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Leda and the Swan -- William Butler Yeats

(Poem #451) Leda and the Swan
 A sudden blow:
                The great wings beating still
 Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
 By the dark webs, her nape caught in the bill,
 He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
 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?
 A shudder in the loins engenders there
 The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
 And Agamemnon dead.
                        Being so caught up,
 So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
 Did she put on his knowledge with his power
 Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
-- William Butler Yeats
In the course of my researches (read: web-surfing), I found this extract which
sums up my feelings for this poem:

"The poem is artful, canonical, and compelling; yet ultimately it is also a poem
about rape, a poem that uses the image of rape as a central figure for
inspiration, for poetry, and for history. As a poet, I find the poem to be
beautifully crafted; as a modernist scholar, I think it is a historically
important part of the modernist canon; yet as a feminist critic, I find it
troublesome and potentially repugnant to some readers.

        -- Ed Madden, [broken link]

It's true: although I would be the first to admit the power of this great and
complex sonnet, I can't read 'Leda and the Swan' without being profoundly
disturbed by it...


[Historical note]

The swan is an incarnation of Zeus; the offspring of his union with Leda were
the twins Castor and Pollux, and the beautiful Helen of Troy. Notice how there's
only one proper noun used in the entire poem, yet the sonnet as a whole evokes
the grand sweep of history and myth quite brilliantly - 'the fury and the mire
of human veins'.


The web has no shortage of commentaries on Yeats in general and this poem in
particular. Two which I liked are at [broken link] and
[broken link]; the former is a contextual (I hope I'm
using the word correctly) reading, the latter a feminist one.

26 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Julian Tepper said...

Dear Group,

Re: "yet as a feminist critic, I find it troublesome and potentially
repugnant to some readers," I would be interested in learning how
finding the poem repugnant grows out of one's being as a feminist critic
(actually, I am not sure what "feminist critic" means or, in this
instance, how it differs from being just a feminist).

Further, I accept any repugnance that I may feel in regard to a work of
art, such as a poem, as, on the one hand, something to treasure (having
been caused to feel something), and on another, irrelevant to any
question of the work's legitimacy. That, for instance, Pictures at an
Exhibition contains a section that is well-accepted as an expression of
Mussorgsky's anti-Semitism, makes the work no more or less than,
musically, it is. I find Muzak (music that offends no one -- except, of
course, people who like music) repugnant but, so what?

Any given rape is what it is, and is certainly different, in essence, from
its depiction or description, as is murder, assault, burglary and the like.
Rape, as a subject, can, like any subject, be described or represented,
artistically or otherwise. I hope that concepts such as "troublesome" or
"repugnant" are not the result of the subject, itself, as opposed to,
perhaps, a point of view taken by the poet, with which one, to be sure, may
fairly disagree.

If someone says that, being a feminist critic, he finds a poem about
rape troublesome, then I would expect and want to read an explanation of
how he arrived at that finding -- an explanation that includes the
specific language in the poem and the specific aspect of his feminism
that caused him to so react. Without that, I would find his comments
(please forgive me) Maddening.

Julian Tepper

Dr. Sudha Shastri said...

I think there is a correction here.

On Fri, 9 Jun 2000, Abraham Thomas wrote:

> 'Leda and the Swan'
> [Historical note]
> The swan is an incarnation of Zeus; the offspring of his union with Leda
> were the twins Castor and Pollux, and the beautiful Helen of Troy. Notice
> how there's only one proper noun used in the entire poem, yet the sonnet
> as a whole evokes the grand sweep of history and myth quite brilliantly -
> 'the fury and the mire of human veins'.

If I am not mistaken, the twins, Helen *and* Clytemnestra were born to
Leda when she was raped (sic) by Jove.


Dr.Sudha Shastri,
Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences,
I.I.T.Bombay, Powai,
Mumbai 400 076, India.

Tel: (W, (HE Mail:

FireChild05 said...

