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W. B. Yeats' "The Fisherman" and "Leda and the Swan"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "The Fisherman"

The speaker in William Butler Yeats' "The Fisherman" tis calling for a poetry that will be meaningful to the common folk. He reveals his contempt for charlatans, while encouraging an ideal that he feels must steer culture and art.

William Butler Yeats' poem, "The Fisherman," appears in the poet's The Wild Swans at Coole, which was published in 1919. His collection contains many of the poet’s most widely anthologized poems.

In "The Fisherman," Yeats creates a speaker who is calling for a genuine art for the common folk, one that holds all the beauty and truth inherent in all great art. He also decries the cultural suicide that is being perpetrated by charlatans, frauds, and power mad politicians.

Every nation at every point in time suffers these same issues, as history has revealed. The poets often speak up, naming names and calling for reform.

William Butler Yeats, as an accomplished world poet and former Irish senator, possessed the acumen to address these issues of culture, politics, and art, and he has left a number of intense poems that do just that; "The Fisherman" is one of the most colorful and culturally relevant poems of its era.

The Fisherman

Although I can see him still,
The freckled man who goes
To a grey place on a hill
In grey Connemara clothes
At dawn to cast his flies,
It’s long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man.
All day I’d looked in the face
What I had hoped ’twould be
To write for my own race
And the reality;
The living men that I hate,
The dead man that I loved,
The craven man in his seat,
The insolent unreproved,
And no knave brought to book
Who has won a drunken cheer,
The witty man and his joke
Aimed at the commonest ear,
The clever man who cries
The catch-cries of the clown,
The beating down of the wise
And great Art beaten down.

Maybe a twelvemonth since
Suddenly I began,
In scorn of this audience,
Imagining a man
And his sun-freckled face,
And grey Connemara cloth,
Climbing up to a place
Where stone is dark under froth,
And the down turn of his wrist
When the flies drop in the stream:
A man who does not exist,
A man who is but a dream;
And cried, "Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn."

Reading of "The Fisherman"

Commentary on "The Fisherman"

The speaker in William Butler Yeats' poem is calling for a poetry that will be meaningful to the common folk. He reveals his contempt for charlatans, while encouraging an ideal that he feels must steer culture and art. Yeats promoted the arts that he felt most closely played to the culture of the Irish.

First Movement: Remembering an Admired Man

The speaker is recalling a man he has admired: "[t]he freckled man" wearing "Connemara clothes." The man has been accustomed to fishing at a "gray place on a hill."

The speaker suggests that he can still visualize the man, perhaps the speaker even sees him from time to time in the village, but the speaker has not mused about the man recently.

The speaker likes the man’s simplicity; he calls him "wise and simple." The speaker will continue to muse on those very same qualities in his poem. The speaker wishes to extoll the virtues of simplicity and wisdom of observing those folks who are doing everyday, simple tasks.

Second Movement: Researching History

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The speaker has charted his course to "write for my own race / And the reality"; thus, he has been researching the history of his country.

The speaker insists that he wishes to reveal the reality of his fellow citizens, a reality, which will well acquit itself while at the same time reflect the same truths that future generations hence will likely experience.

The speaker catalogues the men and their qualities who make up the current political landscape. At some of those men, he flings his ire, "[t]he living men that I hate." He emphasizes his hatred by contrasting that deadly emotion with, "[t]he dead man that I loved."

The speaker continues in his hatred by naming "[t]he craven man in his seat / The insolent unreproved." The speaker feels that by contrasting good and evil, he can arrive at a staid virtue upon which to found a better art and poetry that will reflect the Irish culture more truly.

Third Movement: The Guilty Avoiding Justice

The speaker continues to reference the rogues and knaves, who have thus far avoided justice though guilty. The speaker reviles those who have "won a drunken cheer," even though they have been undeserving of such honor and celebrity.

The speaker avers that it is this whole lot of loathsome characters who besmirch and heap shame on the culture. The speaker accuses those scandalous usurpers with nearly destroying the art of the nation. They continue to denigrate "the wise" as they destroy the "great Art" that they had inherited.

