Through childhood, there were always forces that were beyond
our control: gravity hurling us down a slide, the recess bell, or
an older brother. In this period of time, we were innocent,
unable to know what the effects of these factors were; they
caused scars, single file lines, and temper tantrums in the back
seat. We were too young to understand what we had gotten
ourselves into. Therefore, not having enough experience to know
how to make our own choices, we were forced to be swept away by
fate. Such this is the case in William Yeats's poems "The Stolen
Child" and "Leda and the Swan." Despite the optimism of the
eventual outcome at first reading these two poems, the characters
in these works were unwilling victims, taken out of their former
worlds, based on the ignorance about greater forces.
A reader's objective views may lead him or her to believe
that these two poems are verses concerning reaching a higher
plateau. For "The Stolen Child," he or she is escaping to a
picturesque world of unboundedness. Leda has been graced with
four of Zeus's offspring. For both, it appears on the surface
that they received an enlightenment or spiritual awakening. The
implicate forces at work are not questioned, but merely accepted
as the key to entering a world of illumination through divine
creatures. But one does not realize the larger picture: a infant
is being kidnapped and a woman is being raped. Both are taken
beyond their will and unjustly must suffer consequences. A closer
reading will refute the opinion that the outcomes for these
characters were freely accepted.
In "The Stolen Child," an innocent is abducted from his or
her youth and free will. At this point of life's journey, one
doesn't have enough experience to differentiate good from evil.
The faeries's refrain has an ominous tone, paralleling the sirens
of Greek Mythology that would lure unsuspecting sailors to their
ruin. The child is lulled away "with a faery, hand in hand" (3).
The image that is represented is either one of the baby
credulously putting his or her trust into these strangers or one
of the baby being forcefully pulled. The faeries are not as
angelic as they appear on the surface. Their reddest cherries are
stolen, much like the sweet child. They are mischievous as well,
giving "slumbering trout" "unquiet dreams" (3). It almost appears
that this child will become the faeries's new toy! Unsettling the
beautiful, utopian atmosphere, the ferns "drop their tears;" the
plants already understand something melancholy and esoteric about
this island. The child does not grasp what risk he or she is
taking, therefore, this is not a choice of free will to leave
this world that is "more full of weeping that (he or she) can
understand" (3). That line the faeries chant contradict the last
stanza. The pastoral scene of warmth, familiarity, and the
comforts of home proves that there is still beauty in reality.
The child will never realize what is to "grow up;" he or she is
stolen from wisdom, pain, and identity when free will was stolen.
"Leda and the Swan" is a different approach at the theme of
free will. Instead of the soothing lullaby of "The Stolen Child,"
broken stanzas and graphic images bring a disturbing vision to
the reader. Leda's ignorance is much different than the one of
the stolen child. Her extent of human understanding is greater
because she realizes this act of fate, or Zeus, is horrendous and
overwhelming. Leda is literally paralyzed with fear, helpless
against "the great wings beating still" (121). This action of
rape is an action of power, in this case, the power of a god.
Zeus's "indifferent beak" represents a force that cannot be
controlled, and wherever the victim is "dropped," she is left to
deal with the aftermath (121). Many pivotal questions are raised
in this poem dealing with human will versus divine intervention.
How much did Leda understand, and what measures were taken? If
Leda knew that this one event would cause the Trojan War, there
is no doubt that she would have pushed the giant swan away. She
wouldn't fathom the magnitude of this act of violence until
later, so it is impossible that it was a voluntary choice to "put
on his knowledge" (121).
As children, our parents decided when was bedtime, despite
our pleads for otherwise. We did not know the penalty for staying
up late until the day after. Only our parents, the unrelenting
force, knew the effects in the long run. The controlling powers
in these two poems did not ask for permission, they stole their
innocence and free will. For the stolen child, he or she takes
blind faith in the faeries, while Leda's "terrified vague
fingers" could not overcome the shock to understand the fatal
repercussions of Zeus's fling (121). No free choice can be made
if one is unaware of the circumstances. There is no way to beat
forces that are stronger than us, like death, but only a way to
cope with them. In return, this may include losing security and
peace of mind because we awaken to the fact that we are
vulnerable and completely defenseless to fate and predetermined
events. That does not mean life should be feared. In our youth,
we explored the world through experience, that which came out of
the perpetual force that moved us without hesitation or concern.
From this, we learn to make the choice of free will from the
knowledge we have gained, no longer naive.