Rhetorical Figures in Leda and the Swan
"Leda and the Swan," a sonnet by William Butler Yeats, describes a rape. According to Perrine, "the first quatrain describes the fierce assault and the foreplay; the second quatrain, the act of intercourse; the third part of the sestet, the sexual climax" (147). The rape that Yeats describes is no ordinary rape: it is a rape by a god. Temporarily embodied in the majestic form of a swan, Zeus, king of the gods, consummated his passion for Leda, a mortal princess (Perrine 147). The union produced two offspring: Helen of Troy and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's wife. In recounting this "momentous rape" with "large consequences for the future," (Perrine 147) Yeats uses rhetorical figures in each of the sonnet's three stanzas.
The figures in the first stanza create tension and portray the event. All definitions for the rhetorical figures mentioned in this essay are derived from Lanham's A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. Yeats opens with an example of brachylogia, brevity of speech. His elliptical fragment, "A sudden blow," recreates the stunning impact and tension of the assault. The poet uses alliteration in the form of consonance: the plosive "b" first found in "blow" subtly batters the ear throughout the quatrain--"beating," "bill," and "breast," which occurs twice; the initial "g" found in "great" echoes in "girl"; and an initial "h" repeats in "her," which occurs three times, "he," "holds," "helpless," and "his". Yeats ends the first line with "beating still," an example of anastrophe, a kind of hyperbaton, the unusual arrangement of words or clauses within a sentence, frequently for poetic effect. The figure not only creates tension through arrangement but also through anticipation of rhyme. The first quatrain consists of a periodic sentence, a sentence in which the sense is not completed until the end, and this creates more tension.
Thus far, the figures enumerated evoke the tension of the event; however, other figures help characterize Zeus and Leda. Yeats uses synecdoche, substitution of part for whole, to portray the god and the girl. The god is seen as "great wings," "dark webs," "bill," and "breast"; Leda is viewed as "thighs," "nape," and "helpless breast." The poet's use of synecdoche creates a type of enargia, characterismus, a description of the body or mind.
Yeats not only continues ellipsis, consonance, synecdoche, and characterismus in the second quatrain but also introduces new figures. A second ellipsis, a missing "not help" between "rush" and "But," occurs in the latter part of the quatrain. Yeats continues the consonance of "b"--"body," "but," "beating," and "h"--"how," "her," "heart." He creates new echoes with the consonance of "f"--"fingers," "feathered," "feel"--"l"--"loosening," "laid," "lies." Yeats extends his synecdochic descriptions of the god and Leda: in the second quatrain Yeats describes the god as "strange heart" and Leda...