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“Leda and the Swan;” “The Gyres”

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For Lonely Goth:

This is a rough draft of a rather-polished essay I wrote last year. This isn’t the one I had originally intended on displaying (I had written an essay before on “Leda and the Swan” exclusively) to Lonely Goth, but it does, at least, present my primary conception of Yeats’ primary theme: subjective salvation.

Here are the two poems being discussed:

Salvation: The Consequence of a Radical Acceptance of Life and Its Transformation of Ourselves through Its Difficulties

            It has often been said that the most notable characteristic of W.B. Yeats’ style and artistic theory was his conception of life as innately and unavoidably tragic. Salvation, then (in Yeats’ conception of such), is a personal, subjective affair and takes place through the embrace of this chaotic indeterminability and Dionysian frenzy—an acceptance of tragedy and poor circumstances, an acceptance of the inevitability of chaos, disorder, and decay. This notion of the celebration of life as tragic and salvation occurring through the affirmation of the subjective over objective is found in “Leda and the Swan” particularly (which appears in The Tower). And, especially, this embrace of chaos or merely the subjective circumstances in which one finds oneself appears in one of Yeats’ last and final poems: “The Gyres.” Salvation, for Yeats, is a subjective conquering by the individual over circumstances through a radical acceptance of chaos and the inner core and final end of life: tragedy. Both of these poems embody this theme—indeed, they stand apart as wholly emblematic of this markedly Yeatsian conception.

“Leda and the Swan” is a retelling by Yeats of the Greek myth wherein Zeus, taking the body of a swan, rapes a young woman named Leda. Much attention in the poem is given to her vulnerability to the force of this divine swan: “he holds her helpless breast upon his breast.” She is utterly and entirely unable to stop the assault. Indeed, Yeats makes the entire experience utterly vulgar—the swan’s male extension is referred to as a “feather’d glory.” The swan’s strong distinction from what is human in Leda stands out—this feathered glory stands in contrast to her own “loosening thighs.” The event ends in orgasm, describing as a “shudder in the loins,” and consequently, Helen of Troy and the tragedy of Agamemnon (a character mentioned explicitly): “A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.” The broken wall is, of course, referring to the siege of Troy and the various related tragedies and painful situations which were caused by this initial act of lust: the rape of a mortal woman by a god. The rape of Leda can be seen as “being symbolical of the initiation of a chaotic and destructive civilization, which consumes itself with the flames of uncontrollable passions” (Billigheimer 65).

Yet, this cannot be read solely as a tragic situation. As is common for Yeats, there are mixed results, positive and negative, that are rumored to have come out of this tragic experience. Out of the generations to follow from this rape, a new Greek civilization was born—one marked by the entrance of the gods’ blood again into the world in the form of Helen (and Castor and Pollux, though irrelevant in this subject treatment). Likewise, the last stanza’s meaning places the entire poem in a new light. What does it mean to “put on” the knowledge of Zeus? The feminist critic Janet Neigh in “Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’” reads it as an instance of the psychoanalytic concept of “identification” (Neigh 147). “Identification” is defined as “the detour through the other that defines the self” (Neigh 148). Leda, then, is violently faced with a force entirely opposed to her being—in having faced this, she carries away some of the power of the one who has made her an object, an Other (in Beauvoir’s sense of the term), a slave. Through undergoing this pain, shame, and humiliating experience, she has captured something of the essence of a god.

These can be seen as case of “tragic joy,” defined by the critic Jahan Ramazani in “Yeats: Tragic Joy and the Sublime” as “the emotive structure and ambivalence of the sublime, since the sublime involves the conversion of affects from defeat and terror to freedom and joy” (Ramazani 164). Yeats, though reticent of the use of the term “sublime” (being critical of the Romantics in his later years), once penned “the nobleness of the arts is in the mingling of contraries, the extremity of sorrow, the extremity of joy” (qtd. by Ramazani 165). Leda’s final state at the end of the play thus invites a comingled interpretation and psychological integration of a traumatic and tragic event—though it would be difficult to claim that Leda’s state approaches or should approach anything resembling the feeling of joy, the comingled elements in the post facto understanding of the event serve to empower her and find her center (which is not an objective metaphysical principle that one can cling to; rather, being a subjective self-mastery and self-transcendence) while caught in a whirlwind of poor happenstance and pain.

