The poem begins with a literal bang, reminiscent of an airstrike—“A sudden blow: . . . ” That first phrase of William Butler Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” is followed by a quatrain-long sentence describing how Zeus, in the form of a swan, swoops in to take down his victim, Leda, the wife of Tyndareus and Queen of Sparta. Leda is bewildered by the shock of the aerial attack, and “helpless” in the face of such overwhelming force.
I first became fascinated with this poem and Yeats’s strange vision and verse many years ago, when I was doing my MFA in poetry and fiction at the University of Texas and had the pleasure of studying twentieth-century Irish literature there. I recall being impressed by the ability of Yeats and other Irish poets to invoke traditional forms and subjects (here, the sonnet and Greek myth) to speak to current political problems and personal obsessions with authority and suppleness, to convey surprising, subversive meaning. Reading these poets spurred my own desire to evoke and interrogate poetic form in order to heighten message, and to see where working with such constraints could take me. I was also drawn to this particular poem and have returned to it periodically, as a work that looks at trauma—personal and public—with a clear, unsparing eye.
The opening of the poem establishes the stark disparity in power between the two characters, as Zeus, not only male and not only a deity but the supreme god, takes the form of a large, glamorous beast, one capable of flight and of inflicting physical damage—a “brute blood of the air,” as he is called in the poem’s final stanza. In the first four lines, the poet / speaker references three parts of Leda’s body—her thighs, nape, and breast—which are overpowered by the swan’s web, bill, and breast, respectively. The intimacy of this description provokes unease, as the phrase “her thighs caressed / By the dark webs” introduces the idea of sinister appeal along with incontrovertible force.
The voyeuristic point of view of “Leda’s” first stanza unsettles the reader, even as Yeats’s music draws one in with his intricate repetition of plosives—blow, beating, bill, breast—sibilants—sudden, wings, still, staggering, thighs, caressed, helpless, breast—and voiceless h’s that emphasize Leda’s capture in line 4—“He holds her helpless breast upon his breast”— with “voiceless” an apt descriptor for both the consonant and the victim. Yeats knits his musical net with alliteration, assonance, and internal rhyme throughout the poem, returning to the plosive b’s and p’s with gusto in the final stanza.
The poem’s second stanza gives us Leda’s “terrified vague fingers” along with her “loosening thighs.” The individual person is reduced to “body”—“And how can body, laid in that white rush”—without even an article to distinguish her in the midst of obliterating force. The stanza concludes with Leda experiencing a mixture of fear, awe, and, remarkably, empathy—or at the least, recognition of the perpetrator’s “strange heart beating where it lies.” Whether that recognition is due to physical proximity or emotional expansiveness, the victim’s psyche remains alert and intact, even as her body becomes an expedient.
Until this point, the sonnet could simply be a graphic retelling of the Greek myth, but true to form, line 9 ushers in a turn, rerouting the content to more contemporary and political focus, as the telling of the myth speeds forward to the fall of Troy. In two and a half lines, Yeats sums up the arc of the Trojan War from inception to its mutually destructive end and aftermath, with Troy’s battlements breached and the Greek king and general Agamemnon’s demise:
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Yeats telescopes the myth, so that in the world of the poem, Zeus’s rape of Leda leads immediately to the invasion and fall of Troy. He also makes the allegorical meaning of the rape more apparent as the poem progresses, and we see and hear more of Leda’s evolving responses to her assault, which can be read as a metaphor for an aggressive nation’s invasion of a country that it wants to colonize.
In the myth (though not in the poem proper), following the rape, Leda gives birth to two eggs, one containing the twins Castor and Pollux. The other produces Helen, the famously beautiful wife of Menelaus—sought after by Paris, whose unabiding love / lust launches the Greek conquest of Troy—and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, who kills him after he returns from the war. The “broken wall” may refer to either Leda’s assaulted body or the shattering of Troy’s ramparts. Here Yeats blurs the line between individual and public trauma, eliding one with the other and dramatizing how one act of brutality may lead to other unforeseen disasters.
This revelation—small and intra-European as it was—reminded me of how acquisitive and enduring the forces of imperialism are and, conversely, how canny and fluid survivors of oppression can be.
Unlike his earlier poems, which evoke specific Irish locales in soothingly pastoral tones—“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”— “Leda and the Swan” inhabits several places at once, and Ireland is depicted as a site of invasion and destruction. Here are none of the sensory delights of “the bee-loud glade” and “evening full of the linnet’s wings.” Instead, Ireland is refracted through the ancient Greek landscape as Yeats retells the myth. A second location of the poem is Leda’s female, human body, the site of assault, terror, empathy, wonder, and generation, with the speaker evoking Leda’s imagined physical responses to the attack and aftermath in precise detail. By allegorical extension, early twentieth-century Ireland, which had been invaded and occupied by British forces for over seven hundred years, from the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland in 1169 until the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1921, becomes a third setting of the poem.