The speaker laments what these assassins of culture have perpetrated and therefore is calling attention to their perfidy. He is calling for change in focus and improvement in values—not censorship of the scoundrels.

Fourth Movement: Culture Killers

The speaker then suggests that for a while he has begun fashioning an uncomplicated, "sun-freckled face," —the man in "Connemara cloth." For his effort, he has received only "scorn" from the ilk of those culture killers and unscrupulous individuals.

Still, the speaker presses on, endeavoring to visualize a simple fisherman, the man who "climb[s] up to a place / Where stone is dark with froth," a natural piece of landscape that remains pristine and yet alluring.

The speaker is creating a symbolic presence that he can describe and to which he can assign the qualities that he feels must become part of the natural art that belongs to the people of his locale.

Fifth Movement: Musing on Simplicity

The speaker sees in vision the fisherman’s wrist movement as he casts his line into the water, and he admits that this man does not yet exist, while he is "but a dream."

The speaker’s keenness, however, to resurrect such a simple, rustic character spurs him on to exclaim that while he, the poet, remains young enough to imagine, he shall take to the task of writing this fisherman into existence and to write the man a poem, "as cold / And passionate as the dawn."

The speaker continues to devote himself to musing on simplicity; he ardently wishes to create a new ideal that will produce meaningful, original poetry—a poetry that will speak with organic originality and will also foretoken the beginning of a new era in poetry.

All this the speaker hopes to accomplish despite the crassness and duplicity of too many of the political phonies whose selfishness is leading to the ruination of their own culture.

Sources

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

Introduction and Text of "Leda and the Swan"

W. B. Yeats’ "Leda and the Swan" focuses on the ancient Greek myth, wherein the woman, Leda, wife of Tyndareus, was impregnated by the god Zeus in disguise as a swan. Yeats’ speaker offers his musing regarding the nature of such an act and how it might have impacted Leda's mental capacities afterward.

The April 28, 2012, edition of The Telegraph features an article by Hannah Furness titled, "'Mythical' Swan Photo Taken Down After 'Bestiality' Fears."

A Metropolitan police officer happened to catch a glimpse of a photograph on display at The Scream, a gallery owned by Tyrone and Jamie Wood, sons of Ronnie Wood, guitarist for The Rolling Stones.

Derrick Santini's photograph depicted the mythological copulation of Leda and the god Zeus as he appeared to her as a swan.

The officer reported his observation, and two of his uniformed colleagues appeared at The Scream to investigate. Because bestiality is an "arrestable offence," the officers demanded that the offending piece of art be removed.

The curators complied because the work had been on display for a whole month and was slated to taken down anyway.

If the officers had appeared on the day the display was first put up, there might have been a court battle over the issue. Jamie Wood remarked: "We would of course have fought to keep the piece up otherwise.

If anyone wants to view it, we still have it at the gallery. The purpose of art is to provoke debate and Derrick’s piece has certainly done that."

This scenario is a sad indication of the direction of Western culture—an officer of the law unable to recognize a piece of art that depicts an ancient Greek myth. The clash of art and culture remains an issue for all generations.

Yeats' recasting the famous "copulation" offers a modern musing on the event, flavoring it with implications that likely the original myth creators would find amusing.

Nevertheless, the symbolism of the myth remains open to interpretation, and each mind will do so according to its moral dictates as well as to its storehouse of facts.

Yeats’ poem, "Leda and the Swan" is basically a sonnet, though it sports 15 lines instead of the traditional 14. It might be remembered that sonnet 99 of the Shakespeare sequence also features an extra line, as a cinquain replaces the traditional quatrain in the first stanza.

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?

Reading of "Leda and the Swan"

Commentary on "Leda and the Swan"

William Butler Yeats creates a speaker who is offering his interpretation of the ancient Greek myth in order to pose a question on which he had been and would likely continue to muse.

First Stanza: In Medias Res

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.

