Leda and the Swan
William Butler Yeats
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By his dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
How can anybody, 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?
We have considered the problem of Man fundamentally alienated from Nature. Here, divinity rapes a girl, taking the guise of Nature. There is a unity, but a forced unity, and the tragic beginning brings forth a tragic ending.
The Homeric understanding of Zeus is being used here, but perhaps also rejected. Zeus is the god whose plan causes the withdrawal of all gods and the rule of heroes on this Earth throughout the course of the Iliad and Odyssey. For all his problems, Zeus puts in action a plan that brings about the possibility of justice between humans, the possibility of all too human rule.
But here, Zeus is committing an act of horrific injustice. He turns himself into a beautiful creature that is monstrous in its attempt to pursue beauty. “A sudden blow” testifies not just to the violence, but the lack of a plan on Zeus’ part. And yet, there is a strange order to the whole incident. – And that order is not merely the rough arrangement of the stanzas into past, present, future. -
There are “wings” above the “staggering girl;” “dark webs” caressing the “thighs,” and her “nape” is “caught” in his bill. The unity of Man and god involves a correspondence of motions. The middle image of her thighs being unable to move and the last image of her head being unable to move are motions we can understand in terms of appetites (sexual is included here) and rationality.
But what about that less metaphorical motion, the one of one creature flying and the other one walking? Why did god choose to fly?
The strangest word in that middle stanza is “vague.” Why are her fingers vague? Is it that Leda’s hand looks overwhelmed by the white around it, and that one cannot see it anymore? Or is something else going on, perhaps with her state of mind (i.e. the last two lines of the poem)? Whose “strange heart” are we talking about?
An answer is suggested by way of contrast with Among School Children. There, Yeats, contemplating Helen of Troy, brings forth the topic of Leda once again:
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire. a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
The issue is Plato’s Symposium. Aristophanes, the comic poet, is portrayed in that work as giving the most tragic account of love. Man was originally a creature who had two faces, two sets of arms, two sets of legs. The back and sides were rounded, but other than that, this being looked like it could be split in two. This creature was able to roll around the Earth and was exceedingly powerful and almost rolled up to Olympus, before Zeus and Apollo split the creature and twisted each half around to create Man. Hence, love now is a result of a fundamental alienation from our better halves, where we would be more powerful than the gods if we were the way we were before. It can’t ever be had that way, though, because of the artifice of the gods: we have a back and a front, a direction built into us now, that takes us far away from what we were, and what we experienced.
But Yeats is changing this story too, or at least his narrator in “Among School Children” is. The change is that he is saying this “globular” creature was more like an egg – eros wasn’t a claim to power, so much, as a beginning.
And now we see what is happening. The question of human and divine beginnings is a competition: Who can work with Nature the best? That competition brings Man and god into a strange, deadly unity: we are loved by divinity even as we are abused by it and even as we are seeking to use it.
That last comment, “use divinity,” seems out of line given the emphasis in both these poems on beauty’s innocence. Someone is being raped, another watches a city be destroyed over her. And we know from Shakespeare that beauty is best preserved in writing of an immortal beauty, an intellect which is the product of all ages. It does not seem like beauty wants to put on power, especially not to beget anything.
The rape metaphor is the sticking point. One does not want to say “this rape didn’t happen,” especially not in a world where women are still treated awfully. But it is curious that divinity does the rape, divinity being that which we aspire to in many ways. It is even more curious when one considers the distant yet very human love in “Among School Children,” where generational unity is seen as the product of a new age. The narrator of that poem is going to die, and what will be is his concern, not his own power.
That human/divine contrast is making me wonder whether the divine exists in any significant sense in this poem. The issue more like this: the age eclipsed by Christianity had a serious flaw – it put too much trust in eros. Knowledge is literally an afterthought in this poem. The question of freedom is submerged under the reality of power.
Another age requires another beginning. It might be that all beginnings are erotic, where revolution and competing wills and an attempt to conjure a divinity that masters one more than one masters it erode any possibility of self-rule. That is the question of this poem, whether all ages are the same.
My own thought is that “Among School Children” is a companion to this, that there are alternatives if one takes knowledge and freedom more seriously. But it should be noted that the ultimate Platonic teaching holds that eros is everything, and as we can see from this poem, that is a curse as well as a foundation.