William Yeats, poet, playwright, and Irish nationalist produced “Leda and the Swan” in 1923. In this modern poem Yeats retells the classic Greek myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus in the form of a swan. This act of violence is the catalyst that later leads to the destruction of Troy and the subsequent strengthening of Greece. “Leda and the Swan” is often credited as unique work for the time period because of the violent depiction of Leda’s rape and the underlying political themes that evoked both ideas of a new democratic age and the oppression of Ireland at the hand of England.
The sonnet of “Leda and the Swan” displays an uncomfortable degree of beauty in relation to the subject matter which puts the reader in the precarious position of having to identify with both Leda and her rapist. Leda herself can be called complacent in her own rape, as various retellings of the myth waffle between Leda as victim of rape or willing participant in her own seduction. Yeats’ choice to depict the myth in terms of violence tell as much about cultural attitudes towards the victimization of women as it does about Yeats’ sympathies for Ireland, and his own theological belief system.
The masterful language used by Yeats creates a sonnet that is both horrific in subject and at the same time wonderful to read. Within the first line Yeats immediately grabs the reader’s attention. There is no preamble. There is no set up for the story that follows. There is only the resounding loud and violent action opening the sonnet. “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still”, brings the reader dramatically into the fray. There is a blow of some kind, possibly a striking blow, and the sound of large wings beating in the air. The reader is startled by the blow, and after having only partially absorbed the shock of it, hears the whoosh of beating wings. The reader does not know where the assault comes from or to who the wings belong to. The reader is pulled into the remainder of the stanza, “Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed/ By dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, / He holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (lines 2-4) without a moment of reflection to spare. There is beating, staggering, caressing, catching, and holding in a whirl so fast the reader doesn’t have time to prepare a response to the attack. The reader endures the attack along with Leda, barely able to visualize the swirl of motion crowded in the first four lines.
In these first sympathetic moments the reader can empathize with Leda, caught up in a whirlwind of chaos and violence. This empathy is short lived. Because the reader wants to know what happens next, how the staggering, helpless girl will evade her attacker, they will the rape of Leda to continue. Janet Neigh, in her critical essay Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification and Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan, states that the gender ambiguity created by combining the feminine archetype of the swan with the masculine persona of the lecherous god Zeus creates a level of interest that compels the reader to experience both the terror of Leda and the pleasure of her rapist. The lack of guidance from the third person narration as to which party should gain preference in the text exacerbates this effect: “The detached third person narrator ironically invites rather than discourages identifications, because the narrator gives no direction as to which character the reader should identify with, making her free to identify with both actors in the poem. The “loosening thighs,” “breast upon breast” and “burning” clearly express sexual desire, which thwarts the interpretation of rape in the poem. Coupled with the swan’s indistinguishable gender, these ambiguities encourage readers to identify both with a raped human and the pleasure of a rapist” (149-150. While the use of sexually suggestive language does alter the perception of rape in the sonnet, I do not believe it thwarts it entirely. The references to sexual desires in conjunction with rape are likely the result of cultural attitudes towards rape during the time period in which the piece was written.
Cynthia Garrett explains in her essay about love in early Modern English lyric, that from the 1590 to 1610 the idea that women enjoyed forced sex was a popular theme in literature. Men were taught the concept of “denial as desire” as a means of interpreting the wants and desires of women, who themselves, were thought to have little reconciliation between their emotional and physical desires. The cultural pressure for women to be modest and sexually restrained was thought to be against their true nature to be loose and amoral. This prejudice led to the English court’s failure to prosecute rape as a crime with any consistency and the folk belief that a woman who conceived via rape must have inherently enjoyed the processes of being violated or else the conception would not have occurred (1-2).
These concepts remain in the popular imagination for hundreds of years. Similar attitudes persist till today. An Amnesty survey featured in a 2008 issue of the Irish Times reveals that even with our current progressive attitudes towards the abilities and equality of women, a significant portion of the population (between thirty and forty-eight percent depending on the wording of the question) believe that women are in part responsible if they are raped (O’Brien).
The concept that women are unable to express their true sexual desires is echoed in Yeats poem: “How can those terrified vague fingers push/ The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” (lines 5-6). At the same time Leda pushes away from Zeus she accepts him. Her fingers are “vague” lacking in force, definition, or purpose. Her “loosening thighs” allow entrance for the “feathered glory” of Zeus. Leda offers no outcry of protest. There is no significant struggle of opposition from her. In this way Yeats confirms the period belief that women are willing victims. However, despite this deplorable inference, there is a glimmer of more progressive ideology in his portrayal of Leda. Previous incarnations of the myth involve Leda being the willing object of Zeus’ seduction. In a type of biblical fall from grace Leda relents to the pursuits of Zeus, giving herself to him on the same night she beds her husband. Her amoral, lust driven behavior results in “the broken wall, the burning roof and tower/ And Agememnon dead” (lines 10-11). Yeats offers an opposing translation in which Zeus’ victimization of Leda, and her subsequent submission to his cruel divinity results in future generations of violence and bloodshed. Neigh shares a similar viewpoint for these lines, though she associates the tower burning with the fall of a patriarchal giant:
The next two lines are also difficult to visualize simultaneously because they both gesture outside of the scene of the poem and are disparate from one another: “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower /And Agamemnon dead.” I previously suggested that the tower represents the phallus. This is why: at this point in the poem, the tower is burning down and Yeats makes the out-of-context declaration that the patriarchal king Agamemnon is dead. The rape, rather than consolidating phallocentric power, seems to be undermining it. (151)
I feel the analysis of the tower as a phallic symbol over reaches Yeats’ intentions for historical comparison. Considering the previous lack of protest on the part of Leda, I doubt Yeats would have felt it necessary to place emphasis on Agememnon’s death and the destruction of the tower as representations of patriarchal upheaval, being instead a reference to upheaval and change in more general terms.
