A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed,
By the 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?
And how can body, 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?
This poem is about one of the most important events in Greek mythology: the rape of Leda by Zeus, who had taken on the form of a swan in order to seduce her. What follows is the conception of Castor and Pollux, Clytemnestra and Helen, whose abduction by Paris is held up as the cause of the Trojan war.
This, then, is a rape of huge mythological significance, but it is often played down in literature. Homer was praised for starting the Iliad not with the moment of this egg’s fertilization, but in the middle of the subsequent story, as warrior Achilles and king Agamemnon quarrel over a slave girl, ten years into the Trojan war.
But Yeats’s poem begins by drawing attention to the violence of the event. The first three lines contain no finite verbs: we are presented with a scene in which everything takes place at once, images of motion are piled on top of each other. “He holds” suggests something taking place in the immediate present; the breasts of Leda and the swan become almost indistinguishable.
The second stanza takes something of a step back, as hurried description is replaced by more reflective questions. Each one points to Leda’s captivity at the hands of the immortal swan. She is unable to remove herself from the violence of its embrace. She has no choice but to feel its heart beating next to hers. The scene is one of invasive physical force; the word “strange” also carrys the sense of “foreign”.
At the end of the second stanza Yeats moves towards a reflective discussion of the rape’s consequences. The mythological woman is dehumanised, reduced to a vehicle for history, a carrier for the egg that would go on to have such huge political significance. The brutal scene becomes a mere “shudder in the loins”. Engender literally means to beget: it is as if the entire history of the Trojan War is being conceived along with Leda’s four children.
The poem’s final section is problematic. Yeats recognises that Zeus, in the body of a swan, is a “brute”, that he has “mastered” Leda and reduced her to the status of a slave. But then the poem’s final lines retain the suggestion that she is gaining something from the situation. She remains passive — the final line reinforces that the control is all held by the beak that “could let her drop” — but the poem refuses to consign her to the status of unmitigated victimhood, instead intimating that she might have gained something of Zeus’s immortal knowledge.
Some consolation for being reduced to a body that serves to satisfy the “indifferent” god, whose role is to bear the children whose lives will provoke such slaughter.