On occasion, I tutor English/Writing to high school or college students, and last weekend I worked with a college student from China who was trying to write his final paper on William Butler Yeats famous poem, “Leda and the Swan,” written in 1928. Normally I enjoy working with students, and helping them find meaning to text, but this time, I felt a bit stumped. You see, this particular student barely spoke English, so to understand poetry from the early 19th century, let alone write a critical paper was simply not happening. I admit to being a bit overwhelmed, as he sat there with a very confused look on his face while I broke down the poem word-by-word using a translator and the dictionary. Even with a word-by-word dissection, this poor fellow was lost in a crosswalk, and I was afraid to see how his final paper would turn out.
The fact that he continued to yawn through the entire near 4 hour tutoring session was probably a sign that he was bored, not getting it, tired, or perhaps a combination of all three. It was a most interesting session, and I suppose it was my curiosity as to how this would all turn out that kept me intrigued, because his inability to comprehend 90% of what I was saying was rather frustrating. Naturally, there is no one to blame. This was purely circumstance, however, it was exhausting to break apart every word and have him still completely miss the meaning of a sentence.
There was a moment of absolute humor, in fact, it was all I could do to keep from laughing my head off (naturally I had to act composed). We were approaching the middle of the third stanza, when suddenly he slammed his fist on the table, sat up erect in his seat and said, “I get it, I get it now… the Swan is a bird!” Wow. I had absolutely no response. What could I say? Yeats swan is so much more than a bird! This embellished masterpiece is a potpourri of Greek mythology, nineteenth century occultism, English literature, European politics, Christian imagery, bundled up in a brilliantly composed sonnet. The swan of course represents the god Zeus, and his rape of Leda – a famous story in Greek mythology.
I almost felt guilty taking his money, but after 4 hours, we said good-bye, and he seemed content that he had a handle on the swans identity. I really did feel for this kid, so I told him to email me his final draft and I would edit it free of charge. I also specified that this would only be an edit, not a re-write of his paper. He was very grateful, since he was quite concerned about getting a good grade. Three days later I received a paper in my email box, with no name on it, and it was not a critical analysis of “Leda and the Swan” at all, but a critical paper written on Robert Browning’s “A Lovers’ Quarrel.” I was floored, but admittedly, I was even more astounded when I read this masterfully written paper, knowing full well that this guy either purchased someone’s paper, or hired someone to write this. I was somewhere between irritated and rolling with laughter, so I decided to ask him what on earth happened to our 4 hour tutoring session? After he received my probing email, he wrote back saying, “Oh, I so sorry. Paper not mine (ya think?), it belong to friend, and he need help too. I send my paper tomorrow.” HELLLLLLLLLLLLO! Since when did I tell him I would edit a second 8 page college essay for free? After nicely explaining to him that he tried to take advantage of me, I told him his friend would need to pay me to edit the paper, and that I would still edit his at no charge (I really am a nice person).
He agreed, and the next day I received his paper and his friends money (I even gave him a discount). Truthfully, upon seeing it, there were simply no words. Needless to say, it’s doubtful he’ll be sporting an A.
So, the moral of the story is…
Actually, there is no moral of the story. It’s nearly 11 p.m., and I’m going to visit the sandman.
Leda and the Swan
by William Butler Yeats
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?