Updated date:

William Butler Yeats' "Leda and the Swan"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "Leda and the Swan"

The April 28, 2012, edition of The Telegraph features an article by Hannah Furness titled, "'Mythical' Swan Photo Taken Down After 'Bestiality' Fears." A Metropolitan police officer happened to catch a glimpse of a photograph on display at The Scream, a gallery owned by Tyrone and Jamie Wood, sons of Ronnie Wood, guitarist for The Rolling Stones. Derrick Santini's photograph depicted the mythological copulation of Leda and the god Zeus as he appeared to her as a swan.

The officer reported his observation, and two of his uniformed colleagues appeared at The Scream to investigate. Because bestiality is an "arrestable offence," the officers demanded that the offending piece of art be removed. The curators complied because the work had been on display for a whole month and was slated to taken down anyway.

If the officers had appeared on the day the display was first put up, there might have been a court battle over the issue. Jamie Wood remarked: "We would of course have fought to keep the piece up otherwise. If anyone wants to view it, we still have it at the gallery. The purpose of art is to provoke debate and Derrick’s piece has certainly done that."

This scenario is a sad indication of the direction of Western culture—an officer of the law unable to recognize a piece of art that depicts an ancient Greek myth. The clash of art and culture remains an issue for all generations. Yeats' recasting the famous "copulation" offers a modern musing on the event, flavoring it with implications that likely the original myth creators would find amusing.

Nevertheless, the symbolism of the myth remains open to interpretation, and each mind will do so according to its moral dictates as well as to its storehouse of facts.

Yeats’ poem, "Leda and the Swan" is basically a sonnet, though it sports 15 lines instead of the traditional 14. It might be remembered that sonnet 99 of the Shakespeare sequence also features an extra line, as a cinquain replaces the traditional quatrain in the first stanza.

Leda and the Swan

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?

Reading of "Leda and the Swan" by Siobhan Mckenna

Commentary

William Butler Yeats creates a speaker who is offering his interpretation of the ancient Greek myth in order to pose a question on which he had been and would likely continue to muse.

First Stanza: In Medias Res

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.

The poem begins in medias res, meaning that the copulation is in progress after the sudden descension of the swan as it has swooped down and is now having its way with Leda. The wings of the swan are still fluttering, as he has caused the woman to stagger. He grips her thighs with his "dark webs," catches her by the neck, and holds her against himself as she is helpless to loosen herself from that grip.

This myth has often been interpreted as a "rape" and Yeats' depiction goes a long way to provide the violence that could indeed herald that appellation, despite the fact that, based on the actual mythic narrative, a case might be made that Leda was not, in fact, an unwilling participant in this coupling.

Later that day Leda copulates with her husband, and the result from those two intimacies is her giving birth to two sets of twins: one set, Helen and Polydeuces, fathered by the swan-Zeus, and the other, Castor and Clytemnestra, fathered by Tyndareus.

Second Stanza: Questions

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?

The speaker is speculation that the girl cannot push the swan from her; she has only "terrified vague fingers," and he is full of a "feathered glory," after all this is Zeus, a god. His ability to loosen her thighs is absolute; thus, there is no possibility that she can do other than endure feeling that big bird's heart beating on her, as she lies helpless while he shoves his male member into her female receptacle through his "white rush."

The two rhetorical questions, as virtually all rhetorical questions do, function to answer themselves, yet at the same time, they demonstrate that the speaker remains open to other possibilities. The speaker is musing on these events, wondering about certain issues, but offering no final conclusion.

Third Stanza: Changing the Course of World History

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?

The swan emits his semen into her, and all hell breaks loose: from that spewed-forth froth coupling with Leda's human ova will result two children, who will alter the course of history, particularly Helen of Troy, over whom the Trojan War was fought.

Agamemnon dies at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, who was angered by her husband's sacrifice of their daughter, Iphigenia. As Agamemnon was preparing to sail to war to retrieve Helen, his fleet was met with difficulty which would be lifted only with sacrifice of his daughter. Loss of their daughter angered his wife, so she later kills him.

Thus after the climactic "shudder in the loins," the war flames out resulting in the "broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead." Of course, the image of the "broken wall" and the "burning roof and tower"imply the sexual imagery of penetrated female and the male penetrator, as well as the plundering of the city of Troy, by the marauding band of warriors.

The final musing of the poem—again offered as a rhetorical question—offers the speculation that while Leda was seemingly violated by the intrusive Zeus masquerading as a swan, perhaps she was so altered as to have taken on some of his "knowledge" and his "power," even though he remained "indifferent" to her plight. Because of his indifference, the swan's beak just lets the violated woman drop.

The Power of Myth

Because this poem is engendered from a Greek mythological narrative, it remains open to interpretation. The obvious absurdity of a swan coupling with a human along with the scientific knowledge that conception cannot be accomplished across species remains the signal that this myth holds meaning that cannot be taken literally. Then, too, there is issue that Leda’s and Zeus’s offspring are born from eggs.

As the original Zeus/Leda myth is told, the issue of coupling appears to be merely seduction and not rape. For example, about the nature of Zeus’ engaging women in sex, the ancient rhetorician, Isocrates, has stated,

Zeus, lord of all, reveals his power in all else, but deigns to approach beauty in humble guise. For in the likeness of Amphitryon he came to Alcmena, and as a shower of gold he united with Danae, and in the guise of a swan he took refuge in the bosom of Nemesis, and again in this form he espoused Leda; ever with artifice manifestly, and not with violence, does he pursue beauty in women.

According to Isocrates’ interpretation, Zeus merely seduced woman humbly in various forms, and he did so not out of mere lust but for the sake of pursuing the beauty in the women who possessed it.

Numerous artistic expressions taking the Zeus/Leda narrative as their subject matter depict Leda holding the swan affectionately, therefore, supporting Isocrates interpretation that the act was seduction not rape. However, the Yeats poem is one of the interpretations that forces readers to interpret the myth as the rape of Leda by Zeus as a swan. Even though the Yeatsian speaker waffles about what he believes about the whole affair, ultimately he is strongly suggesting that the act was, in fact, a rape.

Sources

© 2020 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles