The Subject of Leda and the Swan

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When “Leda and the Swan” was first published in 1924 (in a version somewhat different than the final form that appears in modern collections of Yeats’s verse), it aroused criticism from the Catholic press in Ireland because of its sexually explicit subject matter—the violent rape of a mortal woman by a god who had taken on the form of a swan. Yeats published the poem in a radical journal and hoped to stir up controversy in order to make the point that he opposed the country’s repressive attitude toward “immoral” literature.

In the early twenty-first century, “Leda and the Swan” is hardly considered an indecent work and is heavily anthologized in poetry collections as one of the finest poems written in English. While few people would argue that the poem is anything but brilliant in its technical mastery of language, some contemporary readers might still find the content of the poem troubling or objectionable because of its sexual—and perhaps sexist—nature. Is Yeats’s poem sexist? Should female readers be offended by the content of the work?

The readers of “Leda and the Swan” who criticized it when it was first published did so because they thought that a sexual subject was not an appropriate topic for a work of art. More than seventy years later, sexual themes are not generally considered unsuitable for literary expression. Some feminists, however, object to the use of sexist themes in art because they perpetuate the subordination of women. The portrayal of women in television or films as being primarily objects of sexual interest, for example, is condemned as detrimental to women’s status as equal members of society. The question to be explored here, then, is whether by offering a graphic image of female degradation in “Leda and the Swan” Yeats produced a sexist work and if the treatment of his female character detracts from the poem’s status as great literature.

Sexism is defined in Webster’s dictionary as “behavior, conditions, or attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex.” It is difficult to say whether in “Leda and the Swan” Yeats is presenting stereotypical portraits of Leda as female and Zeus as male. The action described is a rape, and in that situation there is clearly an imbalance of power between the assailant and the victim. The male Zeus is clearly the strong, domineering figure and the female Leda is the weak, defenseless one. He has her “nape caught in his bill” like a small animal, and he “holds her helpless.” However, simply to describe a scene in which two people of the opposite sex are shown in a particular situation is not necessarily to foster the idea that those are their natural roles. What would be more disturbing is if a woman’s attitude to her assault in such a situation is characterized in terms that present an incorrect but often accepted picture of how women respond to rape. Does Yeats’s characterization of Leda promote any such picture?

One often used stereotype of women is that they somehow invite rape by being seductive and alluring and that in some sense they actually want to be violated by their attackers. Clearly in Yeats’s poem Leda does not invite Zeus’s advances. The poem begins abruptly, and there is a clear sense that Leda is as shocked by the “sudden blow” as the reader is. She is “staggering,” so she has obviously been caught off guard both physically and mentally by the massive bird. The action of the first four lines is described in terms of the swan’s movements, and Leda is entirely passive. Another stereotype that...

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is used often by rapists who claim that their sexual actions are justified is that women actually enjoy the force of rape and that in some sense their participation is consensual. As the rape begins in the first stanza, Leda appears to be a completely unsuspecting and unwilling victim of a forcible act. However, the sensual overtones of the poem also imply that the rape being described is not simply an act of violence but in some sense an erotic act. Leda’s thighs are “caressed,” and the swan “holds her helpless breast upon his breast” in a position that suggests intimacy or even lovemaking. As the poem progresses, there seem to be additional hints that there is in fact some consent on Leda’s part.

In the second stanza, the poem moves to an examination of Leda’s state of mind. It is presented in the form of two 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 use of the interrogative to describe Leda’s condition in this stanza adds a dimension of ambiguity in terms of her response to her predicament. On the one hand, she simply cannot resist: she is not being attacked by any ordinary assailant, after all, but being seized here by the all-powerful leader of the gods. How could she fight back in such a case? For this reason she appears to be stunned: her “terrified vague fingers” indicate that she is numbed by the experience. However, the use of the interrogative could point not only to the impossibility of resistance on Leda’s part but to the fact that she finds the god irresistible in a sexual sense. Even though in the second stanza the poem focuses on Leda’s physical and psychic state, the words used to describe her point of view hardly seem inappropriate for a woman who is being victimized.

In the midst of Leda’s violation the swan is described as the “feathered glory.” Leda’s thighs are described not as being violently pried apart but as “loosening,” perhaps in response to the rapist, again suggesting that this is a consensual act. The next two lines of the poem stress the union of woman and god. The use of the word body without a pronoun could imply that their two bodies are one; both together “feel” the strange heart beating. The heart is a traditional symbol of love, and the use of that word again seems hardly fitting in the context of a forcible and violent rape.

