Literature has been made rich and profoundly analytic due to the presence and inclusion of poetry as a form of beautiful art in it. Thus, poetry is also one of the most strong and effective ways of expressing joy and sorrow, happiness and despair and love and hate. Moreover, poetry further reveals a great deal about the psychology of the poet, about his past as well as about his aspirations, dreams, passions, desires, mind-frame, mental filter, experiences and observations. Leda and The Swan is also one such poetic piece of art, which unfolded the life history, and aspirations of the poet Yeats, who penned it skillfully thereby adding force and beauty of originality to this vast realm.
Yeats was born in the age when the “doctrine of ‘Art for Art’s sake” was popular. When he started poetry, doctrine of “art as an instrument to social purposes” was started to appear in the art of that time. Yeats’s poetry is a bridge between these two doctrines; he satisfied both heart and mind from his poetry. Leda and the Swan is also one of such masterpieces of Yeats. It is said that this poem is one of his first steps towards realistic school of thought. The Topic and subject of the poem is violent but its format, and the love flows beneath the surface makes it a work of art, love and beauty.
The following passages will highlight the basics of the poem in order to outline the underlying psychology of the poet.
The poem Leda and the Swan was written by William Butler Yeats. First version of the poem Leda and the Swan was appeared in a newspaper, To-morrow, in the year 1923. In the year 1928 this poem was published in The Tower with some modifications. According to Yeats this poem was “a meditation on Ireland and the worldwide policy” (Cullingford, 1994; p.2). Yeats himself considered this poem as one of his masterpieces, which conveyed its ideas about life, his homeland and modernism to its readers. In the beginning, Yeats’s diction and topics were “suggestive” and depicted “lyricism” but afterwards the mood of his poems changed into a tragic bitterness. He himself said in his poem September 1913, “Romantic Ireland's dead and gone” (Biography of William Butler Yeats). William Butler Yeats eventually died in the year 1939.
Leda and the Swan was written in the format of a sonnet and it describes the mythological story of rape of Leda by the God Zeus himself in the form of a swan. Leda was the wife of Spartan King Tyndareu. God Zeus had approached her in the form of a Swan and raped her. With this sexual encounter, she had given birth to Helen of Troy, Castor, Polydeukes and Clytemnestra. This poem was masterly written and considered to be one of the best technically written poem, which has all the qualities of Yeats mature work like “plain diction, rhythmic vigor, and allusion to mystical ideas about the universe, the relationship of human and divine, and the cycles of history”. Yeats through his symbolism in this poem, tried to divert the attention of the world towards the violence in Ireland at that time. Yeats has described a single event in this poem, the rape of Leda by God Zeus, which led towards the birth of Helen of Troy and ultimately for the destruction of Greek civilization.
Yeats assumed that all of his readers were aware of the mythological story of Leda and God Zeus because he never mentioned the names of Zeus and Leda in this fourteen line Sonnet. Title of the poem is important because it is the only source, which pointed out that this is the poem about the mythological story of Leda and God Zeus. Yeats also assumed that his readers understand that Swan is used as a symbol of all the powerful Gods. “Swan” is used in many poems of Yeats as a symbol of mystery and passion. In Leda and the Swan he used swan as the symbol of “mysterious, divine, incomprehensible, violent, and brutally passionate” God Zeus.
The topic of the poem, as well as imagery and form used in it was quite different from the other poems written at that time. Sonnet was considered as a “traditional form” used to express love and beauty. Yeats although expressed his love in this poem, but at first glance, the subject of the poem looks harsh and violent. This was actually his revolt from the Romantic school of thought and a step towards Modernism.
Textual explication of the Poem
Poem Leda and the Swan can be divided into two parts. The first part is about the sexual and violent encounter of Zeus and Leda, which ended at “a shudder in the loins’ (Yeats) while in the second part “spatial and temporal perspectives widen into infinity”. This partition has divided the poem into an octave and sestet. The octave starts from “A sudden blow” and it is in present tense whereas sestet starts with “a shudder in the loins” and it is in past tense. Shaw said, “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 the opening is just that” (Shaw, p.36). Yeats used this device to draw the attention of the reader towards the action presented in the poem.
In the beginning, poem is in descriptive form; Yeats used exclamatory “a sudden blow” as well as “adverbial phrases to present the complete description of the scene. This intelligent use of language as well as grammatical structure like “ He holds her helpless breast upon his breast”, “the great wings beating still/Above the staggering girl”, "her thighs caressed/By the dark webs", "her nape caught in his bill" provides a visual image of Led and Swan and describe their relationship completely.
