Why does poetry speak to us in a way that grasps our attention and makes us want to discover more? Edmund Spenser’s (1552-1599) ‘Sonnet LXVII’ (1595) offers an insight into a huntsman who is in the pursuit of a lover, William Blake’s (1757-1827) ‘A Poison Tree’ (1794) teaches us of the underlining conflict between a friend and a foe and William Butler Yeats’s (1865-1939) ‘Leda and the Swan’ (1923) acknowledges the cruel and harrowing depiction of rape between Leda and Zeus, who is in the form of a swan. This essay argues that although these specific works were composed by these poets one-hundred years in composition, they all share similarities with regards to theme and poetic technique but as the same time contrast with form and structure as a result of each poet’s unique poetic style.
For this reason, ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘A Poison Tree’ both contain themes of violence, destruction and dominance. However, ‘Leda and the Swan’ contain themes of rape when the God, Zeus seduces Leda in the form of a swan. The specific themes of acrimony and rage are conveyed in ‘A Poison Tree’ from the perspective of the poet as we get an insight into the confounding human emotions which clash between a friend and a foe: ‘I was angry with my foe; I told it not, my wrath did grow’ (Rameez et al. 81). The first two lines in stanza one, demonstrate the poets need to overcome this developing grudge towards his enemy. He must not allow his inner demons to be released (Rameez et al. 81). This bears a comparison with the cruel and vicious theme of rape, destruction of beauty and violence in Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ where Leda suffers the supreme sovereignty and harmful nature of the swan. The furious and persuasive mannerisms of the swan forces Leda to participate in a ghastly act: ‘By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill’ (Keegan 162). A synecdoche is used here to see the troubles from Leda’s perspective similar to the speaker’s perspective in ‘A Poison Tree’. The growing wrath leads to destruction in Blake’s and Yeats’s works. The prominent theme which progresses through Spenser’s ‘Sonnet LXVII’ is a hunting yearn, a violent chase for love but at the same time a game of romance: ‘Seeing the game from him escapt away’ (Keegan 51). The huntsman is longing for love as he chases his beloved to evade desolation. ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘Sonnet LXVII’ examine themes of violence, but with different meanings. Yeats uses his theme of violence for inflicting pain and control over Leda while Spenser uses his theme of violence to succeed in attaining love.
Spenser’s ‘Sonnet LXVII’ is a fourteen-sonnet broken up into three quatrains and one couplet and encompasses an ABAB rhyme scheme with an iambic pentameter throughout the sonnet. As a sonnet is mostly associated and praised for its theme of love, it was inevitable that Spenser would pick this specific theme for his composition. Similar to Spenser’s ‘Sonnet LXVII’, Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’ follows the same fourteen-line sonnet but with a Petrarchan form and an ABAB rhyme meter. The structure of Yeats’s sonnet is broken up into an octave and a sestet.
Yeats breaks the form and structure of the poem at the eleventh line. For a sonnet that depicts the horrific nature of violence and rape, this seemed like an odd choice for Yeats to make. The octet sets everything in motion while illustrating the physical side of the catastrophic events which happen to Leda while the sestet
‘A Poison Tree’ is broken up into four quatrains with an AABB CCDD EEFF GG rhyme scheme which contrasts from the well-known ABAB format ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘A Poison Tree’ possess. From the point of view of the speaker, there is a contrasting emotion which plays throughout stanza two: ‘And I sunned it with my smiles, And with soft deceitful wiles’ (Keegan 41). The poet has structured this poem in a way that there must be some empathy towards the speaker or to believe he is elated. However, the speaker is hiding a deep anger inside of him. In contrast, Spenser deconstructs ‘Sonnet LXVII’ with a tender temperament line by line. There is a comprehension for the huntsman in quatrain two: ‘when I all weary had the chace forsooke’ (Keegan 51). Between these poems, there is a contrasting tone of anger and isolation that both poet’s form and structure between their works.
