Leda and the Swan W.B. Yeats Written 1923. Published in‘The Tower’ (1928)
A sudden blow: the great wings beating stillAbove the staggering girl, her thighs caressedBy the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers pushThe 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 thereThe broken wall, the burning roof and tower 10And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,So mastered by the brute blood of the air,Did she put on his knowledge with his powerBefore the indifferent beak could let her drop?
“[This is] the greatest poem of the 20th century…all human beings, like Leda, are caught up moment by moment in the white rush of experience. For Yeats, the only salvation is the shapeliness and stillness of Art.” Camille Paglia (2006)The poem alludes to the mythical rape of Leda, wife of Tyndareus, King ofSparta, by the god Zeus, in the form of a swan. Leda then gave birth to 3 eggs.One contained Castor and Clytemnestra, one Helen and Pollux and one layunhatched. Clytemnestra married Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, Helen marriedAgamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, and when Helen ran off with Paris toTroy, Agamemnon led the Greek invasion to get her back thus precipitating theTrojan War. Upon his return from the Trojan War, Clytemnestra murders herhusband to be with her lover… ‘What would break the third shell?’ WB Yeats ‘A Vision’ (1937)
The poem is clearly metaphorical but what for? Political - a poem about England’s relationship with Ireland? Or the patriarchy that still exists in the modern world? Religious - about man’s relationship with God? Personal – about the difference between youth and age? Or something else?In 1896 Yeats wrote ‘anotherLeda would open her knees to Yeats’ theory of the gyres sees this fictional rapethe swan and begin a new as ‘the annunciation that founded Greece’ andage…’ the historical era 2000BC-1AD. The birth of Helen initiating the Trojan War. ‘The Annunciation of Mary’ began the second age 1AD-2000BC…what poem by Yeats seems to announce a new era…? 1919-1921 Anglo-Irish War 1922-1923 Irish Civil War Try to look beyond the unpleasant central metaphor of the rape and see the poem as an aesthetic experience like the painting. Look at the diction – can it be viewed as erotic? Is it just unpleasantly brutal? Or is it necessarily graphic?
‘Nothing is more possible but some movement, or birth fromabove, preceded by some violent annunciation. My fancy began to playwith Leda and the Swan for metaphor and I began this poem; but as Iwrote, bird and lady took such possession of the scene that all politics wentout of it.’WB Yeats The poet is ‘taken possession of’ by the metaphor in the same way that Leda is taken possession of by the swan. What might the swan represent now?In terms of gender politics, is it ever acceptable to use rape asa metaphor for other ideas or experiences? Remember, thisrape is fictional. How might a Christian view the associationof a classical, pagan, bestial rape with the miracle of theannunciation of Mary by the Archangel Gabriel? Q. Write a short paragraph explaining how each of these quotes relate or help contextualise your understanding of the poem ‘Leda and the Swan’.