“Leda and the Swan” was published in 1923, soon after the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, which ushered in Irish self-governance in the southern portion of the country with the establishment of the Irish Free State that would become the Republic of Ireland, following Britain’s long occupation, the partitioning of Ireland into north and south, and the bloody Anglo-Irish War of 1919 to 1921. Part of the Anglo-Irish Protestant aristocracy that ruled Ireland from the late seventeenth century onward, Yeats defied class expectations, committing himself to Irish nationality; writing about Irish places, lore, and politics in his poetry and plays; befriending and pining after Irish nationalist leaders; fervently siding with the new Irish government and serving in the Irish Free State’s first senate. While the sonnet contains no direct references to Ireland, the poem’s last six lines seem to speak directly to the nation’s situation at the time, with Troy / Ireland “burning” and Greece’s / Britain’s withdrawal imminent. The poem concludes with a return to Leda in the final moments of her assault:
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?
In my marginal notes written while I was in graduate school, I jotted, “core post-colonialist question” next to those lines, and I would still stand by that interpretation. The question Yeats seems to raise here is whether Leda / the colonized gain something before the ordeal ends. The conditional verb tense anticipates the end of occupation, as the rapist / colonizer’s lack of interest sets in. Once sought-after entities (an individual body, Troy’s or Ireland’s land, workforce, and resources) are obtained, the colonizer / rapist withdraws. In this final stanza, the speaker asks whether those who have been robbed of autonomy, bodily or nationally, gain anything during the brutal process of occupation. The word knowledge connotes something positive acquired at a great price, whether it is insight into systemic abuses of power, extraordinary capacities for empathy, or something as concrete and potentially useful as say, mastery of the oppressor’s language. I can recall the moment when, in college, I first learned that many of the great writers whom I’d been taught were British, were, in fact, Anglo-Irish and champions of Irish nationality like Yeats. This revelation—small and intra-European as it was—reminded me of how acquisitive and enduring the forces of imperialism are and, conversely, how canny and fluid survivors of oppression can be.
The metaphor of female body as the site of invasion and occupation was nothing new in Yeats’s time, nor was he the only twentieth-century poet to sustain this comparison. Although this metaphor entails unsavory implications, with the casting of the female as ready victim, to my mind, Yeats successfully keeps Leda’s subjectivity—her thoughts, feelings, and choices—foregrounded in this poem, investing this character with agency even as she grapples with extreme duress.
Given the conditions—rape, physical assault, sustained colonization—no character could be expected to gain anything other than a host of terrible feelings, and likely PTSD, from those experiences. However, in the world of the poem, Yeats had already cast Leda as a believably durable character in the first two stanzas, and his unusual verb phrase “put on” implies that choice is available even when one is contending with the worst of events. A more expected verb would have been “experience” or even “suffer”—both of which imply more passivity than “put on,” which entails both intention and transience. One may put on clothing, a mask, or a good or bad face, and generally one can easily take off what one puts on, removing the addition when it no longer provides benefit. What I like about the poem’s concluding question is that it suggests agency, during and in the aftermath of devastation, salvaging a hard-won note of possibility amidst ruin. I do not think it is incumbent on anyone to do more than survive horror, if they have done that, but I like to think that a range of responses can be possible.
In both form and subject, “Leda” also concerns shape-shifting, and the violent conjunction of unlike things. As in other myths, Zeus visits and attacks his victims in the guise of animals (eagle, bull) or odd phenomena (shower of gold) in order to evade Hera’s wrath; even the powerful attempt to avoid reprisal, as flimsy as the subterfuge may be. (Hera always finds out. “It was just locker room talk.”) And while the aggressor may remain unmoved by his atrocities, his temporary shape-shifting a mere means to an end, the survivor certainly changes inside and out (emotionally and physically devastated, pregnant with hybrid human-animal eggs) in a process that is highlighted by the poem’s concluding question—and by the poem’s abrupt formal shifts, which coincide with the acts of rape, war, and destruction depicted in the sestet.
From the start, I loved the sonnet’s ability to hold contrasts, ambiguity, ambivalence.
The poem begins as an Elizabethan / Shakespearean sonnet, with two quatrains rhyming abab cdcd, only to morph at the volta into the Italian / Petrarchan form concluding with two tercets rhyming efg efg. The strangeness of the mixed English-Italian form is highlighted by the midline break in line 11 with the phrase “Being so caught up,” accentuated by the half-line’s visual drop down the page, which anticipates the poem’s last word, “drop.” The sestet’s rhyme scheme embodies the motion of dropping, as the efg descends twice.
I recall thinking as a younger person how this sudden embracing of the Italian form reinforced Yeats’s anticolonialist message by rejecting and abandoning the English form that the poet employs so sinuously in the poem’s first eight lines. At the moment that he suddenly shifts the subject away from one character’s trauma to occupation, war, and its consequences, he simultaneously breaks the sonnet’s expected progression—breaking it twice in rapid succession to end the poem not on the English couplet with its pithy, tidy remark, but with a resonating question that half-rhymes with a previous line that is itself ostentatiously broken. The departures from form underscore ruptures in person and nation wrought by bestial acts.