The first stanza of the poem describes the scene of sexual encounter of Leda and the Swan. Yeats uses such descriptive phrases to define the situation of the scene that the poem changes into a painting, which gives the visual image of the situation. This is the symbolism of Yeats, which is actually the foundation of the edifice of his modernity and his response to the rise of realism in and fall of romanticism. This part of the poem describes the act of rape while the second part depicts Leda’s feelings. “ 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, p. 243).
Yeats introduced two questions in the next stanza, “how can fingers push glory from thighs?" and "how can body feel the heart beating?" they are simple questions which are introduce just to clarify the complexity of the first stanza. This stanza does not make it clear about whose body parts and whose body and heart it is talking. This stanza gives the impression that both the bodies fuse together into a single form. This imagery produces visual image, which is not common before realistic period.
The Final Stanza Separates this single form into to different bodies of Leda and the Swan.
“Did she put on his knowledge with his power? Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” the language in this stanza and the conversion of subjective pronoun into possessive pronoun depicts that the characters of the poem have changed places but again the last line helps the subjects to retain their original positions and answers the question asked in the beginning of that stanza.
Each part of the poem comprises of two sentences; first and third sentences were affirmative while second and fourth were interrogative. Mood of the reader also changes with the poem; in affirmative sentences, readers identify themselves with swan while on interrogative sentences, readers suffer the experience of brutal and violent rape of Leda. Language and verbs also plays important role in this poem. According to Hargrove, “there 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” (Hargrove, p.241).
Many ambiguities can be seen in the poem Leda and the Swan. First of all it’s a Sonnet in “traditional form” with traditional rhyme format but the topic of the poem is quite non-traditional, as it describes a sadistic rape instead of love. This sonnet used a traditional rhyme form but it has “four rhymes which are not perfect, i.e. “push” and “rush”, “up” and “drop”” (Hargrove; p.244). These are actually the “oppositional elements” used intentionally by Yeats to change the mood of his poetry and to clearly outline the shift of his poetry from romanticism to modernism.
Yeats also used imagery and language as “oppositional elements” in this poem. The first glance over the poem depicted that Leda has been described in tangible and rather physical manner than Swan who has been described in “abstract terms”. Leda was described as “the staggering girl” whose body parts has been referenced in the poem as, “ Her thighs”, "her nape", "her helpless breast", and "her loosening thighs." On the other hand Swan was not mentioned as Zeus. It was referenced in the poem as, "great wings", "dark webs", "that white rush", "blood", "indifferent beak", and "feathered glory".
However, a more detailed study of the poem revealed that Swan was also sometimes referenced with concrete terms like wings, bill, beak etc. while generalized terms were used for Leda sometimes, like “terrified vague fingers” etc. According to Nancy Hargrove, the fundamental aim of the concrete terms for Zeus was, “ to stress that the god is, after all, a real, physical swan engaged in a physical act" (Hargrove, p.241).
Yeats had used many oppositional elements in this poem to create ambiguities and to make it clear for the reader that the mood of his poetry experiences a shift from romanticism to modernism. Shaw explained, “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, p.37). He further said, “ the linguistic suggestiveness of the absence of any qualifiers for 'body' is considerable" (Shaw, p.37).
As it has already been discussed that although the topic of the poem is violent but the poem is in traditional Sonnet form, thus it portrayed and conveyed the feeling of love, beauty and safety instead of violence. According to Hargrove, the traditional aesthetic and beauty of Sonnet controlled the intensity of rape. Archibald said that, “ The sonnet form achieves for 'Leda'" this: "violence and historical sweep held in one of the most tightly controlled of poetic forms" (Archibald, p.196). Although structure and beauty of Sonnet form controlled the intensity of rape but its organization, “ reflects in an orderly manner the progress of the rape" (Hargrove, p.243).
Different techniques have been used by Yeats to portray the subject and to convey the intensity of the Topic. Levine asserts, “no regular metrical pattern" exists but "there is a pervading rhythmic base in which verbal stress displaces the accent-guided line" (Levine, p.116). Hargrove further explains the point by showing, “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 (Hargrove, p.243). Levine discussed some other ambiguities in the poem, “Staggering" as intransitive participle means that the girl is literally physically staggering, but the transitive verb form shows that she "staggers" the mind (of the swan), so to speak (Levine, p.115). He further said,” The bird is described (we assume) a shaving just dropped down on Leda, yet the word "still" implies a timeless continuity” (Levine, p.117).
