- Brute BloodOn Reading William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan"
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, [End Page 59] 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...