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William Butler Yeats-

The Second Coming and


Leda And The Swan
(Paper 14)

Sanchari Sengupta
M.A. Hons. Part II
Roll No. 11
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in the year 1865 to an artistic family. Even from a
young age, he was an aesthete, publishing his first verses in the year 1885. His grandfather
and father played a significant role in moulding William’s young mind into a poet. As a child,
William was read works of William Shakespeare and Shelley, much of which he took to
heart; he was much affected by the works of Shelley, and his later literary works reflect this
inspiration.

Yeats fell in love with a politically active Maud Gonne, which enabled him to focus on the
political and humanistic approaches of the trouble-ridden Ireland. Moreover, he grew up
during the years of the Irish Revival, the political rise and fall of Charles Stuart Parnell, and
the civil war, which lend a politically reflective touch to Yeats’s works.

The two poems of W.B. Yeats that this paper deals with are The Second Coming and Leda
and the Swan.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre


The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;


Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know


That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
In the year 1938, W.B. Yeats, commenting on the political scenario of the world, wrote in a
letter to his friend, Ethel Mannin:

“If you have my poems by you, look up a poem called The Second Coming. It
was written some sixteen or seventeen years ago and foretold what is
happening. I have written of the same thing again and again since. This will
seem little to you with your strong practical sense, for it takes fifty years for a
poet’s weapons to influence the issue.” (Wade, Allan, ed., The Letters of W. B.
Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1955). P. 851).

The “same thing” that is being alluded to here by Yeats is the rise of strongman dictators not
only in Nazi Germany, but also in Italy, Spain, Russia and China. They are the stark
examples of that “rough beast” that is described in Yeats’s The Second Coming, whose
emergence and gradual intensification is not so much prophesied as anticipated in Yeats’s
most celebrated poem: “And what rough beast, its hour come round at least,/ Slouches
towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Yeats spent years shaping a mystical, creative and elaborate theory of the universe, which he
describes in his work A Vision. This came shortly after his marriage, when he discovered that
his wife was a medium, and the discoveries of her communications led to the creation of
Discoveries of Michael Robartes, which Yeats later expounded into A Vision. It was in this
theory that Yeats came up with the description of the “Giant Wheel” or the “heaving circles”,
which critics call his Gyre theory. Through this explanation of gyres, one inside the other, he
represented not only the nature and character of mankind or every individual in a society, but
also the ages that lead to one another. He believed that this image contained the contrary
motions that are inherent in the historical process of changing ages. As such, he appointed
each gyre specific regions that represented certain kinds of historical periods, and also,
contrarily, the different phases of psychological development in an individual. The Second
Coming was written by Yeats with the intention of describing the current historical situation
(the poem was published in the year 1921) in terms of the theory of the gyres. The poem is
his rendition of the idea that the world is on the threshold of an apocalypse, on the brink of
untold chaos that is signified by the advent of the “rough beast” with which the poem ends.

Yeats ends his poem on a terrible and awe-inspiring note, that can be well taken as both a
warning and prophesy. He emphasises that the second coming that is to be anticipated in the
modern world with the advent of the Western tradition is not the coming of Christ, but the
second coming of the Antichrist, spelling a doom for modern society. The world’s allegiance
to the gyre of science, democracy and heterogeneity is falling apart at the seams and it is
going further and further away from this gyre, very much like the falcon that, in its flight, has
lost all association with the falconer. The inner gyre that the world seems to head toward is
thrives in primal power. Yeats further alludes to a Sphinx, whose twenty centuries old
slumber has been wickedly turned into a nightmare, compelling it to move about in a desert
while the shadows of vultures circle above it. The rising beast that comes after is Yeats’s
symbol for the new modern age, whereas his vision of the Sphinx is the character of this new
world. In effect of such disturbing images, we are “profoundly stirred not so much by Yeats’s
joy as by his horror and his fear… [in the face of] the terror of anarchy, the burden of
nightmare, and the tragedy of a hope so far removed from the discordant present as to be
almost meaningless.” (Seiden, Morton Irving. William Butler Yeats: The Poet As Mythmaker
(New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1975). P. 235-36).

Yeats was much familiar with the works and ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche, from as far back as
1902. Much of A Vision’s theories of alternating historical situations and natures have been
linked and compared to similar philosophies and notions by Nietzsche. The following
passage from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil has numerous allusions to barbarians and
war-like clans, looking to dictate over humankind:

“Men whose nature was still natural, barbarians in every frightful sense of the
word, men of prey, men still in possession of unbroken strength of will and
power-drives- such men threw themselves upon weaker, better-behaved, more
peaceable races… in which the last life powers were flickering away in
flashing fireworks of intellect and corruption. The distinguished caste in the
beginning was always the barbarian caste; their superiority lay primarily not in
their physical but in their psychic power; they were more whole as human
beings (which on every level also means “more whole as beasts”).”
(Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil., trans. Marianne Cowan.
(Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1955). P. 199-200.)

Images and phrases from this passage reverberate periodically in many of Yeats’s works,
particularly in the underlying images of his poem The Second Coming.

The second poem of William Butler Yeats being studied in this paper is Leda and the Swan.