In fact, that can be interpreted as the primary theme of The Tower as a whole: a demonstration of the bankruptcy of the phallus (or center) as a symbol or metaphysical principle upon which a person (or society) can ground him or herself. Janet Neigh writes:

…in The Tower as a whole Yeats argues that it is impossible to resurrect the phallus as the transcendental signifier in the symbolic order. The version of “Leda and the Swan” in The Tower makes it the climactic version, or perhaps more aptly it is the anti-climax, because this is where the phallus goes missing in action: “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower.” The tower’s walls break in this poem and the roof starts on fire, which symbolizes the inability of the phallus to signify (Neigh 149)

On the other hand, Neigh also notes that the phallus has a temporary signifying power in the poem (Neigh 149). Nevertheless, Leda overcomes (in part) the phallic signifier which represents an Absolute, a center, through her overcoming and identification with her assailant’s person (and through inner integration of the traumatic experience).

In Yeats’ later poem (composed 14 years later), “The Gyres” (which appears in New Poems), these primary themes are carried over. In it, a full and rather final formulation of his artistic theme of the essentially tragic nature of life and history is given an excellent exposition. The inability to find a lasting and final center in life and one’s perspective is the primary theme: “Things thought too long can be no longer thought / For beauty dies of beauty, worth of worth, / and ancient lineaments are blotted out.” This notion is connected with Yeats’ formulaic and symbolic conception of the “gyres,” conceived of as revolving cones representing various dichotomies (the objective and subjective self, masculine and feminine, god and mortal, etc.) that collide, finding no lasting and final resolution and, rather, fluctuating between both cones—with one cone in a gyre dissolving and losing its identity in the other at a particular point in the cycle and vice versa. For Yeats, these violent confrontations are just a part of life, wholly necessary in the collision of cones and ideals in the unfolding of the cosmos and history. The notion of the gyres also helps to make sense of Leda’s taking-away of Zeus’ knowledge through his power—in destroying her and making her fully an object, entirely obedient to him as subject, he is behaving akin to the same collision of cones—the point at which one disappears wholly into the other is but a temporary resolution. The process begins again (without ceasing), and the gyres spin on and on, forming complex webs of relations.

But who is “Old Rocky Face?” In the article “Yeats’s ‘The Gyres’: Sources and Symbolism,” the critic Norman Jeffares argues that it is a marked influence from Shelley (Jeffares 91). “Old Rocky Face” is meant to represent the philosopher or seer: the one who overcomes and sees through the process of time into the other-worldly, spiritual processes that govern reality. In Autobiographies, Yeats states that his mind “gave itself to gregarious Shelley’s dream of a young man, his hair blanched with sorrow, studying philosophy in some lonely tower, or of his old man, master of all human knowledge, hidden from human sight in some shell-strewn cavern on the Mediterranean shore” (Jeffares 91). His “Old Rocky Face” character, then, is a seer: an outsider, but one who sees reality clearly and distinctly without an outward bias or acceptance of erroneous influences from outside the interiority of soul and mind.

At any rate, the first stanza of this poem ends with the unnamed observers observing the “irrational streams of blood…staining earth.” This can be read as an acknowledgment that life is highly irrational—violence is senseless and irrational, though still the ordinary course of things in the perpetual revolutions of the gyres which mark the unending process of time. The last line reads: “We that look on but laugh in tragic joy.” This is an explicit reference to the tragic joy previously mentioned—a realization that there is no lasting and final center in the world of corporeality: the attainment of a seer-like vision that enables one to live and rejoice and be well. The pronoun “we” refers to those who have attained to the vision of a seer: one who can fully see the catastrophic nature of reality and rejoice nonetheless.

The repeated phrase, “What matter,” deserves a close reading. The first two lines represent the shared plight of humanity in the face of the “blood and mire” which stains the “sensitive body.” The phrase “What matter?” is likewise the only answer Yeats can give in his hinted-at Romanticism in a desire for a “greater, a more gracious time” which has disappeared: it is over. What matter?

