Leda and the Swan

The theme of "Leda and the Swan" is the barbarism of human history. The myth of Leda and the swan was a popular theme in Renaissance art, but the story was deemed as romantic and charming. In Yeats's version, the tale is shown from the victim's point of view. Impregnated by Zeus, Leda will give birth to Helen and Clytemnestra. Faithless Helen will trigger the 10-year Trojan War. Clytemnestra will kill her husband, Agamemnon, and be murdered in turn by their vengeful son, Orestes. In other words, Western culture is doomed from the very start. It's origin is tainted with deceit, treachery, and violence.

How do you link this pessimism to Yeats's view upon the Western civilization? What does it mean when the poet wonders whether Leda, "being so caught up" in her brief encounter with God, gained "knowledge" of the meaning of history? What is the meaning of this "knowledge"? Do human beings become more "knowledgable" or "wiser" from the lessons of history?


Metaphysical Poets and their Shock Tactic

The name "metaphysical poets" is now applied to a group of 17th-century poets who, whether or not directly influenced by John Doone (1572-1631), use similar poetic procedures and abstruse arguments. Andrew Marvell (1621-1678), who was born 50 years later than Donne, was one of these metaphysical poets.

Metaphysical style is characterized by a seemingly outrageous or far-fetched logic, which organizes the poem in the form of an urgent or heated argument--with a disdainful lady who sexually rejects her lover, or God, or death. The extravagant uses of hyperbole produce a startling and witty effect. Give some examples that illustrate this "shock tactic" of metaphysical poets. How do the ingenious uses of paradox, pun, the rough and colloquial idioms, the dramatic form of apostrophe or direct address create the shocking effect? Or, among the poems we discussed so far (by Donne or Marvell),which simile or metaphor is most shocking for you?


the Petrarchan conceit v.s. the metaphysical conceit

A "conceit" is an "elaborate metaphor" which establishes a striking parallel between two very dissimilar things. And there are two types of conceit:

1) The Petrarchan conceit is a type of metaphor used in love poems written by the 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, but became cliched in some of his later Elizabethan imitators. A typical Petrarchan conceit involves a cold, imperious beauty and her distressed male lover, who suffers from the lady's rejection, while praises her beauty, her cruelty and exaggerates his own misery. For example, the despairing lover is a ship on a stormy sea, or a lady's eyes shine like stars, her lips are as red as coral, her breasts and her forehead are as white as snow, and so forth.

2) The metaphysical conceit is characteristic of John Donne's poetry and other metaphysical poets of the 17th century. In dramatic contrast to the figures of conventioanl Petrarchanism, Donne's metaphysical poems used witty and surprising comparisons drawn from miscellaneous sources--theology, alchemy, philosophy, cartography, and even everyday objects. The result is an extended metaphor with a highly intellectual and complicated logic that controls an entire poem.

What are the examples of John Donne's metaphysical conceit? Give us some examples and explain Donne's poetic argument.