Leda And The Swan Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’: Psycho-Sexual Therapy in Action W.B. Yeats’s heavily anthologized poem, Leda and the Swan, can be read in endless ways: as a political poem, a poem influenced by Nietzsche’s idea of Will to Power, a poem of knowledge ultimately achieved through violence. Is the poem simply referr ing to a myth? Is it addressing historical determinism? Critical methodologies attempt to address these issues and more in their treatments of Leda and the Swan. However, to understand fully the poem and its implications, a formal close reading of th e text must be combined with supplementary biographical information to inform a final psychoanalytic reading of the poem. An understanding of the events surrounding Yeats’s life, then, will contribute to a textual analysis to show that the poem can be re ad as Yeats’s own particular rape fantasy, in which Maud Gonne is Leda and Yeats himself the swan; and in displacing his frustrations into the poem, Yeats turns destructive impulses into a constructive thing of beauty.
Leda and the Swan is a sonnet, one of the most precise forms of literature known. An interesting paradox emerges, however, at first glance. The poem is written in a traditional form (sonnet), using a traditional rhyme scheme, yet the subject matter i s extremely non-traditional (violent rape as opposed to the usual love sonnets). This paradox is representative of the many oppositional elements which abound in the text and which help form the basis for understanding the oppositions which influence bot h Yeats and the poem. The rhyme scheme is traditional (ABAB CDCD EFG EFG) yet interestingly imperfect in that four of the rhymes are not perfect: push and rush, up and drop (Hargrove 244).
This again is another oppositional element, typical of Yeats, and could be seen to symbolize the opposition between Yeats, the last Romantic, and Yeats, the Modernist. A transition exists in the poem’s language, from an aggressive intensity to a vague passive distance. The language in the beginning of the poem sets the tone of an aggressive sense of urgency. Priscilla Washburn Shaw makes an excellent point when she states, The action interrupts upon the scene at the beginning with ‘a sudden blow,’ and again, in the third stanza, with ‘a shudder in the loins.’ It may seem inaccurate to say that a poem begins by an interruption when nothing precedes, but the effect of t he opening is just that (36). The effect of this device is that it draws the spectator/narrator, and subsequently the reader, into the action and into the poem.
The action continues for the first three lines of the first quatrain. Yeats doesn’t bother with a full syntax until the final line of the quatrain, at which point, the urgency relaxes (Hargrove 240). The language in the first full quatrain is represent ative of the opposition inherent in the poem; in this case, between intensity and distance (Hargrove 240). The imagery, and wording in general, in Leda is also representative, in an initial reading, of oppositional elements within the text. A first reading shows Leda described in concrete terms and the swan in abstract terms. Leda is the staggering girl and the poem refers to Her thighs, her nape, her helpless breast, and her loosening thighs.
The swan is never actually called Zeus or even the Swan (in fact, Agamemnon is the only name mentioned in the body of the poem). The swan is described as great wings, dark webs, that white rush, blood, indifferent beak, and feathered glory. A second reading of the poem, however, shows that ambiguities do exist. The concrete and abstract merge. Generalized terms are used for Leda (terrified vague fingers) and concrete terms for the swan (wings, bill, beak). The purpose of this ambiguity could be, as Nancy Hargrove explains, to stress that the god is, after all, a real, physical swan engaged in a physical act (241).
Regardless, this ambiguity is, again, representative of the conflict within the poem. Verbs play a major role in understanding Leda and the Swan. They are present tense through the octave and the first part of the sestet (holds, push, feel, engenders). They then shift to past tense in the last part of the sestet (caught, ma stered, Did) (Hargrove 241). The verbs in the present tense imply an intense immediacy while those in the past tense distance the reader (and perhaps the aggressor as well) from what has just occurred.
Additionally, as Nancy Hargrove points out, ther e is a juxtaposition between active and passive verbs so that the active verb forms (holds, engenders) belong to the swan while passive verb forms (caressed, caught, mastered) belong to Leda (241). The verb forms, then, play an active role in c ontributing to a close textual reading. Yeats continuously makes use of various devices to further heighten ambiguous, oppositional, and dramatic elements within his poetry. In his minimal use of the possessive adjective, and the consequently greater use of somewhat unusual alternative for ms, Yeats achieves effects which are curiously suspended between the concrete and the general (Shaw 37), thus highlighting the ambiguities in the text. Further still, the linguistic suggestiveness of the absence of any qualifiers for ‘body’ is consider able (Shaw 37). It is considerable in that it makes us even more aware of the ambiguities (whose body?).
It linguistically suggests the lack of an identity; it is essentially a dehumanizing element. While the subject matter of the poem is violent and disturbing, the structure of Leda conveys feelings of safety and beauty. Hargrove submits that the intensity of the rape is controlled by the narrow confines of the sonnet, an aesthetically pleasing and heavily structured art form (242). Douglas Archibald asserts, The sonnet form achieves for ‘Leda’ this: violence and historical sweep held in one of the most tightly controlled of poetic forms (196). The violence of the rape is then controlled within the constraints of the sonnet. Additionally, the sonnet itself is brief, thus ensuring the rape will be brief as well.
While the rape is controlled through the structure of the poem, the organization of the poem reflects in an orderly manner the progress of the rape (Hargrove 243). The first quatrain presents the assault. The second quatrain reflects Leda’s emotions. The first half of the sestet presents the ejaculation scene. The cut line represents a dramatic moment in time: a death-like silence.
The final part of the sestet shows the act receding into memory while posing the question of meaning (Hargrove 243). Yeats makes use of several technical devices to convey the intensity of what is being portrayed in the poem. Among these devices are alliteration (brute blood), iambic pentameter, and the meter in general. Bernard Levine notes that no regular metric al pattern exists but there is a pervading rhythmic base in which verbal stress displaces the accent-guided line (116). Nancy Hargrove elaborates by showing that the meter imitates the gasping and throbbing pulsations of the rape by its irregularity, its sudden sharp caesuras, its sentences spilling over from line to line, its dramatic broken lines in the sestet, its piling of stressed syllables (243).
The ambiguities in Leda imply a confrontation both real and imagined, physical and intellectual. Bernard Levine addresses the ambiguity surrounding the staggering girl in line three. Staggering as intransitive participle means that the girl is li terally physically staggering, but the transitive verb form shows that she staggers the mind (of the swan), so to speak (115). Levine addresses another ambiguity in the connotation of the word still in line one. The bird is described (we assume) a s having just dropped down on Leda, yet the word still implies a timeless continuity (117).
The text, then, presents the rape scene, painting a vivid and terrifying picture of its aggressive violence and its subsequent transition to passivity. The text also shows a pattern of oppositions and ambiguities which are manifestations of a series of conflicts between the material world and the spiritual world: the physical and the intellectual. Nancy Hargrove remarks that the apparent opposition between abstract and concrete is representative of that between human and divine (235). Shaw views it in a more personal light: as the opposition between self and world (35). The oppositions inherent within the text, and the subsequent series of conflicts which they represent, are important in that they are manifestations of and parallels to oppositional conflicts occurring in Yeats’s own life.
The violent textual rape is th e result …