Furthermore, Janet Neigh, writer of the journal article Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats ‘Leda and the Swan’ proclaims, ‘The enjambment and the linking of three sentences by commas make the action of the first stanza quick and at the same time very difficult to visualize.’ (Neigh 149). What Neigh states here is that ‘Leda and the Swan’ is a fast-paced reading, there is no room to ponder after the ‘sudden blow’, it is like a chase with no halting in sight. This compares to Spenser’s ‘Sonnet LXVII’ as the chase by the huntsman immediately commences from the opening line: ‘Lyke as a huntsman, after a weary chace’ (Keegan 50). These quotations by Yeats and Spenser employ similar characteristics to induce or give a feeling of consternation. In line five and six of ‘A Poison Tree’: ‘And I waterd it in fears, Night and morning with my tears’, the speaker demonstrates that he is using his ‘fears’ and ‘tears’ to grow the tree which subsequently leads to its downfall (Keegan 41). The words ‘fear’ and ‘tear’ refer to ‘downfall’ while ‘waterd’ refers to growth and stillness (Heidar and Zamzia 113 and 115). This implies that the tree will keep growing into a deadly and destructive perennial plant when hatred is expressed and exposed (Heidar and Zamzia 113). In ‘Leda and the Swan’, the swan with its ‘great wings beating still’ levitates Leda from below (Neigh 149). With that said, Neigh declares that ‘she is described as 'staggering,' which conveys that she is still standingâ¦ she is knocked to the ground, and the wings that are still beating, connoting flight’ (149). Here, Neigh implies that the swan is possessive of Leda and has full dominance over her. This compares but somewhat has a dissimilarity to ‘A Poison Tree’ as the growing of the deadly poisonous tree falls in line with the unelevated body of Leda. Even though the tree rising symbolizes authority and power and Leda’s fall symbolizes weakness and struggle, they both constitute a destructive nature.
Joan Curbet, author of Edmund Spenser’s Bestiary in the Amoretti (1595) argues that: ‘the love of the lady can only be obtained if her own will freely decides that she has to give it’ in ‘Sonnet LXVII’ (Curbet 54). This is referred to in the third quatrain of ‘Sonnet LXVII’ showing the chase at an end. The ‘deer’ is an extended simile of the beloved, similar to the huntsman as the lover: ‘sought not to fly, but fearlesse still did bide’ (Curbet 53). The ‘deer’ gives herself over to the huntsman as a ‘dear’: ‘with her owne goodwill hir fyrmely tyde’ (Curbet 54). This line suggests marriage between the lover and the beloved. The imagery at the beginning of stanza two of ‘Leda and the Swan’ implies that Leda is trying to resist the temptation of the swan who is raping her. Leda is snared by Zeus who is metamorphosized as a swan. She is unable to be free and is ‘being caught up’ and confined in her own fragmented body by his power and persuasiveness (Neigh 152). However, as Neigh states in her reading: ‘if her ‘terrified vague fingers’ want to push ‘the feathered glory’ away, why are her thighs loosening’? (150). This somewhat demonstrates that some parts of Leda’s body: ‘loosening thighs’ are allowing the rape to progress (Keegan 162). She is giving herself over to the Swan’s power similar to how the deer in ‘Sonnet LXVII’ returns to the huntsman after the ‘weary chace’ (Keegan 50). This outlines that Zeus and the huntsman are polar opposites when it comes to expressing love and affection. The imagery of the ‘apple’ from ‘A Poison Tree’ and Leda’s ‘heart beating’ from ‘Leda and the Swan’ both associate with the colour red for blood and violence. The ‘apple’ is golden and tasteful on the outside but it is rotten on the inside as it grows on the tree. The tree is an extended metaphor which reflects the speaker’s spitefulness growing while his physical stature deteriorates (Keegan 41). However, from Leda’s point of view, on the outside she is a beautiful feminine figure but on the inside her ‘heart’ is torn apart and impaired for the way she has been treated (Keegan 162).
To sum up everything that has been stated throughout so far, the work of outstanding artistry and skill evolved centuries ago by these accomplished poets has proved that poetry is still very much relevant today. Edmund Spenser, William Blake and William Butler Yeats bring forth their own poetic style and abilities such as theme, form and structure, language as well as poetic technique to accumulate similarities but also differences between one another in their prodigious works. There is no doubt that these infinite forms of poetry will continue to grow in future, to present new opportunities for
- Curbet, Joan. ‘EDMUND SPENSER’S BESTIARY in the ‘AMORETTI’ (1595).’ Atlantis, vol. 24, no. 2, 2002, pp. 41-58, www.jstor.orgstable41055069?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents. Date of Access 14 Feb. 2021.
- Heidar, Davood Mashhadi, and Davoud Reza Zamzia. ‘A Deconstructionist Reading of William Blake’s a Poison Tree.’ 3L: Language, Linguistics, Literature, vol. 18, no. 4, 26 Dec. 2012, ejournal.ukm.my3larticleview16881419. Date of Access 15 Feb. 2021.
- Keegan, Paul. The Penguin Book of English Verse. London, Penguin, 2004, pp. 41, 50, 51, 162. Date of Access 10 Feb.2021.
- Neigh, Janet. ‘Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan.’’ Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 29, no. 4, 2006, pp. 145-160, 10.1353jml.2006.0048. Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.
- Rameez, Ahmed, et al. ‘STYLISTIC ANALYSIS of WILLIAM BLAKE’S POEM ‘a POISON TREE.’’ International Journal of Linguistics, vol. 1, no. 2, 2014. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021.