“Leda and the Swan” as Iconic Poem

  • Ian Fletcher
Part of the Macmillan Literary Annuals S. book series (MLA)


“One more word on ‘Leda and the Swan’ is three too many” has been apologetically or defiantly intoned by critics about to commit three thousand. The brevity, force, ambiguousness, of Yeats’s poem continuously challenge, so I too join their number. I shall not rehearse the names of this vast horde: are they not written in the bibliographies and in the footnotes even unto the third generation? Yet it would be arrogant not to allude to those critics who have decisively shaped my own response.1 “Leda and the Swan” has been read in context of A Vision, of whose text it is indeed part; it has been read, sometimes exclusively, as parable of the poet and his daimon as though Yeats were an overseas agent of the Hartford insurance business; a poem about to be born and thrown aside by the poet as in Mallarmé’s Don du Poème; as a species of Lawrentian sexual encounter; it has been discussed as part of the dramatic structure of the volume of poems in which it made a third and more public appearance; its sources in visual and plastic art have been deployed with rigour by Giorgio Melchiori who displays for us the complex forces that entered into the poem’s making, while Leo Spitzer has given us sensitive close reading and elegant generalization.2 The best criticism has been that which does not attempt to limit the significance of the sonnet by fiat.


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  1. 2.
    Giorgio Melchiori, The Whole Mystery of Art (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1959) pp. 156–60, particularly for Moreau’s Ledas and the excursus on Renaissance versions, pp. 280–3;Google Scholar
  2. Lee Spitzer, “On Yeats’s Poem ‘Leda and the Swan’,” Modern Philology, vol. 51, no. 4 (1954) 271–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. T. R. Henn, The Lonely Tower 2nd edn (London: Methuen, 1965), prepared the ground for the study of visual sources in Yeats, though he alludes only briefly to Moreau, mentioning Yeats’s possession of a reproduction of the painter’s Women and Unicorns (p. 255)—but the poet possessed a Moreau original also.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Edgar Wind, Pagan Mysteries of the Renaissance ( Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967 ) P. 167.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Robert Langbaum, The Mysteries of Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977) pp. 150–1. Pearse and Cuchulain, for example; An Ri and the life of Cuchulain as pattern for the children of St Enda’s: “assimilation into the archetype of the hero.”Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Sight and Song (London. Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1892). See Jean H. Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), for the iconic poem.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    Julius Kaplan, Gustave Moreau ( Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1974 ) p. 23.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Pierre-Louis Mathieu, Gustave Moreau ( Oxford: Phaidon, 1977 ) p. 121.Google Scholar
  9. 21.
    See Robin Skelton and David R. Clark (eds), Irish Renaissance: A Gathering of Essays, Memoirs and Letters from the Massachusetts Review ( Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1965 ) pp. 84–5.Google Scholar
  10. 22.
    See Salomon Reinach, Répertoire de Reliefs grecs et romains 3 vols (Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1909–12), and Melchiori, pp. 158–9.Google Scholar
  11. 29.
    Franz Valery Marie Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains ( Paris: Librairie Orientaliste Paul Geuthner, 1942 ) pp. 409–10.Google Scholar

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© Richard J. Finneran 1982

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  • Ian Fletcher

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