In the last stanza, there is further ambiguity with the line “A shudder in the loins.” Again there is no pronoun before “loins,” and it may be that the shudder is not only on the part of the swan but is felt by Leda, too. That a bestial rape would give rise to anything but horror seems unthinkable, but the ambivalence of the description again forces the possibility that there is some mutual enjoyment that results from the sexual union. At the end of the poem, after it is learned that the union between Leda and the swan-god brings about a turbulent sequence of events—the siege of Troy and, by implication, the destruction of ancient Greek civilization— another question is posed, this time about the effect of the rape on Leda: “Being so caught up, / So mastered by the brute blood of the air / Did she put on his knowledge with his power. . . .” Did Leda gain some type of insight, some knowledge about the nature of the cosmos and human history? Again, the use of the verb caught up can be read as being ambiguous. Leda was caught up and mastered by the god, but caught up can also imply being intensely involved in the act and complicit in some sense.

Although the various references do not show explicitly that Leda is a willing partner in the union with Zeus, the erotic tone of the poem and the hints at acquiescence in the act on Leda’s part are unsettling. They do seem to point to the stereotype that women derive pleasure from forced sexual intercourse and, perhaps by extension, that they are somehow not entirely without blame in acts of vi- olence against them. However, to see the poem merely as an instance of Yeats’s sexism would be a mistake. Although there seem to be various clues that Yeats thinks of Leda as being erotically caught up in the event, it is obvious at the end of the poem that what has been described is a violent and contemptible abuse of a woman by a callous and indifferent aggressor.

After the speaker asks if in the union Leda “put on his knowledge with his power,” it becomes clear that the god has used the mortal woman for nothing more than his sexual gratification. The swan discards her unceremoniously—he lets her drop from his “indifferent beak”—and the question is left as to whether in her horrific subjugation by a god Leda also participated somehow in the divine. Yeats uses the heightened eroticism of the act as presented throughout the poem to add to the confusion and complexity of what has taken place, and the final question gains additional force after the event has been depicted in such a manner. The rape is described in terms that are brutal, bizarre, terrifying, and erotically charged, and these various aspects contribute to the incomprehensible nature of what has taken place. Yeats’s suggestions that Leda was somehow caught up in the act are used not to point to women’s supposed consent to acts of violence but to add to the terrifying confusion she feels as she is not only physically raped but has her humanity violated by an indifferent god.

Although “Leda and the Swan” does seem to characterize a woman’s participation in rape in ways that are found in negative and demeaning stereotypes, Yeats’s intention in the poem seems not to offer a commentary on women’s nature but on the terror and irresistible draw that comes with contact with the divine. The portrayal of the female rape victim thus should not be seen as sexist because what is presented ambiguously as consent on the part of Leda is used not to foster a stereotypical portrait of women but to depict the terrifying power of the god that is irresistible even in its horror and brutality. Part of the power and brilliance of Yeats’s poem is that it is so unsettling, that it presents in a tightly controlled sonnet a multitude of feelings—horror, repulsion, and sexual confusion. The use of Leda’s manipulation by the god and the reader’s sense that she is held completely at his mercy both physically and mentally does not detract from the greatness of Yeats’s poem but contributes to its intensity and adds a further dimension of complexity to this technically brilliant work of literature.

Source: Uma Kukathas, Critical Essay on “Leda and the Swan,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Kukathas is a freelance editor and writer.

The Mythological Elements of Yeat's Poem

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In Greek mythology, Leda was the daughter of Thestios, king of Aetolia, and wife of Tyndareus, king of Sparta. The legend tells that one day Zeus, the ruler of the Greek gods, came to Leda in the form of a swan and seduced her. As a result, she bore two eggs; both would develop into two offspring each, Castor and Pollux from one egg and Helen and Clytemnestra from the other. Helen would become the breathtakingly beautiful Helen of Troy and would trigger the eventual destruction of Troy, the disintegration of early Greek civilization, and the introduction of the next cycle of Greek civilization, known as the classical age. Yeats’s dramatization of this moment of annunciation in “Leda and the Swan” reveals his own spiritual and historical philosophy.

In his study of Yeats in A History of Modern Poetry, David Perkins notes that the poet “thought of himself as a person of religious temperament who had been deprived of religion by nineteenthcentury science.” In this sense, Yeats was a modernist, a term that came to be applied to a group of artists and writers who produced works in the early decades of the twentieth century. Modernists like Yeats became disillusioned with traditional beliefs in religion, political systems, and society in response to political events and the works of such scientists and thinkers as Darwin, Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, and Frazer. The devastation of World War I compounded the modernists’ revolt against conventional values.

