My Interpretation of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan”
Yeats’s poem, “Leda and the Swan,” begins in a very dramatic way with the reader being thrown directly into the action. The poem begins with the words, “A sudden blow (1).” The reader is able to feel the force, the drama, the power behind the sexual act being described. This line also conjures for the reader the overall tone of the poem. It is obviously very sexual, but at the same time extremely violent. If you were to read the line, “A sudden blow,” in another work it would be possible to associate it with something completely different than sex or rape; it could in fact be describing a physical fight or something/someone being struck with another object. The line has obvious sexual connotations, the “blow” could represent penetration. Nonetheless, the power of this line does immediately throw the reader into the overall violence of the work. As the line continues, the reader receives the first image of the swan. Yeats writes, “the great wings beating still” (1). This line seems to contain a contradiction. The reader is able to picture the swan’s “great wings,” one of the most stunning parts of the bird, however, Yeats’s describes the wings as not just “beating”, but “beating still.” How is it possible to have Zeus’s wings beating, but at the same time immobile? Perhaps, Yeats is describing the decent down upon Leda. The bird was in flight, but has now stopped above his prey. Zeus has now landed “above the staggering girl” (2). According to the Oxford dictionary, the word “stagger” means to “walk or move unsteadily, as if about to fall.” This adjective shows Leda’s desperation. She is trying to get away, but is helpless.
As the poem continues, Yeats moves away from the violence and takes on more sexual imagery. The shift from violent to explicitly sexuality may cause the reader to view Zeus and Leda’s intercourse as consensual. By playing with the language, Yeats could easily cause the reader to question whether or not this is in fact rape or a willingness on Leda’s part. This is seen beginning in line two of the poem through the second stanza. Yeats starts with “her thighs caressed” (2). The word “caressed” means “to touch or stroke gently or lovingly.” This adjective creates a soft side to the sexual act, contradicting the previously powerful violent beginning. This description may cause the reader to question Zeus’s feelings towards Leda. He is touching her in a loving and gentle way, which may lead the reader to believe that there is some feeling there. Perhaps, Zeus loves Leda, but because she is already married, she does not return his affections. As the first stanza ends, the reader witnesses the physical joining of Leda and Zeus, as though they are morphing into one being. This image creates a more romanticized perception of rape, because in reality rape is often seen as something very brutal and traumatizing, but Yeats daringly makes it more erotic and almost beautiful. The molding of Zeus and Leda together is described as “her nape caught in his bill, / He holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (3-4). Their necks are intertwined, Their chests are pressed together. Zeus “holds,” Leda in place by pressing his breast against hers. The word choice of “breast upon […] breast,” picks up a very feminized image, even slightly homoerotic. I believe that Yeats intentionally fueled this reading because he often uses the image of birds, particularly swans, in his other works as a representation of the female. So while the violent language at the beginning is meant to stand for the violence of rape, one cannot ignore the shift in language to a more feminine perception.
In the second stanza of the poem, Yeats begins to question how Leda is unable to resist or fight Zeus. He says, “How can those terrified vague fingers push / The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? (5-6). It is important for the reader to again recognize the adjectives used in Yeats’s description of the sexual act. First, he describes Leda’s fingers as “terrified” and “vague.” These comments not only depict the desperate feelings of a rape victim, but also mirror the perception of women during this time. She is seen as “vague” and was previously described as “helpless,” similar to the way that women at this time were seen as dependent on men. In one of my previous posts, I mention how the depictions or representations of women in mythology were beginning to change around the time of the Irish Renaissance. Goddesses, such as the Marrigan, were not allowed to maintain their dominate powers because men did not think that women should be able to have such a powerful role in society, as well as literature. The beginning of Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” seems to uphold the ideology that women are helpless victims. As the quote continues, Yeats’ associates the swan, aka Zeus, with the “feathered glory,” he has taken on the role of dominate god. He is all powerful, and irresistible. This is seen in the way the Leda’s thighs are described as “loosening.” She does not appear to be clenching them, or attempting to keep them shut in a forceful way. Leda has given up, she has allowed her thighs to open, inviting Zeus to take her. Again, these images cause the reader to question whether or not Leda is being raped?
As the stanza continues, Yeats asks another question, “And how can body, laid in the white rush / But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?” (7-8). Leda has been reduced to a “body. This may represent the disconnect that rape victims often experience when their body is being victimized. They tend to try and remove themselves mentally from the situation as it is happening, in order to reduce the trauma. The description of the “white rush,” is a symbol of Zeus, but also has obvious sexual imagery. Leda is feeling Zeus’s “strange heart,” beating against her chest. The heart is often seen as a symbol of compassion. The fact that Yeats chooses to have Leda feel Zeus’s heart against her, makes it appear that he is moral; that the terrible violation he is facilitating does not hinder his morality.
The last two stanzas if the poem relate the eventual results that come out of Zeus and Leda’s intercourse. Yeats describes, “A shudder in the loins engenders there / This broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead (9-11).” Zeus’s orgasm has caused Leda to become pregnant with, most likely, Helen and Pollux. Because Leda had sex with her husband earlier, she is also already pregnant with Clytemnestra and Castor. Leda’s children ultimately enable powerful events. Helen is said to have caused the Trojan war, while Clytemnestra commits adultery and, in later mythology, kills her husband, Agamemnon. It is amazing the way that Yeats is able to condense these extreme happenings in Greek mythology into a minimal two lines.
Yeats ends his poem by asking, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? (15-16)” In these lines, Yeats is contemplating whether or not Leda, out of sexual relations with Zeus, was able to steal some of his godly power. Did she take his glory? While at the same time Yeats, again reiterates the theme of rape, by describing Zeus as “indifferent” as he drops Leda to the ground like trash or something meaningless. Yeats seems to suggest that out of despair and hardship, often arises something powerful and commanding. Leda may have been weak, but her children were not, and some of them were products of this terrible event. Does she get the last laugh? Does she ultimately champion Zeus? I believe that she does. Rather than take a post colonial approach, I like to think that Yeats was showing the power of the female to rise up and create something strong out of her adversity, especially the victimization and objectification that society often places upon the woman. So, although Yeats seems to be conjuring images of the defeated female, in reality, he is creating some kind of hope and demonstrating for the reader the true power of the female.
Da Vinci, Leonardo. Leda and the Swan. 1508. The Wilton House, England. Retrieved from http://www.leonardo-da-vinci-biography.com/leda-and-the-swan.html.
Yeats, William Butler. “Leda and the Swan.” Yeats’s Poetry, Drama, and Prose. Ed. James Pethica. New York: Norton and Company, 2000. Print.