Yeats, “Leda and the Swan” poem
As the title suggests, Yeats poem revolves around the Greek narrative of Leda, a renowned queen in the land of the Trojans who is seduced into a sexual encounter with Zeus, one among the many Greek deities. Zeus being a divine being is captured by Leda’s beauty therefore decides to have a sexual experience with her where he thereby transforms himself into a swan for his identity fortification. The swan descends on Leda swiftly overpowering her and the consequent scenes depict a violent rape case that leads to Leda’s conception. This consummation according to Greek narratives leads to the birth of Helen, the Troy queen whose abduction instance leads to the destruction of Troy through the Trojan battle by the Greeks (Burt and David 265). Yeats combines the peculiarity symbolized in the interaction between violence and love in his poem to accord the view that rape instances lead to the birth of greater violence that has a wider influence that its initial incident.
The poem opens on a highly theatrical note that offers a succinct imagery of the swiftness and violent nature of Leda and the Swan’s encounter. Without any form of anticipation, Leda is treated to “a sudden blow: the great wings still beating still above the staggering girl” (Burt and David 1-2). The inference given in these initial lines accord a well-calculated ambush by the swan on the unprepared woman in manner that renders her powerless against the weight and span of the wings enforced upon her in a sudden manner. Leda uncertain of the happening tries to counter her balance into a position that would aid her efforts against her attacker. The Swan however is developed as an intellectual character as initially evidenced by the premeditated precision of the ambush and the most surprising element of the blow as the bird strokes her thighs with the feet. The Swan is evidently aware of the surprise factor and its sexual prowess in the handling of women as it reaches for her neck with the bill, while “he holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (Burt and David 4).
The reader’s attention is caught by the reference of the Swan as a ‘he’, to depict a male bird. However, a level of ambiguity is maintained in the statement with Yeats holding the presupposition that the readers are aware that the Swan is but the deity Zeus. The irony created within the first stanza is rather disturbing, as Leda seems to respond positively to the Swan’s sexual advances despite that fact that the whole ordeal is brutal and sadistic to the woman. The suggestion Yeats makes between violence and pleasure in rape is disagreeable within the contemporary world but within the past period, the same was generally accepted as marked by women oppression instances (Jochum 105). The ambiguity accorded to the attacker’s identity amplifies the nature of the act, as warranting penalty due to its offensive nature. Zeus well aware of his wrong motives therefore conceals his identity as all rapists do to avoid retribution.
Further irony is created in the subsequent lines “how can those terrified vague fingers push the feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” (Burt and David 5-6). Yeats offers a vivid implication to the uncertainty within Leda upon the tabling of the Swan’s demands, as she battles to either push the bird away or accord an easy point of entry. Leda’s initial reaction to the Swan is powerfully superseded by her sexual desires as the feathered glory penetrates her and consequently evidences subtle thoughts towards the experience. Perhaps her perception is altered by the realization that the Swan is in actuality a deity and thereby reflecting a high level of favor towards a mortal being. The justification of the ordeal is rather shifted to the reader through the astute application of the questions for the audience to weigh the rationalization of the situation. Note that, within the Greek society, deities’ rules and powers surpassed human principles with regard to such issues like rape and therefore Leda’s case would have been treated as a normal encounter (Gallagher 247).
Yeats further develops this subjective approach into the poem by using a second question “and how can body, laid in white rush, but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?” (Burt and David 7-8). The statement contains traces of vagueness initially introduced by the use of the term ‘body’ without a specific reference to Leda’s case by using the phrase ‘her body’. The implication accorded therefore cautions the audience that applying the same situation to every individual would result into the same reactions as Leda held by the mere aspect of the universality component in humans. Although Leda may had been willing to oppose the sexual experience with the deity, the experience and power that Zeus, as a deity possessed over her was overwhelming to supersede her preferences. The state of powerlessness that Leda possesses against the Swan parallels that of any rape where the victim is overcome by the strength of the attacker and into the oppression. However, Yeats view that rape can be analyzed both from positive (pleasurable) or negative (demeaning) viewpoints cannot be reconciled within the contemporary society.
The positive view would have an adverse impact on a community, as female subjugation would be heightened with the same justification as that accorded to Leda. Another adverse effect as posited by Yeats is a heightened sense of violence as a product of the initial brutality. “A shudder in the loins engenders there the broken wall, the burning roof and tower” (Burt and David 9-10) summarizes this viewpoint as the sexual encounter concludes with the impregnation of Leda that leads to the destruction noted in the latter line. Yeats treats the scene with ambiguity although it is noted within the Greek narrative that Zeus’ pregnancy results into the birth of Helen who is abducted from her husband, King Menelaus, into the land of Troy resulting into the destruction of the kingdom within the battle of Troy. A single hint of the warfare is given in the subsequent phrases “and Agamemnon dead” (Burt and David 11) in reference to the aid that King Agamemnon accorded to Helen’s husband in besieging Troy to liberate her.
The imagery therefore created by attributing the razing experience to Leda is an indirect connection of the violence to that committed to her by Zeus as revenged through her daughter. Interestingly, King Agamemnon’s demise is planned and executed by his spouse Clytemnestra, a half-sister to Helen, but of a human lineage. Inferentially, Yeats addresses the supernatural problem borne by the sexual encounter between the human and the deity in that the violence implanted within Leda persists over the rest of her offspring. It seems that Leda with the end of the rape ordeal was truly “so caught up, so mastered by the brute blood of the air” (Burt and David 11-12) connected to the violence committed to her by Zeus. Note that, Helen’s case all began with a love triangle between King Menelaus, her and Prince Paris paralleling her mother’s case involving a trio marked by Zeus, King Tyndareus and her.
Additionally, Clytemnestra is also faced with the same challenge involving her lover, her husband King Agamemnon and herself. Yeats uses all instances to create a motif between love and violence with the latter being a consequence of the former. Zeus violent actions were only committed against one individual yet with the arrival of the future, the consequences were widely spread among various kingdoms according the main reason as to why Yeats perspective should be consented with despite its limitations infused by the time issue (Gallagher 248). Within the current society, rape leads to both a spiritual and physical conception that with time spreads its harmful effect on the society as a whole. This is supported by his view that “she put up his knowledge with his power before the indifferent beak could let her drop” (Burt and David 13-14) and this affected her latter offspring in a significant manner.
Burt, Stephen and David Mikics. The art of the sonnet. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.
Gallagher, David. Metamorphosis: transformations of the body and the influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Germanic literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009. Print.
Jochum, K. The reception of W.B. Yeats in Europe. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006. Print.