May 29, 2002
Yeats’ Leda and the Swan: Politics and Passion
Leda and the Swan is a Greek legend in which the all powerful God Zeus, taking the form of a beautiful swan, seduces Leda, Queen of Sparta, giving birth to an egg from which the twins Castor and Pollux hatched. With Zeus she also had Helen of Troy and with Tyndareus she had Clytemnestra. The legend has been depicted numerous times by well-known artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Tintoretto, Michelangelo, more recently by Matisse (see picture) and even very recently in the form of neon art (in Berlin). The theme resembles the Immaculate Conception of Mary by the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) in the Catholic religion, predominant in Ireland (but not necessarily observed by Yeats). Yeats initially called the poem Annunciation, a title related somehow to the Catholic apparition of an angel to Mary telling her of the sanctity of her impregnation. But in Yeats’ own symbolic system, the wheel of history revolved in two thousand year cycles, each started by an annunciation (Zeus to Leda in 2000 B.C., the Holy Ghost to Mary in year 1, and a “rough beast” to appear in 2000 A.D.). Yeats started writing the poem for a political publication, presumably intending to inject political meaning into it, but he changed it several times before the final version that we know, with a new title. In his own words, “all politics went out of it,” but we could believe that since he was a senator of the recently freed Ireland during the years he wrote it, the poem could bear some meaning of Irish nationalism. In this paper, we will try to review how the poem could have this and other meanings.
The first two stanzas depict the intercourse between the swan and Leda in an almost violent way, starting with “A sudden blow” and continuing with words like “helpless,” “caught,” and “terrified,” a sensation that will remain in the third stanza when the swan is called “the brute blood of the air.” Yet the verses contain hints that the act is sensual: “her thighs caressed,” and “her loosening thighs” indicate some amount of savoir-faire on the part of the bird-god. The “terrified vague fingers” seem to say that the fingers do not know how to react to the attack: accept it or reject it? But why does “the feathered glory” (6) becomes “the brute blood of the air?” (13) The word “brute” could be taken literally as “having no feelings,” but that would make the word “blood” enigmatic. “Brute blood” is closer to “anger” or to a passion without consciousness and still supports the apparent violence of the lines. As if violence begot violence, the “shudder in the loins engenders” tragic events of Greek mythology: the fall of Troy, the murder of Agamemnon.
Yeats referred to swans in his earlier poem The Wild Swans at Coole, referring to an Irish legend in which the lovers Baile and Aillinn had been changed into swans. The Irish wild swans are beautiful and peaceful, whereas the Greek God swan is forceful. In the even earlier poem No Second Troy, Helen of Troy represents Maud Gonne and Yeats’ frustration with their platonic relationship. It is, however, hardly arguable that in the twenty years that separate the poems, Yeats could still feel frustrated with the relationship. But it remains a possibility that the manly swan of Leda and the Swan would be the expression of a dream, an unfulfilled sexual fantasy of Yeats. In psychological terms it is not impossible to relate the forceful intercourse with blaming the woman for the effects (pregnancy) and with a feeling of guilt (the brute blood). However, this interpretation becomes problematic at the reading of the last two verses: “Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?” If Yeats had been a feminist, we could have argued that it meant the woman should have learned and gained power from the experience, but it is hardly the case: this poem is not only sexual.
Historically, the poem could relate the making of Ireland, just as the original Leda and the Swan related to the making of Greece. The events of Easter 1916 ended in a disaster but five years later Ireland became an independent state. The feathered glory of England engendered disaster after disaster with Ireland, and only after a few years of independence, the country is still “so caught up” and “so mastered.” Isn’t the powerful England the “indifferent beak” that could let Ireland drop? Ireland did not finalize its constitution until 1937, and withdrew from the British Commonwealth in 1948. Yeats was a senator in the newly formed state and should have been preoccupied with the early attempts at writing a constitution. To “put on his knowledge with his power” could refer to adopting the laws of England, which is surely a difficult thing to do in such circumstances: who wants to adopt the principles of the aggressor?
Sexual tension and politics make a difficult marriage. Leda and the Swan could not only be the historical description of the relationship between England and Ireland, but also Yeats’ expression of his own sexual power and frustrations.
 “William Butler Yeats Apocalyptic Writings,” Norton Topics Online, 28 May 2002, http://www.wwnorton.com/nael/nto/20thC/premill/avisionfrm.htm
 Footnote to “Leda and the Swan,” Norton Anthology of English Literature, seventh edition, volume 2, pp. 2110-2111.