Perkins comments that in this atmosphere of cynicism, Yeats still felt a need

to sense a spiritual depth and mystery in the universe and, beyond this, an ultimate coherence and meaning. . . . [He also felt] an imaginative need for concrete symbols in which the mystery could be invoked and contemplated. His religious quest was more urgently motivated by metaphysical and imaginative hungers than by moral ones.

Unable to accept the lack of faith in any established institution or doctrine, Yeats searched for other avenues to explore in an effort to establish his own worldview. Perkins explains that Christianity was “from his point of view, impossible to believe, and his religious needs drove him to other traditions.” One tradition that Yeats explores in “Leda and the Swan” is Greek mythology.

Yeats employs the myth of Leda and Zeus to illustrate his theories on the cycle of history. His book A Vision outlines his thoughts on historical cycles as well as his theory that the universe is made up of opposites, or antitheses, and that harmony can only be achieved through a merging of these opposites. Both of these theories figure prominently in “Leda and the Swan.”

The cyclical theory of history expressed in A Vision centers on his idea that history moves in two-thousand-year cycles, each cycle representing a civilization that begins with a gripping mystical conception and birth. Yeats determined that the annunciation of Mary and the birth of Christ initiated the Christian era of 1–2000 A.D., and earlier the annunciation of Leda and the birth of Helen initiated the classical era of 2000–1 B.C. In his famous poem “The Second Coming,” Yeats describes the end of the present two-thousand-year cycle and speculates that a new figure will emerge as a reflection of the new era as Christ represented the old. Yet his cynicism over the traumatic events of the early part of the twentieth century—World War I as well as the troubles experienced in his native Ireland—prompts a dark vision of the new Messiah in his question at the end of this poem, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

The myth that dominates the first cycle of history is illustrated in “Leda and the Swan,” especially in the third stanza when the speaker notes that the result of Zeus raping Leda will be the destruction of Troy and the early Greek civilization: the act “engenders . . . / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead.”

The poem also illustrates Yeats’s theory that each era is ushered in by an act of violence, which hits the reader immediately in the first stanza. The poem begins with “a sudden blow” as Zeus enters in the form of the swan with his “great wings beating,” grasping “the staggering” and “helpless” girl as he begins to rape her. B. L. Reid, in his article on Yeats for Dictionary of Literary Biography, notes that the speaker’s point of view is that of

an amazed and awed accidental bystander, elected voyeur and granted powers of empathy with Leda’s physical experience and with some part of her mental experience. . . . [Then the poem] plunges straight ahead until the god in the swan has worked his will in this exalted rape.

Commenting on Yeats’s style, Reid notes, “When Yeats boldly breaks his eleventh line he breaks, graphically, the body of Leda, the roofs of Troy, the body of Agamemnon, and the hearts of many men and women.”

A merging of opposites also occurs in the poem, reflecting Yeats’s view that in life a synthesis of antithetical forces must occur in order to establish permanence and a sense of harmony. Through his poetry, Yeats explores oppositions between art and reality, imagination and moral responsibility, intellect and passion. In “Leda and the Swan,” Yeats asks whether a synthesis has occurred as Zeus’s “brute blood” masters Leda in the final stanza: “Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” Critic Charles A. Raines, in his article “Yeats’ Metaphors of Permanence,” concludes,

Leda must feel the strange heart beating because a synthesis of Zeus’ superhuman characteristics and Leda’s human characteristics has taken place. . . . If [Zeus’] knowledge and power are obtained by Leda it must be because the supernatural has intermingled with the body, and this must be so for the result of this combination is Helen, who is considered by Yeats to have provided a source of order in the sense that she began the classical Aegean age which, for Yeats, represents permanence. Helen is considered a progenitor of permanence because she represents a synthesis of life (Leda) with the spiritual (Zeus), which produces permanence.

Perkins notes that the poem ends with the speaker’s questioning whether any synthesis has taken place in the coupling of Zeus and Leda. He echoes Raines when he comments, “combining knowledge and power, the god in the form of a swan is a symbol of antitheses reconciled,” but he questions whether Leda gains Zeus’s knowledge:

the antithesis Yeats poses at the end of the poem is that between the supernatural and the human. The supernatural is a whole or unified being, and the question is whether even in a fleeting moment the human is capable of such completeness.

The complex symbolic structure of “Leda and the Swan” makes it difficult to come to any absolute conclusions about the experience between Zeus and Leda. The poem does, however, provide an excellent example of Yeats’s theories on the cyclical nature of history and how the opposing forces of life fit into those theories.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on “Leda and the Swan,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George’s Community College and has published widely in the field of twentieth-century British and American literature.


Critical Overview