Often used as a common symbol in poetry, the swans are frequently associated with the idealized nature. However, the grandness of these creatures has also been employed as tool for deception in several literary works.
In biology, the swan is described as the largest member of the duck family and is among the largest flying birds. The swan is also known for its loyalty because it only takes one partner in its lifetime although, there are times when a swan may leave a mate because of reasons related to reproduction. In its physical appearance, the male and the female are alike in plumage, but the male is generally bigger and heavier than the female.
Among all the different species of the swan, the white in plumage is the most common, if not the famous one. In literature, particularly in poetry, it is its color that makes it be associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty. Furthermore, its whiteness is also symbolically attached to nudity and chastity – nudity by its absolute whiteness and chastity by associating whiteness with cleanliness. But going beyond its physical appearance, the swan’s melancholic tendency is also worth-noting because this feathered creature is also known for its ability to sing sweetly before it dies. Such is the reason that it is also associated with Apollo who is the god of music. Apart from these mythic attachments, the form and shape of the creature also reveal the other contrast in terms of its symbol. Its movement and its long phallic neck is certainly masculine but its round and silky body makes it feminine. Because of these counterpoints, this magnificent bird has also become a favorite archetypal figure employed by many poets including William Butler Yeats.
William Butler Yeats was an Irish poet and dramatist considered as one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature. He is best known for his highly artistic poems which earned for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920. In his many collections of poems, this aspiring critic has always been attracted to his two poems: The Wild Swans at Coole and Leda and the Swan. One interesting feature of these two poems is that they have one common image – the swan. Yet, in spite of that, the poems differ in presenting the symbol of the image. The two poems revealed the counterpointing symbolism of the swan as an archetypal image.
1. The swan’s body as icon for gentleness and for brutality
In the poem The Wild Swans at Coole, the gentleness of the swan goes with the Yeat’s description of the setting which is the Augusta Gregory’s Coole Park. The beauty of the scenery and the stillness of the lake both extend to the image of the swan being there in that place all 59 of them. Though not directly stated, the stillness of the lake is suggested by its “mirroring” of the sky which would be impossible if the water is disturbed. The gentleness of the swan was brought about by the transference of emotion that the persona has as he was overwhelmed by the serenity of the setting. In contrast to that, the poem Leda and the Swan presents the swan as a brutal creature. It tells of how the swan was trying to overpower a woman in the person of Leda. This part brings about the mythological story of how Leda, the wife of Tyndareus, and queen of Sparta, was “raped” by a swan. The brutality of the swan was done by association. In that poem, it was not really the swan that had raped Leda; rather, it was Zeus himself. The swan has been taken as a disguise by Zeus. By capitalizing on the swan’s gentleness, he was able to go near to Leda.
2. The swan’s nature as icon of love and of lust
The swan also bears the counterpoints of love and lust. Basically, by its whiteness, the swan can be taken as an icon of truthfulness which is a key element in the concept of love. But, going beyond its physical attribute, the swan is presented as an image for loyalty when Yeats writes in The Wild Swans at Coole that the swan come to the lake in pairs as signified by the line: “lover by lover, they paddle in the cold.” Furthermore, this argument can be supported by the fact that a swan only takes one partner for life.
On the contrary, the swan in Leda and the Swan becomes an image for lust wherein its placid appearance betrays its hideous motive towards Leda. Zeus, by taking the image of the swan, has consummated his ardor on Leda. Thus, Yeats writes: “How can those terrified vague fingers push / The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?”
3. The swan’s wings as objects of harmony and of violence
The contrasting concept of sublimity and violence is also reflected in the poems of Yeats. In The Wild Swans at Coole, the swan’s wings connote harmony as signified by the line “The bell-beat of their wings above my head…” This line ignites the auditory imagery in which the mind recreates the sense experience of hearing the rhythmic sound of the bell. In this case, the rhythm of the flapping wings connotes harmony and unity. In contrast to that, the wings of the swan are projected as the object for violence. This was suggested by the lines “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still / Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed…” Again, through auditory imagery, the impact of the word “blow” suggests a brute force that is synonymous to violence. Furthermore, the adjective “great” gives the undertone of an overpowering force necessary to suppress another entity. From this, the visual imagery is ignited creating the mental picture of the swan (Zeus) trying to overpower Leda.
4. The swan’s feet as objects for service and for servitude
The difference between service and servitude is that in service, one works for another while in servitude, one wants others to work for him. These two contrasting concepts were implied in the two poems through the image of the swan’s feet. In The Wild Swans at Coole, the swan’s feet act as tools for service. The swan solidifies its bond with its partner as they explore the lake. In doing so, its feet, which are used for mobility, become the tools that aid in fostering the closer attachment of the swans. This was highlighted by the line “They paddle in the cold / Companionable streams or climb the air; / Their hearts have not grown old; / Passion or conquest, wander where they will…”
As for servitude, Leda and the Swan portrays the swan’s feet as a tool for imposing one’s will over another person. In this poem, the feet the swan, being webbed, is described as “dark” and with them are “vague fingers” which, with the aid of the “great” wings, were used to subdue the protesting and staggering Leda. Zeus, through the use of the swan’s feet, succeeding in imposing his lustful will upon the helpless Leda.
In conclusion, through those salient points, the counterpoints in the archetypal image of the swan in Yeat’s two poems – The Wild Swans at Coole and Leda and the Swan – were established. But still, there is a question that seems to linger as one delves into the essence of the poems. While Yeats presents that the swans in the lake come in pairs, why did he count only 59 as revealed in the line “Upon the brimming water among the stones / Are nine-and-fifty Swans”? For this, this aspiring critic suggests that the other one, the 60th, has gone astray as it was used by Zeus as his disguise in order to consummate his malicious motive towards Leda.