Upheaval, change, force, violence and power are dominating themes in “Leda and the Swan.” Leda is overpowered by the god Zeus and in her moment of violent union with the divine she not only becomes impregnated with his powerful offspring but absorbs the dark knowledge of the fate of Troy. In the dizzying moment when she is “caught up” and “mastered by the brute blood of air” she is exposed to the dangerous and volatile idea that change comes through violence and aggression. This mimics Yeats own ideas, especially when placed in context with his own nationalism. Yeats believed that change was cyclical. As Troy lost to Grecian forces because of the sin committed by Zeus against Leda the sins of England would likewise be visited upon them as Ireland gained independence through agitation, revolution, and change. Yeats involvement with radical publications at the time show his interest in stirring the pot of conflict, in hopes of change via spiritual awakening. This sentiment is echoed by Bernard McKenna:
Yeats hoped that conflict, the dominant subject of his prophetic book, would be the catalyst of spiritually invigorating change… Specifically, Yeats’s decision to place his poem “Leda and the Swan” in the new journal, and thus within what David Pierce calls “the revolutionary rhetoric of . . . To-Morrow,” encourages a reading that stresses a parallel between Leda and the newly formed Irish Free State. Both are victims of violence. Leda endures Zeus’ act of rape, and the Irish nation had just emerged from a civil war, a war of independence, and centuries of colonial rule. Both Leda and the Free State struggle to come to terms with that violence… (19)
Just as Greece enters a new age beginning with the rape of Leda, Ireland will enter a new complex and questioning age of societal and governmental change. Yeats personal belief in cyclical change applies universally, to all various forms of struggle. In “Leda and the Swan” Yeats is tackling more than just the dynamic between Leda and Zeus or Ireland and England. Yeats is also tackling the conflict between the human and the divine.
Yeats struggled with the juxtaposition between formal religion and spirituality. It is understandable that organized religion would provide little comfort for Yeats. The influence of his father’s religious skepticism coupled with his own questioning nature made the blind following of religious organizations an impractical choice. The role Catholic and Protestant churches played in politics along with the various corruptions that occur when government and religion combine gave Yeats a strong case against participating in organized religion. This does not preclude a need for spirituality on his part. Yeats developed various theological beliefs to explain the spiritual world and the system of changes and forces that propel the world of men (Greenblat 2388). Leda in her conflict with Zeus mimics Yeats’ own conflict between internal and external spiritual theologies. In this way it can be said that the knowledge imparted into Leda through her rape goes beyond the struggle of various political forces and into the realm of the supernatural. Her knowledge of the future, in being a vibrant vision, harkens to a spiritual awakening that can only be obtained through constant struggle and conflict. Read in this context the rape of Leda is both a horrible and beautiful struggle to understand the nature of God and a comparison to the eternal struggle from which change is born.
Yeats ability to contextualize the hierarchy of struggle faced by the individual is unique. Leda is at the heart of many conflicts. She is in direct physical opposition to Zeus, as women of Yeats’ time were in direct opposition with the men around them. Always revered as unequal halves, women long occupied the position of objects that were acted upon instead of initiators of action. Leda is part of a grander political struggle in which her actions contribute to historical, cyclical shifts in power that occur in the world, just as individual efforts affected the shift in power and responsibility between England and Ireland. Leda offers an insight into how change might be achieved. Though Zeus was an overwhelming force, she took something of value from his attack. She took knowledge of the future. Knowledge, education, and awareness are key components needed for a weaker for to challenge a greater force. Leda is also part of deep spiritual struggle. Through her experience with Zeus we are given permission to question our beliefs. Is a brush with the divine necessarily a good thing? How intimate can human beings truly be with omniscient powers and still retain their sense of self? At want point does our allegiance with the divine become a source of oppression? Does divinity impact our lives, or is it the struggle to have faith that makes faith function?
Yeats, William. “Leda and the Swan.” The Norton Anthology of
English Literature: Major Authors 8th ed. Vol. B. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006.
Neigh, Janet. “Reading from the Drop: Poetics of Identification
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Garret, Cynthia E. “Sexual Consent and the Art of Love in the
Early Modern English Lyric.” SEL: Studies in EnglishLiterature (Johns Hopkins) 44.1 (2004): 37-58. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.
O’BRIEN, Carl. Social Affairs Correspondent. “Many say rape
victims at fault – poll.” Irish Times 27 Mar. 2008: Newspaper Source. EBSCO. Web. 29 Mar. 2010
McKenna, Bernard. Yeats, “Leda,” and the Aesthetics of To-
Morrow: “The Immortality of the Soul.” University of St. Thomas Press, 2009. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 29 Mar. 2010.