Research Proposal: Yeats' Implications of Female Power and Sexual

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Yeats' Implications of Female Power and Sexual Assertiveness in "Leda and the Swan"

Through his poem "Leda and the Swan," William Butler Yeats not only depicts a classical mythological tale, but he also interprets the tale, as well as generalizing it through a universal theme. Through stunning imagery and cadence, Yeats tells the story of Zeus's seduction of Leda, coming to her in the form of a swan. Drawing on sexual overtones and sensual language, Yeats allows readers to understand the events of the story, even if one is not familiar with the mythology. Despite his artful retelling, however, Yeats manages to universalize his poem imply not only Leda's seduction, but also more general themes having to do with power, sex, and gender roles. One of these themes centers on the role of women. In fact, through three elements of style -- imagery, word choice, and structure -- Yeats implies that women are both powerful and sexually assertive in "Leda and the Swan."

Although at the beginning of the poem Yeats uses images to suggest Leda's weaknesses, those images are countered by the strength in Leda that Yeats implies at the end of the poem. At first, Yeats allows the author to see Leda's weakness through the images he presents of her struggling in the Swan's, or Zeus's, neck. Readers can imagine the large, robust swan towering over Leda, his "great wings beating still," as the "staggering girl," or Leda, lies "helpless" (Yeats 1,2,3). Through these images, the reader assumes that the swan, or male figure, as he is both the incarnation of Zeus and the male sexual partner, has more power than Leda. Despite the fact that swans are typically creatures associated with beauty, romance, and femininity, Yeats certainly paints this swan to be much more powerful than Leda, or perhaps all women. Yeats calls the swan "the feathered glory," and wonders how Leda's weak body can "but feel the strange heart beating where it lies" (6, 8). The images of the weak human, described only as "body" lying entangled with the glorious and divine white strength of the swan suggest a conquering, just like that of Agamemnon, who Yeats recalls as dead (11). Thus, at the beginning of the poem, Yeats certainly suggests Leda's weakness, and thereby suggests the weakness of women as a theme. Furthermore, these first passages paint her as conquered through sexual intercourse, presenting the swan, or male, as the conqueror and the female as the conquered, thereby enforcing typical gender roles or stereotypes. This image is furthered by Yeats' suggestion that Leda has been "mastered" by swan (13). In fact, he even calls the swan "the brute blood of the air," suggesting the image of a cruel and violent Goliath of a bird who has violently raped Leda. Thus, in the beginning of the poem, Yeats uses imagery to suggest that women are weak and asexual. In fact, through the images Yeats uses, he suggests that the Swan is even violent toward Leda in his sexual advances, so corroborating the interpretation of the act as rape, which some versions of the Greek myth support.

Although Yeats presents these images at first, his depictions of Leda begin to change as readers forge through the poem. For instance, in the third stanza, the reader is confronted not only with images of Greek mythology, but also "a shudder in the -- which "endangers," or births" these mythical Greek travesties (Yeats 9-11). Essentially, the reader is confronted with the image of an orgasm and conception, and the might and power that is born from that conception -- the "broken wall," "burning roof and tower," and Agamemnon's death (10). Through this image, then, Leda is seen as powerful. The readers almost imagine her rising above the swan that had so brutally conquered her before. The imagery suggests that she is powerful enough not only to cause such great disasters, but also to do so through her orgasm, through her own sexual assertiveness. Thus, in the second half of the poem, Yeats presents this imagery that describes her in a far different fashion than the imagery at the beginning of the poem. Where she once was the weak, helpless prey of a mighty swan, frail in both self-determination and sexuality, now she is powerful in both regards. Because of this, the previous images that suggest her weakness at the hands of the swan only solidify her strength. As mighty as the swan was, and as weak as she was during the sexual act, she is now able to overcome these extreme strengths and weaknesses and emerge powerful. Thus, Yeats' weak images of Leda at the beginning of the poem are counteracted by the powerful images of Leda toward the end of the poem. Once this becomes clear, readers can even interpret the previous images, once seen as blatantly suggesting Leda's weakness, as suggesting her ultimate strength. Thus, by portraying Leda as both strong and sexually assertive, Yeats suggests that the typical interpretation of this Greek Myth, which emphasized the weakness of women through Leda's rape, is incorrect. Instead, he puts forth a theme of women's strength through his use of these powerful, contradictory images.

In addition to imagery, Yeats brilliantly uses word choice to suggest Leda's progress from weak to strong. Several of the words that he chooses give the reader little choice but to imagine their very serious connotations. For instance, Yeats continually uses words that imply strength and power when referring to the swan. He calls the swan's wings "great," in the first stanza, and continues by using active voice to describe the swan's actions while using passive voice to refer to Leda's (Yeats 1-4). For instance, while the swan's wings are "beating still," Leda's thighs are "caressed by the dark webs." Her "nape" is "caught in his bill" while "he holds her" (Yeats 1-4). By referring to the swan actively, as the one doing the action, Yeats suggests that he is the more powerful partner. Leda, on the other hand, is the weaker of the two; she cannot perform actions, but actions can be done to her. Thus, Yeats' word choice at the beginning of the poem help solidify the idea that Leda, and women in general, are weaker then their male counterparts. Toward the end of the poem, however, readers can again notice a change in Yeats' style. Despite the fact that Yeats is still using weak imagery to refer to Leda, in the third stanza, he begins to give her actions strength by wondering how her fingers "push," and asking how her body can "feel" (Yeats 5-8). Even more significant is Yeats' use of the word "shudder," saying "a shudder in the -- engenders there" (Yeats 9). Because of another stunning word choice, "engenders," readers can be sure that this shudder is Leda's, as Leda is the female who has conceived and will eventually give birth to Zeus's children, according to the Greek myth. Thus, Leda's shudder is given the ability to do action, suggesting the power of her sexuality and her sexual assertiveness. By using these words, Yeats once again points to a strengthening of Leda's power and sexual assertiveness. While the swan is described with words that imply strength since the very beginning of the poem, Leda's move form passivity to activity is a slow process, suggesting that it is a developing trait. When Leda's shudder is eventually given full active power by being able to engender, a significant moment in the poem is realized. Leda goes from being a weak woman to being a strong one. She travels from sexual passivity to sexual assertiveness. Yeats' use of strength words to describe the swan implies that he has always been that way, but his word choice also suggests that strength and sexual assertiveness is new for Leda, making her even stronger than the Swan. In just a few moments, she becomes stronger than his inherent strength ever was. Finally, Yeats' world choice at the end of the poem solidifies Leda's strength and sexual assertiveness. Yeats asks, "Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop" (14-15)? If this is taken as a rhetorical question, one can understand that Yeats is making the point that Leda has, indeed, taken both the swan's knowledge and his strength, making her not only strong and sexually assertive, but the stronger and more sexually assertive of the pair. Furthermore, in using the term "indifferent" to refer to the swan at the end of the poem, some might suggest that Yeats is pointing out the swan's (or Zeus's) lack of care for Leda. A view of the word choice and sentence structure of this statement, however, suggests otherwise. Yeats asks if Leda has taken Zeus's knowledge and power "before the indifferent beak could let her drop" (Yeats 15). By using the word "could," Yeats implies that the beak knew that Leda would drop -- perhaps because she took all of… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Yeats' Implications of Female Power and Sexual.  (2009, April 3).  Retrieved May 21, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/yeats-implications-female-power-sexual/122905

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"Yeats' Implications of Female Power and Sexual."  Essaytown.com.  April 3, 2009.  Accessed May 21, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/yeats-implications-female-power-sexual/122905.