Yeats’ Use of Symbolism in ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘the Second Coming’

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W. B. Yeats, a somewhat eclectic poet, explores, throughout his work, a wide range of themes and ideas. He reflects on his nation’s politics, Irish mysticism, the afterlife, love, and his own past. While each set of his poems share many recurring images, however, it is Yeats’ examination and opinions of the gyres of time and history that crop up in all forms of his poetry.

While references to this great spiraling metaphor for the fabric of the universe can be found in some of Yeats’ most famous works, such as ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘Long-legged Fly’ and ‘Easter 1916’, to name just a few, it is an aspect of his poetry which is relevant to almost all of his writing. However, it is in Yeats’ apocalyptic poems, ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘The Second Coming’ that this metaphor for the history of time is most explored.

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The poems relate the tales of two points in time that Yeats feels to be important turning points in history, epicenters of calamity and destruction, as the stability of civilization in torn apart and humanity enters a new era of was and horror. The first of the poems, ‘The Second Coming’, was written in 1920 and the very title indicates to the reader something of sinister nature, and links in very much with the final chapter of the Bible, Revelations, which acts as a foresight of judgment day.

It is also possible that the tragedies of World War One, which had only ended two years prior to the printing of the poem, also influenced Yeats’ lack of optimism about a long future peace. From line one, Yeats talks of a “widening gyre”, “turning and turning” as history, past, present, and future, revolves slowly. The great gyres referred to by Yeats are used to represent his view that a single miniscule point in history can spiral outward exponentially to cause great long term catastrophe.

Yeats also notions toward his beliefs in the link between mysticism and astrology as the “turning and turning” represents the spinning planets, along with the 23 phases of the moon, each of which, Yeats believed, corresponded to an epoch in time. Another metaphor s then employed as we are told of how “the falcon cannot hear the falconer”. Here, Yeats uses the image of the falconer to represent some kind of order and structure, possible God, or possibly simply the rational part of man. However, the stability which this entity should be commanding , the falcon, is no longer at ne with him.

It has spiraled outward again and again to achieve such great hights that that it had in fact lost touch with its master. This catastrophe this build up had lead to is then unleashed as “Things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold”. This collapse then triggers one devastating conclusion: “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”. Yeats uses oxymoronic juxtaposition to startle and almos confuse the reader. By talking of “mere anarchy”, Yeats throws so much that is settled in the readers mind to the wall/ The two words bring with them images of utterly destroyed buildings, cities, live and civilizations as an end comes to humanity.

Yeats then talks of a “blood-dimmed tide” also being “loosed”, and this repetition of the word “loosed” establishes a feeling that this havoc is no new creation, but something which had been locked away in the vaults of time and will now once again bring death of the earth. Stanza two begins with proclamations warning of a coming doom: “Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! ” This somewhat maddened calling of the apocalypse is haunting to say the least.

The repetition of “surely…at hand” brings with it a feeling that Yeats is not just assuming this horrific future is possible, but also that he knows, for sure, that it is on its way. The call is also one of fear in itself. He knows it’s coming, but he cannot accept it. As word of the second coming is utters, Yeats talks of how “Hardly those words are out/When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi/Troubles my sight”. Yeats, falling into some kind of trance, begins to describe the scene as an awesome sight grows before him. He talks of “A shape with a lion body and the head of a man/A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun”.

The creature described is, of course, the form of the ancient Egyptian sphinx. This metaphor is far stronger than the one of the falcon, as the great beast begins “moving it’s slow thighs”. The creature represents an antichrist, a further image of this destruction of man. The blank and pitiless gaze it gives emphasizes its lack of human emotion, and the brutal nature of its task. The, all of a sudden, “darkness drops”, and the vision is over. Reflecting on what he saw, Yeats talks of the “nightmare” to come, and that for the “rough beast, its hour come round at last”.

Overall, the poem sets out clearly what Yeats truly believes as the future for mankind. The structure is also worthy of note. Usually, Yeats stuck strongly to established rhyme schemes and stanza structures, however, in this poem he choses not to. While stanza one 8 lines, the second is 14, and this emphasizes to some extent the lack of clarity in Yeats’ vision, as his description what he saw flows out of him almost uncontrollably. Also, the lack of rhyme scheme indicates once more the havoc and ruggedness of events to come, although word repetition does connote a feeling of the slowly turning gyre, turning round and round endlessly.

