Analysis of “Leda and the Swan”

“Leda and the Swan” tells the story of Zeus’ rape of Leda, which engenders the fall of Troy and the death of Agamemnon through Helen’s conception. With the use of strong, evocative imagery, Keats argues that the horror of the rape immediately presages the horror of the war to come. Keats manipulates many aspects of the Sonnet form in “Leda and the Swan”, mashing features from both the English and Italian sonnet forms into a single work. With the ABABA rhyme scheme and iambic pentameter of the English sonnet dominating, the first half of the poem seems an English sonnet, divided into two quatrains with separate but following logic. The sonnet continues, however in an unusual format: three lines grouped into an idea: “A shudder in the loins engenders there/the broken wall, the burning roof and tower/and agamemnon dead.” Yet this stanza fits neither the quatrain pattern nor completes a line of iambic pentameter. Rather, the meter  alters after the stanza break with “Being so caught up,” which reverses the iambs to trochees. This switch, along with the turn in the poem’s subject matter–from describing the act of the rape and its consequences to questioning Leda’s comprehension of its scope–marks the volta. The second section, with the volta at its center, mimics the sestet of an Italian sonnet, with the two quatrains that proceed it taking the place of the octave. The poem neatly condenses the two forms by placing the volta in the middle of what would be the sestet, splitting the difference between the volta placement at the final couplet break of an English sonnet, and the volta placement at the beginning of the sestet of the Italian sonnet, while the rhyme pattern continues between the stanzas as though the sestet remained uninterrupted.

The Volta of “Leda and the Swan” shifts attention from the immediate horror of Leda’s rape to wonder if she might have glimpsed the horror to come from it, thereby increasing her suffering. By placing the volta at a mid-line stanza break, the jarring shift is made even more uncomfortable. If the horror of the poetic situation were not enough, the reader now must cope with a violation of form that parallels Zeus’ violation of Leda. Yet, around the violation, the rhyme scheme continues uninterrupted, like history rolls on around Leda’s pain. While mimicking the psychological disruption Leda faces, the volta subtly brings the reader into Leda’s mindset while leaving the question of her understanding unanswered, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions and meanwhile drop into the second level of Leda’s anguish: the anguish of uncertain anticipation.

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