For sheer compression of information, this student ought to win some kind of prize.
He’s writing about Yeats’ great sonnet “Leda and the Swan.” And he’s got the gist, or at least the gist of the central action, the point of Yeats’ meditation.
The poem is such a wonderful thing, it deserves quoting here:
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 her drop?
That broken eleventh line, in a poem about a rape, a poem about a fusion of consciousness and a rift or shift in history, is breathtaking. And it’s that line, really, that my student is trying to explain. Leda, herself a “broken wall” by the act of rape, is also the means of engendering the Trojan War.
You know the story. Zeus is cruising along, randy as usual, ogling the nymphs and ordinary maidens of the earth. The old shape-shifter spots Leda and considers what form to take this time. Eagle? White bull? Someone’s husband? (When he tried “mortal man” with Semele, he did beget Dionysus; but then she asked him to appear in his own form—a bolt of lightning, more or less—and as one of my students had it, “she made love with him and crisped away.”) Artemis? Shower of gold? Aha, got it! Swan! And down he goes. Myths conflict about the issue of this union: was it just a girl named Helen? Helen and the twins Castor and Pollux? Helen and Clytemnestra? Yeats is clearly referring to Helen, and probably also to Clytemnestra. (Most traditions have it that the child or children hatched from eggs; do with that what you will. Not important to Yeats.)
So my student is exactly right, and this is the “knowledge” Yeats wonders about: did Leda realize in the moment of rape that the child thereby conceived would grow up to be Helen of Troy (and probably Yeats also wants to include Clytemnestra as the second child, eventually wife and then, on his return from Troy, killer of Agamemnon)? Helen is the “broken wall, the burning roof and tower”; Clytemnestra, the “Agamemnon dead.” Zeus knows this; Yeats asks, Does Leda?
To my student: Good job!
But alas, also Hilarious job! What an uncomfortable pregnancy that must have been, with all those Greeks and Trojans battling away, a big wooden horse (a kind of womb-within-a-womb, then, come to think of it) poking at the uterine walls as well as the Trojan Wall, all those sharp objects, all that noise and blood. Can you imagine the surprise of all her gushy intrusive neighbors, asking if they can “feel the baby”? “Awww,” says the lady next door, caressing her belly. “Kapow!” goes the Trojan War.
Who says words don’t matter?