These formal moves—and my late discovery of how disrupting formal patterns can enhance meaning—were what first attracted me to the sonnet form and the poetry of twentieth-century Irish writers like Yeats and Seamus Heaney. From this start, I sought out other poets who employed the sonnet’s expectations to augment political and personal meaning, reading backward and forward in time to the Romantic poets (Shelley and Keats), the poets of the Harlem Renaissance (Cullen and McKay), feminist poets (Rich, Nelson, Hacker, Brooks), and other wondrous practitioners of the form (Millay, Browning, Shakespeare, and many, many others). From those readings, embarked upon for my own esoteric fun and guided by excellent teacher-scholars (Elizabeth Cullingford and Tom Cable, among others), I saw how the sonnet’s requirements provided a grid to inhabit faithfully or depart deliberately from, depending upon one’s intentions. I learned how shifts in rhyme and meter can amplify a poem’s effects—the way, for example, “great wings beating” offers three accented syllables in a row, with each providing more emphatic stress while maintaining the iambic pattern, mirroring the growing violence of the act in “Leda”’s first line. It’s a metrical move that is echoed and intensified by the spondaic beats of “so caught up” in the final stanza’s crucial turn. From the start, I loved the sonnet’s ability to hold contrasts, ambiguity, ambivalence.
It would be several years before I would write my own sonnets. I aimed at first to write one hundred, just to do it, just to have one less decision to make each time I sat down to write. I embarked on my sonneteering at a time when I really needed the comfort of structure: a place where I could play with language, be challenged by exacting requirements, and count on this little box as a safe space to muck around in. I discovered that constraints like iambic pentameter and rhyme scheme propel one’s language to unexpected places; if one leans into musical constraints, the music will eventually lead the way. I also found that the sonnet in particular—perhaps due to the militant beat of iambs or the feeling of neat containment—tends to lead one into territory that is anything but safe. During the first couple years of drafting (I ended up writing over three hundred sonnets over about seven years), I was often surprised by how violent and perverse my content became.
The poem concludes with a direct, provocative question that makes one think, perhaps uncomfortably, about what is possible under terrible conditions.
One’s subjects are one’s subjects, and mine circle the fun gyres of personal and public trauma, abandonment, abuses of power, and imminent apocalypse resulting from corruption, greed, and denial. I’m interested in how received and embedded tales—mythical, folk, or familial—can be reclaimed and imbued with the points of view, the subjectivity of female players and characters of color. My poetry and fiction specifically investigate the trauma engendered by war, partition, and occupation—not of Ireland but of the Korean peninsula, which informs my family’s history. While I was initially drawn to “Leda” by its formal ingenuity and anticolonialist messages, it is clear to me now that I was also less consciously intrigued by the poem’s other subjects, which are overtly and sympathetically aligned with my own: revisiting trauma in order to destabilize old narratives and forge new trajectories for writer and reader.
One more thing I would like to say about “Leda” is that I appreciate its ability to unsettle me. This sonnet takes us into several places that are unpleasant: a rape victim’s body, ripped-open land, and the long aftermath of what to do following violent assault and occupation—places where many, if not all of us, live and work. The poem concludes with a direct, provocative question that makes one think, perhaps uncomfortably, about what is possible under terrible conditions.
A great poem, of course, yields surprises upon successive readings. On revisiting “Leda” now, reading it again and again in my home office in Philadelphia in the spring of 2018, I marvel anew at Yeats’s choices in the composition of this poem, at how his music and odd diction augment his meaning. The poem concludes with a panoply of plosives that echo the splits and rifts in person and nations, picking up the sounds he deployed in the first stanza: broken, burning, Being, up, brute, blood, put, power, Before, beak, drop. And the word could in the final line now strikes me as strange, in the way that it departs from the more expected would or did. Could implies that some larger force is at play, one that even Zeus, the father sky-god, is caught up in.
“Leda” works for me, and is a poem that I have returned to and will return to again, precisely because it takes the reader into the eye of discomfort and leaves her with a question that resonates like the rings emanating from a struck bell. It asks what might be the unintended consequences, and even benefits, of catastrophe. It’s a question that strikes me as relevant and heartening right now—and one that Yeats, who envisioned our time as the hour of another monstrous “rough beast,” presaged in his uncanny poem “The Second Coming.” In the United States of 2018, we live in a country for terrible men—the commander in chief a boasting sexual assaulter, serial dissembler, and white supremacist sympathizer, and his rapacious base, “full of passionate intensity.” It is tempting to embrace the eerie vision of Yeats’s most quoted poem and stop there, but “Leda,” written four years after “The Second Coming,” with more hopeful events on the Irish horizon, offers a different mode. It redirects us to a place of possibility—a question to staunch the flow of disaster upon disaster—as we anticipate this cycle’s end and its repercussions.
“Leda and the Swan” can be found here.