Close Reading: Leda and the Swan

Looking in detail at how a poem achieves its effects (either out of copyright or with the author’s permission).

This week I want to look at a sonnet close up. And if you want to see how a sonnet works – what the form can be made to do when you pass a few thousand volts through it – there aren’t many examples as taut and disturbing as this one.

Leda and the Swan (W.B. Yeats, 1924)

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?

Let’s get the content out of the way first: the poem’s sexual politics are at best dubious, and the metaphysics are carpet-garglingly nuts (you don’t have to look too far below the surface to find Yeats’s ideas about cyclical history floating around). It’s also a powerful piece of writing that dramatically un-sanitizes a scene from Greek mythology and lets us see it afresh in all its disturbing immediacy.

But for today we’re concerned with how it works rather than what it says.

The poem is a sonnet: fourteen lines of pentameter, in this case rhymed abab cdcd efg efg. That imbalance in the stanzas (two quatrains then two tercets: 4 / 4 / 3 / 3) is important. A sonnet traditionally breaks or “pivots” between the first eight lines (the octet) and the last six (the sestet). Over the centuries poets have used this in different ways, ranging from a subtle shift (start with an idea then deepen it or show it in a slightly different light) to a violent swerve (start with a premise then undermine it). The force of the pivot also depends on the rhyme scheme: Shakespeare’s tend to be less dramatic because his 4 / 4 / 4 / 2 structure puts more emphasis on the final closing couplet (although if you look closely you’ll see the pivot is still there); in Petrarchan and other 4 / 4 / 3 / 3 sonnets it’s generally more pronounced.

Here the transition from octet to sestet contains several shifts at once: the poem moves from description to interpretation; it projects forward to invoke future consequences (prolepsis); and it shifts from the overheated sexual violence of the first two stanzas into the (literal) anti-climax of the ending. And as we’ll see, something else also happens in the synaptic gap between stanzas 2 and 3.

The sonnet – exemplified by Petrarch and spread throughout Europe in the viral transmission of the Renaissance – is a form of love poem. Whenever you see a sonnet, there’s a love poem somewhere in its DNA: in some cases explicitly; in some buried deep; and in others (including this one) in violent contrast with the subject matter. Zeus, disguised as a swan, rapes Leda then abandons her; Leda will give birth to Helen of Troy and so take part in a causal chain that later includes the fall of Troy and the murder of Agamemnon. There is no love in this poem – which is precisely why the form is so relevant.

Zooming in closer, the writing is supercharged from the start. The opening verb-less fragment (“A sudden blow”) comes across as cinematic to a modern reader. With only an unstressed “the” to catch our breath, we’re then hit by a molossus (three consecutive stresses, both rare and unnerving to the English ear – see my recent Keats post): “the great wings beating”. Bearing in mind that adjacent stresses aren’t normal, this poem contains a surprising number:  “dark webs”; “nape caught”, “vague fingers”, “white rush”, “strange heart beating” (another molossus), “brute blood”. In fact, six of the poem’s fourteen lines (five in the octet and one in the sestet) contain adjacent stresses.

You can remove some of these by forcing the poem into a more traditional iambic di-dum-di-dum rhythm, but that means imposing a metrical pattern in opposition to the natural pulse of the words themselves (“A sudden blow: the great wings beating still“). To my ear that fetishizes metrics over both sense and natural rhythm. Part of the brilliance of this line is the way it suppresses the stress on “blow” so that we in fact hear: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still“. The swan’s attack is brutal and fast: we’re stunned by the first stress and miss a beat, recovering only to hear the whump-whump-whump of those awful wings.

The fifth line of the poem is wound as tight as anything in English verse: “How can those terrified vague fingers push“. It’s not stretching credulity to hear a struggle within the line itself: the collision of stresses rupturing alliteration and assonance patterns that bind stressed and unstressed syllables together (“-fied…vague..fin”; “terr…gers”) with both the “er” assonance and the f/v consonants picked up in the next line’s horrific “feathered glory”.

Let’s go back to those adjacent stresses: five out of six adjacent-stress lines are in the octet, meaning all but three of the octet lines contain adjacent stresses. That’s a tremendous amount of energy compressed into a few short lines. The octet has a raw, violent intensity that dissipates in the sestet (in a way that’s obviously mimetic given the subject matter). In between is a blank space where poetic geometry would locate the pivot.

The first line of the sestet appears to describe the conception of Helen (“A shudder in the loins engenders there”), but if we look closely it’s the Trojan war and Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon that are (metaphorically) engendered, rather than a child. Zeus’s rape of Leda gives birth to geopolitical effects as much as to a daughter. In fact, everything in the sestet is an effect caused by events in the octet (and yes, that goes for the closing rhetorical question too, though that will have to wait for a later post).

The most important moment in the whole poem is the point at which cause gives way to effect; the point at which what follows is inevitable (which is not the same as the protracted anti-Liebestod anti-climax of lines 9-14). This comes after line 8 but before line 9, in the white space of the break between stanzas.

In the pivot.

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