The poem begins in medias res, meaning that the copulation is in progress after the sudden descension of the swan as it has swooped down and is now having its way with Leda.

The wings of the swan are still fluttering, as he has caused the woman to stagger. He grips her thighs with his "dark webs," catches her by the neck, and holds her against himself as she is helpless to loosen herself from that grip.

This myth has often been interpreted as a "rape" and Yeats' depiction goes a long way to provide the violence that could indeed herald that appellation, despite the fact that, based on the actual mythic narrative, a case might be made that Leda was not, in fact, an unwilling participant in this coupling.

Later that day Leda copulates with her husband, and the result from those two intimacies is her giving birth to two sets of twins: one set, Helen and Polydeuces, fathered by the swan-Zeus, and the other, Castor and Clytemnestra, fathered by Tyndareus.

Second Stanza: Questions

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?

The speaker is speculation that the girl cannot push the swan from her; she has only "terrified vague fingers," and he is full of a "feathered glory," after all this is Zeus, a god.

His ability to loosen her thighs is absolute; thus, there is no possibility that she can do other than endure feeling that big bird's heart beating on her, as she lies helpless while he shoves his male member into her female receptacle through his "white rush."

The two rhetorical questions, as virtually all rhetorical questions do, function to answer themselves, yet at the same time, they demonstrate that the speaker remains open to other possibilities. The speaker is musing on these events, wondering about certain issues, but offering no final conclusion.

Third Stanza: Changing the Course of World History

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 swan emits his semen into her, and all hell breaks loose: from that spewed-forth froth coupling with Leda's human ova will result two children, who will alter the course of history, particularly Helen of Troy, over whom the Trojan War was fought.

Agamemnon dies at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, who was angered by her husband's sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. As Agamemnon was preparing to sail to war to retrieve Helen, his fleet was met with difficulty which would be lifted only with sacrifice of his daughter.

Loss of their daughter angered his wife, so she later kills him. Thus, after the climactic "shudder in the loins," the war flames out resulting in the "broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead."

The image of the "broken wall" and the "burning roof and tower"imply the sexual imagery of penetrated female and the male penetrator, as well as the plundering of the city of Troy, by the marauding band of warriors.

The final musing of the poem—again fashioned as a rhetorical question—offers the speculation that while Leda was seemingly violated by the intrusive Zeus masquerading as a swan, perhaps she was so altered as to have taken on some of his "knowledge" and his "power," even though he remained "indifferent" to her plight.

Because of his indifference, the swan's beak just lets the violated woman drop.

The Power of Myth

Because this poem is engendered from a Greek mythological narrative, it remains open to interpretation.

The obvious absurdity of a swan coupling with a human along with the scientific knowledge that conception cannot be accomplished across species remains the signal that this myth holds meaning that cannot be taken literally.

Then, too, there is issue that Leda’s and Zeus’s offspring are born from eggs.

As the original Zeus/Leda myth is told, the issue of coupling appears to be merely seduction and not rape. For example, about the nature of Zeus’ engaging women in sex, the ancient rhetorician, Isocrates, has stated,

Zeus, lord of all, reveals his power in all else, but deigns to approach beauty in humble guise.

For in the likeness of Amphitryon he came to Alcmena, and as a shower of gold he united with Danae, and in the guise of a swan he took refuge in the bosom of Nemesis, and again in this form he espoused Leda; ever with artifice manifestly, and not with violence, does he pursue beauty in women.

According to Isocrates’ interpretation, Zeus merely seduced woman humbly in various forms, and he did so not out of mere lust but for the sake of pursuing the beauty in the women who possessed it.

Numerous artistic expressions taking the Zeus/Leda narrative as their subject matter depict Leda holding the swan affectionately, therefore, supporting Isocrates interpretation that the act was seduction not rape.

However, the Yeats poem is one of the interpretations that forces readers to interpret the myth as the rape of Leda by Zeus as a swan. Even though the Yeatsian speaker waffles about what he believes about the whole affair, ultimately he is strongly suggesting that the act was, in fact, a rape.

Sources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

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