Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’ and the war in Iraq [Archives:2003/632/Education]

April 21 2003

Dr. .M.N.K.Bose,
Associate Professor of English
Faculty of Arts, Ibb

This poem of W.B.Yeats has been analysed by several scholars and each one has found his/her own meaning depending on what view he/she has taken. When I read this poem at this time, when the innocent people in Iraq are facing miserable sufferings, when thousands of helpless women and children are becoming war victims for no fault of theirs, the poem has a contemporary meaning to me, which has reference to the war in Iraq. I am not a literary critic nor am I a stylistician; with my knowledge of literature and the experience of the world of today, I read this meaning into this 'mighty sonnet'. The poem and my interpretation is given below:

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 it drop?

sudden blow: unexpected attack, while the whole world, under the leadership of the UN, was expecting that some diplomatic solution would be found
great wings beating still: the mighty war planes are still hovering over Iraq
dark webs: the ignoble intentions of the war-mongers
helpless breast: the innocent and helpless victims (women and children, especially) of war, who have been suffering from the sanctions for the last 12 years
terrified vague fingers: those of the victims, terrified because of the sudden attack and vague, because of weakness and suffering due to the sanctions
the feathered glory: the vain glory of the aggressors
body: the victim country
laid in that white rush: caught hold of by the 'white' aggressors' sudden attack
strange heart beatings: the heart of the aggressors is strange, because they say something (liberation) but do the opposite (destruction)
shudder in the loins: severe shock the innocent victims, especially the women and children have experienced
the broken wall, the burning roof and tower: the scene that we watch on the TV everyday (to me this does not have reference to the fall of Troy etc)
Agamemnon dead: the history of good relation between country, trust between
countries and the faith in the UN dead and has no meaning; ( I am avoiding any reference to the legend, purposefully)
brute blood of the air: the Iraqi sky is full of vultures and the country is bleeding, because of the brutal attack of the aggressors
'Did she er drop?': Does the victim country fall because it thinks that the aggressors' knowledge of the country and their power go together to make them strong?
indifferent beak: the aggressors, who are indifferent to and against all wise and sincere advice of the friendly countries in the world including the UN.

The poem, therefore, can refer to the evil attack of the aggressors on the helpless and innocent people, especially the women and children of Iraq; Leda stands for the innocent victims of the war and the swan for the brutal aggressors of the west. This, in effect, is my critical reading of the poem and interpretation from the context of the receiver.