The Treatment of the Swan Iconography in “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Leda and the Swan.”
The image of the swan is thoroughly explored throughout Yeats’ poetry, in which it not only heightens the overall textual integrity but also allows the reader to ingest the suggestions that are intricate and simultaneous as posed by each Yeats text. Although the image and its meaning is distinct within each poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole” and “Leda and the Swan”, the treatment of the swan as a muse is recognised through its ability to bind various themes and key ideas together in both poems.
“The Wild Swans at Coole” demonstrates Yeats himself in the midst of temporal shifts as he attempts to seek an eternal sense of himself. Within this flux of time, Yeats demonstrates his despair by creating a comparison between his eternal self as well as the swan iconography within nature’s seemingless beauty. Yeats’ romantic notions of sublime nature and time are used to structure his poem into six sestets; all in which exemplify his emotions through the swan iconography as he seeks solace and resolve.
The first sestet establishes the setting and time in which Yeats places himself in; “The trees are in their autumn beauty, The woodland paths are dry”. The juxtaposition between the “beauty” of the autumn trees and the “dry” paths exemplifies the contrast between nature’s perfection against emotion. This contrast allows the reader to experience Yeats’ own autumnal season; his inner bareness and despair. Yeats then uses imagery to create a metaphorical representation; “the water Mirrors a still sky”. This use of imagery allows the reader to connect with Yeats on a personal level as the “mirroring” alludes to his state of reflection. The first allusion of his muse then occurs through Yeats’ use of symbolism; “… nine-and-fifty-swans”. The reader is drawn to this precise number as it builds on natures sublimity suggesting the incomplete pair. This symbolic representation given by the quantitative measure of the swans further allows the reader to connect with Yeats on an emotional level of feeling incomplete.
The continuity of the swans and their cyclic migration in the poem can be read as a metaphysical yearning as Yeats builds on the idea of the swan iconography coexisting with his change. Yeats contextualizes his emotional state in the past through the swan iconography; “I looked upon those brilliant creatures”. This past tense clause is juxtaposed with his use of synecdoche in the present tense; “And now my heart is sore” which represents Yeats’ emotional distraught having been affected through the flux of time. This idea is demonstrated through the juxtaposition between the dimensions of time; the past and the present. Yeats then builds on swan iconography; “Unwearied still, lover by lover”. The short clause builds on the idea of pairing up for life which affects Yeats emotionally due to his personal experiences with unrequited love.
Yeats gradually begins to shift his tone towards the end of the poem as he starts to accept his inevitable impermanence through his forseement. Yeats employs a rhetoric; “When I awake someday To find they have flown away?” The rhetorical clause implies that Yeats is finally finding the eternal sense of himself and he is ready to move on – just how the swans will also move and and be seen by other “men’s eyes”. The connection between the swan and Yeats himself allows the reader to connect to these themes of impermanence.
Conversely, “Leda and the Swan” employs the swan iconography to communicate different themes and ideas. The poem which is structured into a hybrid sonnet (Shakespearean + Petrarchan) captures Yeats’ political voice by exploring themes of violence through sensuality as well as its consequences within a historical allusion. The swan is no longer an elegant entity within the beauty of nature – instead it takes the form of a violent mythic (Zeus).
The opening of the sonnet enforces a sense of violent, dramatic immediacy which is indicated by the adjective “sudden”. Yeats begins by building on the image of sensuality with violence as he uses a synecdoche; “the great wings”. This synecdoche along with the adjective “great” enforces the dominant image of the swan which also lies “Above the staggering girl”. The use of the adjective “staggering” suggests that the girl (Leda) is vulnerable and weak, thus emphasizing the swans’ dominance. Yeats then further reiterates the theme of utter dominance as the beast begins to establish its violent contact with Leda; “her nape caught in his bill”. This use of imagery allows the reader to visualise the total powerlessness and surrender of Leda through this ‘capture’ which accentuates the swan’s dominance. This establishment of power in the first quatrain also alludes to the similar violent relationship between England and Ireland in terms of political power where England is the dominant figure. The swan is used in this quatrain to express Ireland’s’ helplessness and vulnerability.
A complete shift in tone occurs at the volta of the poem where Yeats breaks from the Shakespearean form moving into the Petrarchan; “A shudder in the loins engenders there”. The volta implicates the completion of the rape through the verb “shudder”, as Yeats begins to examine its consequences; “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower And Agamemnon dead.” This double entendre draws the line towards the destruction of Troy within the Trojan War as Yeats implies that the violent act of the rape only lead to more violence and destruction. The entendre further expresses Yeats’ political voice; which alludes to England’s colonization of Ireland and the subsequent history of violence that Ireland gave birth to.
Although both poems present contrary themes, the use of the swan as an icon is prominent. The poems challenge the reader in connecting different key ideas and themes whilst it also draws on social, political and historical contexts. Yeats expresses both his personal and political voice which heightens the overall textual integrity.
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The image of the swan is thoroughly explored throughout Yeats’ poetry, in which it not only heightens the overall textual integrity but also allows the reader to ingest the suggestions […]