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A Swan and a Song: Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan”

Having been reading the Aeneid and then teaching the Homeric epics recently, my mind has been drawn to the surrounding stories of Greek myth, the stories of Iphigenia and Thetis and, for today, Leda. The image of Leda being raped by a swan–actually Zeus in disguise, in case you wondered–has been a staple of art for centuries with portrayals ranging from the inexplicably dull to the truly lurid.

Just a few months ago, an art gallery in London was “invited” to remove a series of photographs on the topic because of fears they would promote bestiality. The photo series, titled “A Fool for Love,” cannot be mistaken for realism–unless the world is inhabited by some very large swans–but it is, how shall I say, very suggestive.

And so is Yeats’ famous poem. It is suggestive, but hardly lurid. Yeats mentions body parts, thighs and breasts, yet he does not linger on them in a prurient way. We do read of “loosening thighs” and the always-suggestive “loins,” yet could this poem truly be called pornographic?

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?

At the same time, while Yeats’ take on this tale is far less graphic (literally and figuratively) than the photos by Derrick Santini, I find the poem more powerful. I get to the end, time after time, and find myself saying, “Wow.” The much more complete and direct photos of Santini wind up losing their power fairly quickly. (Okay, it’s not as if I have looked at them a hundred times.) After an initial reaction, which says, “Well, that’s a pretty woman and a swan. Odd,” this viewer files the image fairly quickly into the pin-up art category.

The regular reader of this space might question my consistency in writing on this topic at all. Isn’t Yeats’ poem simply a piece of pornography, less objectionable perhaps than the photos but pornography nonetheless. I would argue against that suggestion. Sex, both within the confines of marriage and beyond is a reality of human life. For anyone who doubts this fact, the mind need go no further than Genesis to discover the truth. Song of Solomon, famously, celebrates physical marital love. Although the images and tropes of that poem are less familiar to us than those in Yeats’ little lyric, the result in a knowledgeable reader can still be “Wow.”

I would not hold up this little poem as the equal in import to the Song of Songs; however, Yeats’ work does parallel that of Solomon in one way. In reading of “burning roof and tower and Agammemnon dead,” the reader is reminded that both Helen and Clytemnestra were daughters of Leda, although in neither case is the patrimony clear. Still, despite the rather titillating nature of that rendezvous between Leda and Swan-Zeus, greater things were afoot than a moment’s pleasure. By the same token, the Song celebrates in the very temporary expression of human sexuality the timeless nature of God’s love for His people. Any attempt to reasonably capture that and place it on the wall of London gallery will likely end in disappointment as well.

Posted in Irish Literature, Modernism.

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