning of Yeats’ sonnet there exists an air of mystery seeing as the title is the only reference to the identity of the characters. “Leda and the Swan” alludes to the mythological story of Leda, Helen’s mother, who is raped by Zeus in the form of a great swan. The “Swan” is a symbol of mystery and passion in throughout the poem. Yeats uses startling imagery and language surrounding sexual tension in the first stanza to indicate his need to explore in order to satisfy. The imagery and language in the octave support Leda’s struggle with the rape, “great wings,” “beating still,” “dark webs” and “nape caught” represent the her resistance through the use of stressed syllables. The last line of the first stanza, “He holds her helpless breast upon his breast,” uses alliteration repeating the “h” sound making the line difficult to read much like the difficulty Leda is facing in her struggle with the rape. The first four lines are a metaphor for Yeats struggle with creating poetry and his unification with the muse.
In the octave Leda’s violent encounter with Zeus is described through sensory words which indicate the Swan’s powerful actions, “sudden blow” and “beating,” and Leda’s weakness, “helpless,” “terrified,” and “vague.” Yeats’ choice language creates evocative imagery of the girl’s rape by a swan. Yeats uses the word “vague” as a reference to the loss of self he is experiencing and questions the reaction to this.
The sestet is clearly separated from...