Symbolism was not very popular in poetry and prose at the time of this poem. It was used only to define “religious expressions”. Yeats was the man who started using symbolism in his poetry. He believed that symbolism is the best technique to present different topics and modernism in the poetry. He believed that symbols “give dumb things voices and bodiless things bodies”. According to Yeats, Symbols are different from metaphors; metaphor only works within the framework of text whereas symbols give meaning to the “relationship of its substance”.
Thus, it can be said that Yeats used different oppositional elements and modern techniques to create ambiguities in the poem and to show that the mood of his poetry turned a new leaf and became modern instead of romantic.
Before discussing the mythology in the poem Leda and the Swan, it seems appropriate to discuss some basic points about mythology. Mythology or myth is not an easy term to define. The word ‘myth’ comes from the Greek origin and it means ‘story’ or ‘tale’. Thus we can say that myth is actually a traditional tale, which is sometimes true or sometimes false. Mythology is often related to religion. Mythology of any culture or society actually depicts the roots of the religion and beliefs of that culture and society. Many scholars agreed that, myths actually reflect the complete picture of a society. Actually all myths are based upon the relation of a person to his or her society.
Leda and the Swan is a poem, which is almost impossible to grasp for such readers who are not well aware of Greek mythology. This poem also influenced by Yeats’s theory of historical cycles. If the reader has comprehensive knowledge of Greek mythology and also well acquainted with Yeats style and sources, the poem is still difficult to understand because it referenced some very complex ideas. Although the poem is difficult and all the readers cannot appreciate all the ideas presented in it but still they love the rhythm and lyrical quality of the poem.
Leda was the wife of King of Sparta, Tyndareus and daughter of King of Aetolia, Thestios, according to Greek mythology. One day, Zeus, the King of all Gods, approached her, seduced her and then raped her. Leda, due to the result of this sexual encounter, bore two eggs; each contains two offspring Castor and Polydeukes in one egg and Helen and Clytemnestra from the other egg.
In order to understand the poem, it is necessary to have complete biographical information of its poet Yeats. The combination of psychoanalytic reading of the poem as well as the biographical information of Yeast depicted that the poet portrayed himself as Swan and Maud Gonne as Leda. This poem is actually “the rape fantasy of Yeats”; he ejaculates his frustration in the form of this poem and thus converts his disparaging impulses into a beautiful piece of art and creative imagination.
Psychology of the Poet
Many critics are of the opinion that the poem Leda and the Swan actually is a revelation of conflicts of Yeats’s personal life. Wilson writes that, “ The development of Yeats's later style seems to coincide with a disillusionment" (Wilson, p.17). Brooks also asserts that Yeats, “ proposed to substitute a concrete, meaningful system, substituting symbol" as a way of combating harsh, technical reality” (Brooks, p.69). The combined study of the personal life of Yeats and his poem Leda and the Swan has shown that this poem is the sexual fantasy of his life. He actually portrayed his love Maud Gonne as Leda and himself as Swan.
Yeats portrayed his love Maud Gonne in this poem as Leda. She was a “militant Irish nationalist” and dedicated her life to her country and expected similar devotion from Yeats. Although she was also deeply in love with Yeats but she had a different opinion for love than Yeats. She believed in a spiritual sense of love whereas Yeats believed in all-embracing bond made up of this universally felt strong force called love. Due to her opinion about love, Maud desired a life full of spirituality having no place or value for “physical contact (sex)”. Yeats although approved of similar romanticized notion, however it was difficult for him to live up to this standard. These circumstances led Maud and Yeats towards “spiritual marriage”. According to Levine, “The marriage was based on a communication through dream correspondence and astral vision (controlled release of spiritual tension)" (Levine, p.127). Levine also suggested that this Spiritual marriage was, “the background and psychological excuse for the writing of 'Leda and the Swan'” (Levine, p.125). Critics have also said that before the poem Leda and the Swan, Maud started to appear in Yeats poems. Thurley refers the poem Leda and the Swan as another “Maud/ Helen poem” (Thurley, p.165). Levine said that, “Maud had become identified with Helen (the mythological daughter of Leda) as early as 1908 and goes on to identify Maud with Leda as well” (Levine, p.125-126).
Due to his fondness for mythology, Yeats declared that sexual desire is also a myth but he was not certain in his thinking because at the same time he also wrote that he, “used to puzzle Maud Gonne by always avowing ultimate defeat as a test" and he believed that his "spiritual love for Maud could never be consummated except through sexual union" (Levine, p.125). He also said that, “’mystic way and sexual love' are inextricably related" (Levine, p.127). This conflict of thoughts in the sexual life of Yeats was the basic inspiration of the poem Leda and the Swan.
