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Leda and the Swan

Oct 08, 1999 2118 Words
The Big Bad Swan

In nature, there are many amazing and bizarre acts. Take, for example, the Preying Mantis. The Preying Mantis is a relatively large insect that performs a most barbaric act: after the docile and exquisite female mates with her aggressive and overpowering male counterpart, she eats him. Instinctively, the powerful male seeks out his mate and impregnates her, fulfilling his mating duties. However, the male expends all of his strength in the sexual encounter, and the female is able to return the animal favor by ruthlessly eating the unsuspecting male limb by limb. Clearly, things are not what they might initially seem to be in nature, as in this case the seemingly mighty male is abruptly destroyed by his sexual victim. Much along the same lines is Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan.” Using the binary oppositions of the beauty and viciousness of Zeus as a swan and the helplessness and eventual strength of Leda, Yeats reveals that even the mightiest entities may suffer the consequences of their misuse of power. Picture swans in your mind. You see the snow white feathers, the piercing eyes, and the powerful wings. These are extraordinary creatures often used to signify love and tenderness. On the surface, they appear tranquil and docile, yet their physical attributes are only a facade for their truly mean spirit. Swans are rather territorial animals who tend to be quite nasty when confronted with an undesirable situation. In “Leda and the Swan,” the beauty of the swan is skin-deep as well. Despite having the glorious physical attributes of a swan he is also a vicious brute who acts out his male animalistic power over his female prey, demonstrating the raw male and female relationships in nature. Swan are huge birds, and as pointed out in the Internet site “The Swan and Leda” (a poem on the same subject as “Leda and the Swan”) “Swans, unlike most birds, have external genitals” (1). Thus, the swan is a perfect animal for such a hideous crime as Zeus performs on Leda. In further developing the underlying repercussion theme, the basis of the poem must be analyzed. In Greek Mythology, Zeus disguises himself as a swan in order to lure the pure and sexually ripe Leda into violence. Critical Survey of Poetry, edited by Frank N. Magill, says, “In the tale from antiquity, a Spartan Queen, Leda, was so beautiful that Zeus, ruler of the Gods, decided that he must have her. Since the immortals usually did not present themselves to humankind in their divine forms, Zeus changed himself into a great swan and in that shape ravished the helpless girl” (3716). Zeus as the swan is described as being “great” and of “feathered glory” (lines 1-6). He is a terrific product of nature, yet his male sexual tendencies get the better of him, and he gives into his uncontrollable lust for Leda. Zeus is a selfish male who uses his superhuman powers to exploit an innocent human. Clearly, the oppositions Yeats uses provoke intriguing yet disgusting feelings. Rape is ugly yet the swan is beautiful, in effect disguising Zeus’ sickening act. Through the use of these startling contrasts of vocabulary and imagery, Yeats propels the power and intensity of the poem. Critical Survey of Poetry states that “Virtually all commentators dwell upon the power, economy, and impact of the poem’s language and imagery, especially in the opening sections, which seem to be concerned predominantly, if not exclusively, with mere description of the scene and events themselves” (3716). Yeats fuses the myth and the potent language together in a sonnet of intense proportions. In Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, R.P. Blackmur says, “’Leda and the Swan’ gives us the nearly perfect example of the fusion of mythology and system and intuitive assertion so dramatized in crises as to provide an inexhaustible system in contemplation without loss of intensity” (397). The poem’s oppositions inherent in the swan and Leda divulge its significance. Yeats incorporates contradictions of beauty and malice to show that beauty can serve as a mask for evil. The swan, though glorious in its physical characteristics, is a savage and inconsiderate male beast that selfishly rapes an innocent girl. “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still Above the staggering girl” (lines 1-2). Zeus’ uncompromising force easily entraps young Leda, pushing her into rape. The act is quick and bizarre yet intense and fierce. Leda’s thighs are “caressed by the dark webs” (lines 2-3), a subtle yet disturbing image. This conflicting imagery is potent, and it shows how Zeus transforms himself into a wondrous and violent creature, a contrast that reveals Zeus’ inner malicious desire. Zeus’ action is clearly premeditated and deliberate, provoking an even more revolting impression. Furthermore, as William Johnsen says in Yeats and Postmodernism, “Zeus’s violence proves his divinity and Leda’s mortality; his freedom, her bondage” (85). Zeus is an almighty God and Leda is an unsuspecting human, an easy target for Zeus’ heinous ploy. The contradictions inherent in the swan are what give the poem its raw intensity. Language such as “feathered glory” and “great wings” glorify the subject of the poem, giving the sickening rape an almost nirvana-like quality. In Contemporary Literary Criticism, Robert E. Kuehn defines the rape as “almost spiritual grace … Leda is unwilling, unable to resist … Even centuries ago, the implication is, the gross forces of life destroyed the virginal idea” (284). Thus, Yeats maintains the binary opposition of the poem by setting the scene for what is to come, giving the reader an initially confused sense of disgust and yearning for vengeance on Zeus. As mentioned earlier, the girl in “Leda and the Swan” initially appears to be an innocent, “helpless” young beauty who cannot escape the awesome forces of the swan. The poem provokes appalling images of a naive girl being maliciously violated by a vicious swan. The scene is remarkably vivid: “her nape caught in his bill, He holds her helpless breast upon his breast” (lines 3-4). The poem asks the question, “How can those terrified vague fingers push The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?” (lines 5-6). This notion of a scared and lonely girl forced to succumb to the overpowering strength of a male is repulsive and immoral. In Greek Mythology, Richmond Y. Hathorn says “Zeus had chosen Leda to be mother of his children, and to trick her he pretended to be a swan pursued by an eagle, and when the tender-hearted Leda had given protection to the swan, he had his way with her” (346). Leda is innocent and unassuming. Her attacker disguises himself and deceptively targets her. In World Literature Criticism, John Lucas says, “Yeats is writing here about the violence of entering history, and about how all, even the most innocent, are caught up in it” (4110). Leda is of the utmost innocence, and by not escaping her attacker she creates a major turning point in Greek Mythology. Through further binary oppositions, Yeats shows that even the most helpless victims can avenge their tragedies. The girl who initially appears helpless and “terrified” in the presence of the swan (line 5) eventually, though arguably indirectly, destroys everything he represents. In effect, the saddened Leda is able to avenge the inappropriate act of her beautiful rapist, thus adding additional contrast to the poem. The previously powerless girl overcomes her misfortune and acts out what appears to be involuntary vengeance against Zeus. After Zeus finishes his animal instinct, he becomes indifferent to the situation. In Yeats, Douglas Archibald says, “As Zeus goes from violence to post-coital indifference, Leda moves from vague yet intense terror to a vague yet real sense of power, from victim to agent of divinity and historical force” (196). What is so magical about the poem is that it takes a young and naive virgin, a victim of an unthinkable crime, and inadvertently makes her a representative of overwhelming mythological force. After his exhausting deed, Zeus becomes “so caught up, So mastered by the brute blood of the air.” Zeus completely spends all of his strength on the beastly rape, essentially unaware of the destruction his maliciousness will eventually cause. Clearly, the revolting exploit of Leda by the Godly Zeus has extreme consequences. Leda, though arguably unaware of her power, bears two children who ultimately destroy Zeus’ civilization. As said in Greek Mythology, “That very night Leda lay with her mortal husband; in due time she gave birth to the immortal Helen and the mortal Clytemnestra” (346). Her daughters are born soon after her encounter with Zeus, and in due time, through various exploits, they become responsible for the downfall of Greek civilization. “A shudder in the loins engenders there the broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead” (lines 9-11). The once all-powerful Zeus is thus eventually plagued by his own deliberate and inappropriate abuse of Leda. “The Swan and Leda” interprets the scene as follows:

Upon her senseless lips his senseless beak,
His neck snaked around her neck. His eyes
Are elsewhere – they foresee perhaps the roles
The girls who soon will hatch will play:
Adultery justifying genocide and war crimes
By barbarians considered heroes to this day. (1).

Leda’s misfortune ultimately leads to revenge on Zeus through war and tragedy. “Leda and the Swan” is a testament to the fact that even the most powerful forces in the universe are subject to paying the consequence of their actions. Zeus is somewhat a victim of his instincts, yet he is clearly capable of reason, and should pay for his malicious crime. He selfishly attacks Leda like Godly prey, completely disregarding the repercussions he might face. Yeats and Postmodernism remarks that “One is responsible for everyone’s violence and, following his expulsion, for everyone’s peace. The difference between peace and strife, the origin of symbolicity itself, is fathered and maintained by violence misunderstood as a divinity” (85). On is responsible for one’s actions, and even the divine Zeus must pay the price for his crime on the lowly Leda. “Leda and the Swan” is a sonnet composed mainly of binary oppositions that reveal its meaning. As John Lucas says, “The rape of Leda becomes, in [Yeats’] imagination, an instance of the ways in which violence is both intoxicating and terrible” (4110). Although blessed with such wondrous features, Zeus is still controlled by his animal male instinct to confront the “staggering girl” (line 2). At the same time, Leda initially appears to be a worthless victim of Zeus’ aggression, yet she ultimately (though arguably indirectly) wreaks havoc on Greek civilization. These oppositions give the poem meaning in that even the most beautiful creatures will inevitably act out their male aggression on helpless prey. More importantly, these contradictions give the poem its deeper significance that vengeance and justice will be served to agents of violence. Yeats and Postmodernism declares “Leda and the Swan” “a sonnet depicting a rape as a welcome sign of a better future” (80). The appealing fact about “Leda and the Swan” is that justice is served, more or less. At the same time, Yeats uses “Leda and the Swan” as a device to uncover the truth about omnipotence: when the boundary between respect and abuse of power is crossed, anyone can suffer the consequences – even a God.

Works Cited

Archibald, Douglas. Yeats. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1983.

Blackmur, R.P. “Yeats.” Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Dennis Poupard. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1989. 397.

Hathorn, Richmond Y. Greek Mythology. Lebanon: The American University of Beirut, 1977.

Johnsen, William. Yeats and Postmodernism. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1991.

Kuehn, Robert E. “Yeats.” Contemporary Literature Criticism. Ed. Dedria Bryfronski. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1979. 284.

Lucas, John. “Yeats.” World Literature Criticism. Ed. James P. Draper. Detroit: Gale Publishing, 1992. 4110.

Magill, Frank N. ed. Critical Survey of Poetry. Pasedena: Salem Press, 1992.

“The Swan and Leda.” On-line. Internet. July, 1996. Available Netscape Navigator:

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