Hi, Dr. Sudha Shastri. My name is Joycelin Jacobs-Schwartz, and I am 16 years
old. I attend Arizona School for the Arts in the US, and am doing a report on
the similarities and differences of Greek and Indian culture by comparing and
contrasting Kali and Nemesis.

Yes, I know this was a long time ago, however in this text, you contradict
the historical note by saying that Helen and Clytemnestra came from an egg
which Leda boar as a result of being raped by Jove. Jove is Jupiter in Roman,
and also Zeus in Greek times. In the historical note, it does say that Leda
boar Helen by the rape of Zeus, and didn't mention Clytemnestra, so in that
aspect you were right. However, it is most commonly said that Clytemnestra
and Castor are the offspring of Tyndareus. Now I do actually have a question
for you. It has been said and then contradicted in many poems as to whether
or not Nemesis and Leda are the same person. I understand that there are two
versions of Nemesis: The Nymph-goddess who is said to be Leda, and the
Philosophical Nemesis which is worshiped at Rhamnus. There are books that say
there is one Nemesis who is not to be confused with Leda, and others that
agree with that by saying Leda should not be confused with Nemesis. Do you
have any ideas as to what is right or wrong? It is also said that Leda was a
mortal. If she was a mortal, how was she able to change from fish to wild
beast and finally as a goose where she was raped? I appreciate you taking
time to read this, and hope that you will have a response for me. Thank you

Joycelin Jacobs-Schwartz
10th Grade, Arizona School for the Arts, US

Raja H R Bobbili said...

Hi Dr. Sudha Shastri,

My name is Raja Bobbili, from the International School of Lusaka, in Zambia.

I personally found this an excellent poem. Justification should be done to the vivid immediacy. It feels as if the rape is happening in front of your own eyes. What do you, or anyone else in this form, think has caused this vivid immediacy, and if so, what effect did Frost try and bring by taking the pains to have this vivid immediacy present. Has it got anything to do with the theme: pain.


Raja Bobbili

jesse said...

I do not see this poem as representing the rape as a source of
inspiration and poetry. No mention is made of Homer's work at making the
Trojan War an object of beauty, nor of Helen, the most immediate object
of beauty to be born from this episode. Instead, Yeats emphasizes the
destruction that the war would bring. It seems to me that one bad thing
is leading to another...

-jesse mcbride

Brooke E said...

I do agree with a point you made. One bad thing does lead to another. Yeats is questioning the of the Greek civilization's beginning. He saw Leda as the recipient of an annunciation that would found Greek civilization, just as the Annunciation to Mary would found Christianity. Yeat's opinion spoken in the poem is in the third stanza: The "shudder in the loins" creates "the broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead." That all refers to the Trojan War.
The poem is rather depressing as Leda is depicted as "helpless" to the "vague," "dark" webs of Zeus. I'm sure that when outraged, irrational feminists were burning their bras in rebellion to society, they burned this poem right along with it. That, of course, doesn't undignify its artistic mastery, though.

F117jet said...

I'm Kevin Irish, a 16-year old IB student. With respect to the whole
"feminist critic" angle, I'd like to point out an entirely different viewpoint:
instead of the poem being about rape of the feminine by a masculine aggressor
("glorify the power and sensuality of the rapist", "accede to the (male) belief
that 'women love a bit of force'"), perhaps we should keep in mind that Zeus is,
after all, a god, and that the poem is rather the doomed struggle
of a woman against a god; a creature of power and majesty, who knows
beforehand the devastation his rape and the birth of Helen would have on the world.

Flor Mechain said...

I don't think Yeats is here trying to create a "beautiful poem". He is more likely trying to create an awed poem. Greek civilization appears born from a rape and hence doomed to be violent and warlike.
Yeats takes into account all the villainy of rape: force against someone who is put into a situation in which she cannot defend, pleasure in doing so (that's how I read "the strange heart beating") and indifference toward the victim (last line). But I cannot see where he is justifying it, so i think feminist critics can read it in a richer way than condemnation and fear.

Jellybeanybop said...

who da hell r u ???

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