Leda And The Swan

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 poem Leda and the Swan, like The Second Coming, describes an end of an era according
to Yeats’s representation of the gyres. However, whereas The Second Coming stands
somewhat for the end of modern history, Leda and the Swan portrays its beginning. The title
of the poem holds much significance; in fact there are rarely poems like this where Yeats has
put so much of thought and emphasis on the title alone. The title Leda and the Swan refers to
the Greek myth that the poem deals with. Without the title, the poem would fail to create the
impact that it does, and it would be difficult for readers to place the significance of the poem.
A textual reading will show that it describes a bizarre phenomenon, almost occult in keeping
with Yeats’s theme. An innocent girl, Leda, is raped by a Swan, which is in reality the Greek
God Zeus in disguise. The poem is stark and contains emotions and sensations on the surface.
There is a continuous undercurrent of violence through the poem, and it is all the more
glaring since it is brought about by a swan: a bird known for its beauty and grace.

Leda and the Swan is written as a classical Petrarchan sonnet, complete with iambic
pentameter, consisting of an octave and a sestet that are divided by a change in the mood of
the poem. The dividing line is represented by “A shudder in the loins”, which precedes a turn
in events and temperament of the girl and the swan. Where until now, violence had a master
hold on the poem’s mood, with the helpless girl flailing against the swan’s ministrations,
unable to free herself from the unfailing grip of the bird, the sestet describes a mellower
mood. The swan has had his way with the girl, and the latter lies thoroughly spent and
exhausted. Yeats places the Caesura in the very beginning of the poem: “A sudden blow”,
thus creating a dramatic entrance of the swan and depicting the suddenness and complete
overthrow of the helpless girl. Throughout the entire sonnet, there is a consistent difference
between the girl and her molester, and Yeats enhances this difference between the dominant
swan and the subjugated girl with carefully chosen words: “staggering”, “helpless”, “blow”,
“crush”, “push”, “loosening”, and “brute”. Yeats has also chosen alliteration as a device to
put emphasis on the action and sensuousness of the poem; for Leda and the Swan is a poem
brimming with sensuous imageries. The reader can feel the strength of the swan and the
powerlessness and vulnerability of Leda, they can feel the manner in which Zeus, in the form
of the swan, takes the girl by surprise and completely owns her.

The sestet, apart from projecting a mood of submissiveness, also has a change in the
intertextuality of the poem, shifting the theme to Homer’s “Iliad” and the Trojan War. Yeats
refers to the myth of Clytemnestra and Helen and the war-gods Castor and Polydeuces, who
were hatched from eggs laid by Leda on being raped by a swan, and who in turn brought
about the Trojan War and the death of Agamemnon: “The broken wall, the burning roof and
tower/ And Agamemnon dead.” The reference to historic events makes the narrator almost
omniscient in nature, and lends credibility to his narration. He alludes to this piece of history
and subtly connects Leda, at the present moment of the poem, to a disastrous tragedy that is
to happen years later. The last two lines of the poem are in past tense, where the poet again
speaks to Leda, asking her whether, in the process of being mastered by the swan, she had
somehow lost her own conscience and had become a brute, which in turn confirmed the fate
of the Trojan War.

“What happens in the poem has already begun before its beginning. Toward
the end of the poem we realize even more the sovereign independence of the
temporal rhythm pulsating in the raper: it proceeds and dies on its own
momentum: the act of begetting will be only “a shudder in the loins” for the
begetter, while the events he has created will follow their own track which will
lead to the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon; and we are told of these
dire events even before the orgasm of the swan is spent… It is the
metaphysical paradox of the physical act of sex that death and destruction may
have been created even before this process of animal life is ended.” (Spitzer,
Leo. “On Yeats's Poem “Leda and the Swan””. Modern Philology (1954):
271-276).

As a result, Yeats seeks to create a sense of connection between all facets of the universe,
emphasizing that the incidents in the life of an individual can have serious and long lasting
consequences in the future for many scores of people.
Works Cited

Primary Sources

Yeats, William Butler. Leda and the Swan. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/leda-and-


swan.

Yeats, William Butler. “The Second Coming”. Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Verse- An
Anthology of Sixteen Poets., ed. Chris Woodhead. Oxford University Press, 2007. P. 88.

Secondary Sources

Deane, Paul D. “Metaphors of Center and Periphery in Yeats’ The Second Coming”. Journal
of Pragmatics 24.6 (1995): 627-642.

Harrison, John R. “What Rough Beast? Yeats, Nietzsche and Historical Rhetoric in The
Second Coming”. Papers on Language and Literature 31.4 (1995): 362.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil., trans. Marianne Cowan. (Chicago: Henry
Regnery Company, 1955). P. 199-200.

Seiden, Morton Irving. William Butler Yeats: The Poet As Mythmaker (New York: Cooper
Square Publishers, 1975). P. 235-36.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on Yeats’s Poetry.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC.


2002. Web. 10 Feb. 2015.

Spitzer, Leo. “On Yeats's Poem “Leda and the Swan””. Modern Philology (1954): 271-276.

Sword, Helen. “Leda and the Modernists”. Publications of the Modern Language Association
of America (1992): 305-318.

Trowbridge, Hoyt. ““Leda and the Swan”: A Longinian Analysis”. Modern Philology (1953):
118-129.

Wade, Allan, ed., The Letters of W. B. Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1955). P. 851.

Weeks, Donald. “Image and Idea in Yeats’ The Second Coming”. Publications of the Modern
Language Association of America (1948): 281-292.