It is not uncommon for creators to be inspired by different pieces of art or other literature. Moreover, various fields of study, for instance, psychology, use these literary works to apply their concepts and gain a better understanding of human development and ancient traditions. Thus, it can be argued that myths will continue to serve as a cultural source for many people, both in literature and other subjects.
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The story of Leda and the Swan has been used by many as a plot for stories and idea for sculptures or other pieces of art. While different versions portray the events differently, the primary purpose remains the same. The original story appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and the most recent rendition of it is Yeats’ poem Leda and the Swan. This paper aims to examine the work of Ovid and Yeats to determine the connection between the two pieces.
Myths present a valuable cultural resource because poets, playwrights, and artist applied ideas from them throughout the years. According to Harris and Platzner Greek mythology has served as a source of inspiration for many centuries, even after the belief system it was connected to disappeared (808). Some periods, however, were marked by people distancing themselves from classic mythology due to Christian beliefs. In the middle ages, the ancient works become popular again because they were translated and interpreted.
Specifically, in the middle ages, the work of Ovid gained popularity due to the motives of love that the author applied in his work. Ovid’s Metamorphoses displays a story of three transformations into creatures, two of which are done by Cycnus and one by Zeus. The story of Zeus taking a form of a swan has received many interpretations in other types of art. The original myth portrays Zeus and provides many details of the story. Upon his encounter with Leda, he seduced the women, which Ovid describes in this manner:
When Jove assum’d a soaring eagle’s shape:
And shew’d how Leda lay supinely press’d,
Whilst the soft snowy swan sate hov’ring o’er her breast. (Ovid 20).
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Most notably, Yeats’ poem Leda and the Swan presents a modern rendition of the text. Yeats’ work and its connection to the original myth will be discussed in the next section of the paper. Ovid describes the transformation of Zeus in this way: “now already rough skins reside in the legs, and I am turning white in the upper part of my body and wings are born for fingers…” (Ovid 20). Thus, his work contains a lot of details of the preceding events and those that followed. Those can be used as a context for understanding other art pieces based on this myth.
Yeats’ poem uses several mythical plots throughout its course, most notable of which is the story of Leda meeting Zeus in the form of a swan. The theme of seduction is central in both Yeats and Ovid’s poems. Yeats describes the encounter between Leda and Zeus as follows:
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. (Yeats).
Several interpretations of Yeats’ work exists, apart from its connection to Ovid’s Metamorphoses. According to Spacey, Yeats might have used the story of Leda to illustrate the British invasion in Ireland. Due to the fact that the events took place before the poem being released, it is possible that the author used this metaphor to depict contemporary political issues. Spacey provides a different interpretation, arguing that the work can be considered as a representation of modern civilization and its development.
The connection can be seen in the initial violence in the events of the poem and that present in the history. The original myth included the birth of Leda’s children who affected the development of modern civilization.
Yeats’ interpretation of the myth provides a rendition of the story, which includes a focus on the violence of the events. It can be seen at the beginning of the sonnet “a sudden blow: the great wings beating still” (Yeats). The approach can be explained by the author’s desire to metaphorically describe some event from real life, which was mentioned above. Additionally, Spacey states that the struggle between the women and a swan is a depiction of a relationship, which existed among gods and humans in the ancient Greece era.
Ovid’s work is much more extensive and presents several events apart from the storyline of Leda. Nevertheless, the encounter shown in Metamorphoses provides a reader with an array of emotions and affects further events described by Ovid. This factor may be the reason why Leda became a famous character for other creators as well. Yeats took this plot and created his representation in a much more concise form. However, the knowledge of the original myth provides a reader with more details; thus, the events in Yeats’ sonnet can be interpreted better considering the context.
Overall, myths continue to serve as a source of inspiration for poets, writers, and artists to the present day. Yeats uses the story of Leda meeting the Swan to provide his opinion on the modern events. Although there are several interpretations of the metaphor in the sonnet, it is evident that the original myth provides context for understanding. Thus, myths serve as an essential component that helps draw connections between the events of the past and those in the present.
Harris, Stephen and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology: Images and Insights. 6th ed., McGraw Hill, 2012.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Kline Antony, Poetry in Translation, 2000.
Spacey, Andrew. “Analysis of Poem “Leda and The Swan” By W.B.Yeats.” Owlcation. Web.
Yeats, William Butler. Leda and the Swan. Poets. Web.