Yeats believed that that his relationship with Maud is above any physical and social contact so he interpreted his sexual passion and demand as forms of “betrayal of Maud”. He was in a dilemma; “The "pure" women in his life are untouchable and are romanticized in his poetry while those who succumb to his needs are referred to as "harlots" ("Presences")” (Levine, p.128). This acute sense of perfidy mingled with his sexual desires ultimately resulted in a huge amount of guilt. In the opinion of Oppel, Yeats, “understood the psychology of tragedy, in that orgasm (which engenders life and also equals death of sexual desire) enables one to overcome pain and, by extension, guilt and death” (Oppel, p.122). Yeats’s sense of guilt led him to self-hatred and he dreamed about death and suicide. At the time of poem Leda and the Swan, Yeats was preoccupied with death. Levine states that, “Because his relationship with Maud Gonne remained unconsummated," Yeats's "imagination fastened quite decidedly in his later years on the themes of sex and death" (Levine, p.126). Critics argued that Yeats tried to suppress his natural desires and when he failed to do so, he unconsciously threw the responsibility of his guilt and self-hatred to Maud. That was the root cause of violent sexual element and rape in the poem Leda and the Swan.
There are several elements in the poem, which were directly related to the spiritual marriage of Yeats and Maud. Levine cited Moore that in summer of 1908 Yeats saw himself and Maud as, “joined by a 'sort of phantom ecstasy,'" which was accompanied by an impression of a swan floating in water. This was followed by a dream in which "Maud reproached Yeats because she could not break down some barrier" (Levine, p.127). Similarly Maud once written about Yeats and herself that they, “ become one with ecstasy" and Yeats had appeared to her triumphantly in a dream, after which she woke to a gust of wind blowing in her room and a voice of "an archangel who announced that from her union a 'great beauty may be born,' once she had been 'purified by suffering'” (Levine, p.127-128).
Yeats was a die-hard romantic and he firmly believed that one-day, intensity of his sexual desires and love compelled Maud to respond physically to his sexual desires. This hope has softened the tone of the poem from aggressive to passive. Thus it can be concluded that although the poem describes violent rape but Yeats’s own rape fantasy softened the tone and converted the violence into beauty.
Hence from the above discussion it is evident that William Yeats was certainly a man of great thinking and deep analysis. However, as much as his intellectual powers led him to the ladder of success and to the peak of fame, the same powers made him commit suicide. His inability to get out of the mental rut led to his tragic death. He loved and loved like a man; daringly, honestly and unconditionally. Nonetheless, somewhere during his great odyssey, he forgot that he was a human being, with a heart filled with love, passion and sexual desires. And while trying to desperately bridge the gap between reality and imagination, he fell apart thereby not only losing his lifetime, first love but also his values and eventually his life.
Had he realized and stood for his desires, honorably and conveyed them accurately with faith in his beloved, he probably stood a chance to not only win his beloved’s love but also her awe. The poem under analysis, Leda and the Swan thus clearly reflects Yeats’s highly and quite tragically so, restless and confused state of mind where he could neither submit to his spiritual and saintly beliefs nor could he live with a tarnished self-image bore out of severe guilt that his illicit relationship generated. And thus, he committed suicide while giving up on his inner struggle for peace, harmony, purity and self-reprisal. The mythological figures used throughout the poem further reveal the place and the pivotal role enjoyed by mythology in the era in which this poem was penned down.
Poetry, and all other forms of art, at the time of this poem, follow Romantic school of thought, who believed in the doctrine of “Art for Art’s sake”. Yeats, although a pure romantic himself, was one of the first few who revolted against it. Yeats believed that art should be used as an instrument to describe social purposes. Yeats himself said about modernism, “All out scientific, democratic, fact-accumulating, heterogeneous civilization … prepares not the continuance of itself but the revelation as in a lightning flash, though in a flash that will not strike only in one place, and will for a time be constantly repeated, of the civilization that must slowly take its place” (Yeats, p.iii). Orwell said about Yeats, “Translated into political terms, Yeats’s tendency is Fascist … the theory that civilization moves in recurring cycles is one way out for people who hate the concept of human equality … It does not matter if the lower orders are getting above themselves, for, after all, we shall soon be returning to an age of tyranny” (Orwell, p.190-191).
This poem is one of his first steps towards “realistic” school of thought in art as depicted from the language, imagery, topic and symbolism of the poem. Thus it can be concluded that Yeats was one of the poets who started using modernist techniques in his poetry and this poem Leda and the Swan was also a “response to the rise of realism and fall of romantic age”.