The second of the two poems, ‘Leda and the Swan’, takes us back to the first era of destruction, cruelty and war, before the epoch of Christianity. It tells the mythical tale of Leda being raped by the Greek god Zeus, in the form of a swan, an action that supposedly lead to the birth of Helen of Troy. Later, Helen’s kidnap triggered the Trojan Wars, an era of fighting, death and misery that apparently spanned from, Yeats believed, around 2000 BC until the arrival of Christianity. Yeats therefore uses this to reinforce his belief that the epochs of time fluctuate between one of peace and one of destruction. Leda and the Swan’, however, unlike ‘The Second Coming’, does not focus so much on the occurrences of the period which it the rape caused, but on the rape itself. Yeats begins describing an image of power: “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still”. The abruptness of the beginning, the “sudden blow”, brings to us an image of the swift swan, with Leda helpless to resist. Its “great wings” are an image of both beauty and power, and this is emphasized further as we are told of the “staggering girl” the swan is overpowering. Her innocent nature is exposed as she tries to flee the scene, but Zeus is too powerful.

Yeats describes the rape further, with deepening detail, as “her thighs caressed/By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill/he holds her helpless breast upon his breast”. This vivid commentary explains to the reader the violence Zeus inflicts while taking advantage of Leda. He “helpless” breast is crushed, as Zeus metaphorically crushed the coming future of mankind. In stanza two the reader is faced with two rhetorical questions. Firstly, we are asked, “How can those terrified vague fingers push/The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? The question poses the though, that neither physically, nor mentally, could Leda reject Zeus. His power, his ‘glory’ and his status all ensure this, and her “loosening thighs” confirm an end to her protest as she accepts Zeus inside her. This acceptance and embracement of Zeus suggests that, just like when the second coming arrives, we must accept the power of fate, as protest will bring no benefits. A second question then follows up the first, “how can body, laid in that white rush/ But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? ” Here, Yeats ponders if anybody really could bring themselves to escape the situation.

He challenges any idea that Leda could help herself from being raped, as she could do nothing to oppose the rape. The final stanza then moves back to the vivid description, as “a shudder in the loins” brings a point of orgasm. This climax to the entire poem, is both representative of the orgasm itself, the point when Leda first becomes impregnated with Helen, and also foreshadows the horrific era in history which follows the birth. We are told of hoe this moment of ecstasy “engenders there/ The broken wall, the burning roof and tower”, and the idea of how changing of future this single moment would be it is made more clear.

At that very instant, the seed of a new gyre is also planted, one that will expand outward until it bring incomprehensible damage to mankind. Also, the phallic symbol of the “tower” enforces once again the idea of Zeus’ great stature as a being of immense power. We are told also of how the rape also results in Agamemnon, a leader in the Trojan wars, a son of a King, dying. His death occurred whilst Helen was kidnapped, and therefore Yeats links it with the event of the rape. Yeats then continues the same stanza on the next line, and indented. This interruption signifies, also, how the rape causes a rift in the stability of man.

If forces an almost new beginning, but not a completely refreshed one, as the Stanza and topic remain the same. This idea is also emphasized by the fact that the final stanza, the pinnacle of the rape, is two lines longer than the others, and features a rhyme scheme of ABCABC, rather than the simple ABAB of the previous two. These things also interrupt the flow of the poem, and the flow of the future life of man. The final lines leave a poignant message. “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? ”

Firstly, Zeus’ great manliness is reinforced, but it is the Yeats’ use of the rhetorical question that is once again magnificently effective. It asks whether Leda, in accepting the rape, knew of its consequences, or was she told of them by Zeus. This is a stark statement as obviously it had only previously suggested that Zeus had known what he was doing, and Leda been fully innocent. Also, the comment about Zeus’ indifference finally sums up the attitude of how, despite his knowledge of all that was to follow, he cared not for the people’s sufferings that were to come about as a result of his own actions.

Overall, the two poems give a deep insight into how Yeats’ viewed the world, viewed history, and viewed the future. His fascination with the Gyre system is portrayed deeply in the second coming, and his calls of the apocalypse are almost akin to that of a raving madman. However, it is more than a flow of random words, his effective repetition of particular words and points, along with a deeply descriptive metaphor of times to come, give the poem a multitude of levels into which we can read.

The horrors, although described in no more than two short stanzas, are brought so vividly to the mind of the reader that they cannot help but feel fear for mankind’s future. Leda and Swan acts almost as proof of how events can trigger these epochs of utter destruction, as the deep insight into how a violent act can begin a long period of war and suffering, and Yeats’ no doubt feels that either World War One, or some violent act to come, which was obviously well on its was due to political turmoil in Europe, could spark off a long term period of war.

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Yeats’ Use of Symbolism in ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘the Second Coming’. (2017, Feb 11). Retrieved from

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