William Butler Yeats, “Leda and the Swan”
Reading with Literary Theory
Structuralism and Formalism * New Criticism * Gender and Sexuality
William Butler Yeats's “Leda and the Swan” was originally published in response to a request for a political poem. Though the legend of Leda and Zeus overshadows any political point Yeats tried to make, the poem retains a powerfully mythologized vision of violent historical transformation. It derives its power largely by virtue of the Formal limits within which it articulates its meaning. As William Wordsworth famously noted, in a sonnet on the sonnet, “nuns fret not at their convent's narrow rooms;/and hermits are contented with their cells.” The sonnet form affords unsuspected expansion of thought and feeling, and this is nowhere more evident than in Yeats's “Leda,” which adheres strictly to the conventions of the form. Rhyme is regular, with only one falling rhyme (tower/ power) and only the slightest vowel difference (up/drop). Other sound qualities link semantic and phonemic patterns, as in the second quatrain, where the hard consonants in ll. 5-6 contrast dramatically with the masses of open vowels: “How can those terrified vague fingers push/The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” These lines evoke the struggle between god and mortal in terms that stress the combination of decisive violence and feathery vagueness. The poet uses stresses in a similar manner, clustering them to imitate action - “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still,” “the strange heart beating” - using triple meters (“the staggering girl,” “being so caught up”) to suggest urgency and dizzying activity. He also uses the bipartite structure of the Petrarchan sonnet to create a sense of narrative propulsion: in the octet, the attack on Leda in the first quatrain is followed by questions in the second that qualify the attack and suggest that the “staggering girl” is less a victim of Zeus's desire than a half-willing conduit for his creative energy. The sestet records the consequences of this energy: from Zeus's rape of Leda emerged Western civilization, symbolized by her offspring: Helen, whose beauty launched a thousand ships, and clytemnestra, who murdered Agamemnon and set in motion a series of tragic events. SYNCHRONIC- ALLY, the poem proceeds according to a series of metaphoric substitu
tions, Zeus and Leda in the sestet, “[t]he broken wall, the burning roof and tower” in the octet; at the level of the word and phoneme, however, the poem moves DIACHRONICALLY to suggest the historicity of this brutal moment in the air. The interchange between these two levels, the movement of metaphor onto the metonymic thrust of historical process, mimics the strange and violent transformation illustrated in the myth.
For the New critic, the formal unity of the sonnet is of paramount importance, but this unity is only partially achieved through attention to structural aspects like rhyme, meter, stanza, and phonemic values. It is primarily achieved by balancing tensions created by irony, ambiguity, and AMBIVALENCE. The first quatrain generates an ambiguity that characterizes the entire poem:
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
Are the great wings “still” beating, after all this time? or are they paradoxically both beating and remaining still? It could be that they beating in order to hold Zeus “still” “above the staggering girl” ? The word “still” is poised on the turning point of an enjambment, which causes the slightest hesitation, the slightest doubt as to how this word functions. The uncertainty whether it is Leda who is “helpless” or only her breast (i.e., her heart) compounds the initial ambiguity and establishes a pattern of effects that draws the various syntactical and semantic elements of the poem into a web-like unity. The ambiguities pile up in the second quatrain, with “terrified vague fingers” and “loosening thighs”: what exactly is Leda experiencing? Does she resist or capitulate or willingly comply? It is impossible to tell what the poet means when he asks how “body” can “[b]ut feel the strange heart beating where it lies.” Whose body? Whose heart? The poem at this point appears to conflate the attacker and his victim in a “white rush” of sensual activity. The opening lines of the sestet introduce an irony, for Zeus's procreative act (“a shudder in the loins”) has led only to destruction and death; but implicit in this ironic outcome is another, more surprising irony: out of the destruction of Troy and the death of Agamemnon sprang Homer and the culture of Western civilization. In two and a half lines, Yeats captures the “terrible
----------------- WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, "LEDA AND THE SWAN' beauty” of violent historical transformation. He returns to Leda, “mastered by the brute blood of the air,” and poses his final question: “Did she put on his knowledge with his power/Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” The verbal ambiguities throughout the poem here coalesce into a thematic ambivalence that gets to the heart of Yeats's historical vision: is Leda aware of her historical agency? In this coalescence, in which secondary ambiguities are resolved in the articulation of a primary ambivalence, we find the poem's unity, a gestalt of rhetorical effects reinforced by the sonnet's formal limits.
The conclusion of “Leda and the Swan” raises the question of the gendered subject: why did Yeats choose to represent his philosophy of history with an image of rape? Part of the answer lies in Yeats's belief that pivotal historical events (the fall of Troy, the birth of Christ) are moments of violent transformation. The sexual contact between a male god (standing in for the historical spirit) and a female mortal (standing in for all historical SUBJECTS) thus represents the violence of historical annunciation: a force, gendered male, subjects the individual, gendered female, to an overpowering submission. In this parable, the very nature of historical SUBJECTIVITY and AGENCY is gendered female, which is not surprising, given that Yeats was himself conditioned to use women to represent the Irish nation (e.g., Cathleen ni Houlihan). Leda is an icon of human agency; she is both passionate and pliable, essential to knowledge (she is its ESSENCE or ground) but debarred from that same knowledge because of her gender. The violent rape depicted in the poem is complicated by the ambiguities that force the reader to ask whether Leda has consented in some way to this attack, or whether she is ambivalent about her own desire and thus her own will to resist it. Like so many of Yeats's female protagonists, Leda is a powerful woman despite herself: her pliability and her passionate vagueness, which recall the feminine ideal of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, mask world-shattering power. The Olympian view the sonnet offers grows hazy in the concluding question, which betrays a hint of anxiety that Leda was never pliable or vague, that she had access herself to Zeus' terrible power. It is this kind of historical subjectivity that contemporary Feminists and theorists of Gender and Sexuality combat as a legacy of PATRIARCHAL violence.