This poem should not be read as a pessimistic nihilism or endorsement of the evil things that happen in the world. Rather, it is a humble submission to Fate—what is outside one’s control—leading one to the only estimable conclusion: “…Out of Cavern comes a voice / And all it knows is that one word ‘Rejoice.’” Salvation in the Yeatsian conception, rather, exists in acceptance of this process, this chaos, this world of ideals and ideas that cannot find a lasting resolution in a world of things-to-be-and-become.

The third stanza establishes that those who die will never truly be lost—they find their identity in process, in acknowledgment of these passing and “unfashionable” gyres, and through Rocky Face’s affirmation of those he holds dear. There is no escape from this process, no escape for “the workman, noble and saint.” All are perpetually caught up in the revolutions of these gyres which form the lynchpin of existence. As Janet Neigh notes, Yeats always strayed from the notion that a metaphysical principle of sameness lies at the source of reality (other poems in The Tower display this tendency even more succinctly) (Neigh 150). Related to this, these later poems of his are marked by his disavowal of Neoplatonism (though it can assuredly be said that he maintained the notion of pre-existing hierarchies and an alternate world of Forms and Archetypes which form our world—A Vision can be seen as solid evidence of such a maintained and borrowed conception from the Platonists and similar thinkers). The critic David Perkins, in his book A History of Modern poetry: From the 1890s to the High Modernist Mode, states: “at the end of “The Tower,” [Yeats] does not tamely ‘disagree’ with Plotinus or deny Plato’s philosophy, but, ‘I mock Plotinus’ thought / And cry in Plato’s teeth’” (Perkins 593).

These two poems, “Leda and the Swan” and “The Gyres,” form a fine gestalt and representation of Yeats’ central theme and source of spiritual overcoming through the radical acceptance of a world that is in motion and which does often not make sense, the subjective salvation that has been returned to incessantly. This entire conception of life as such can be summed up in Nietzsche’s famous proclamation on the spirit of philosophy (a strong influence on Yeats): “I do not know what the spirit of a philosopher could more wish to be than a good dancer. For the dance is his ideal, also his fine art, finally also the only kind of piety he knows, his ‘divine service’” (The Gay Science 131). It is this final embrace of the dance that Yeats endorses and presents in each of these poems. Readers would do well to embrace his conception of life as tragedy and chaotic: when one has given up hope for any sort of permanent consolation in this world, one can find one’s center by throwing away the notion of a center. Subjective salvation lies in the eternal dance and the acceptance of such, and it is a thing hard-toiled after and often only a gift to the souls which have endured the most in the collision between the successive incarnations and the ever-changing personage that is our selves (the “suchness” of our being) and the diabolical machinations which mark the catastrophic and tumultuous onslaught of the rapidly-spinning gyres, formers and harbingers of time and process.

Works Cited

Billigheimer, Rachel V. “‘Passion and Conquest’: Yeats’ Swans.” College Literature 13.1 (1986): 55-70. JSTOR. Web. 5 May 2011.

Jeffares, Norman. “Yeats’ ‘The Gyres’: Sources and Symbolism.” Huntington Library Quarterly 15.1 (1951): 87-97. JSTOR. Web. 1 May 2011.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006. Print.

Neigh, Janet. “Readings from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan'” Journal of Modern Literature 29.4 (2006): 145-60. JSTOR. Web. 3 May 2011.

Ramazani, Jahan. “Yeats: Tragic Joy and the Sublime.” PMLA 104.2 (1989): 163-77. JSTOR. Web. 2 May 2011.


Written by KarlH

August 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm

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“Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats

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That is no country for old men. The young

In one another’s arms, birds in the trees

—Those dying generations—at their song,

The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,

Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long

Whatever is begotten, born, and dies. Caught in that sensual music all neglect

Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,

A tattered coat upon a stick, unless

Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

For every tatter in its mortal dress,

Nor is there singing school but studying

Monuments of its own magnificence;

And therefore I have sailed the seas and come

To the holy city of Byzantium.

Written by KarlH

June 15, 2011 at 12:09 am

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