Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’:Psycho-Sexual Therapy in ActionW. B. Yeats’s heavily anthologized poem, Leda and the Swan, can be read inendless ways: as a political poem, a poem influenced by Nietzsche’s idea of Will toPower, a poem of knowledge ultimately achieved through violence.
Is the poem simplyreferr ing to a myth? Is it addressing historical determinism? Critical methodologiesattempt to address these issues and more in their treatments of Leda and the Swan. However, to understand fully the poem and its implications, a formal close reading of the text must be combined with supplementary biographical information to inform a finalpsychoanalytic reading of the poem. An understanding of the events surrounding Yeats’slife, then, will contribute to a textual analysis to show that the poem can be re ad asYeats’s own particular rape fantasy, in which Maud Gonne is Leda and Yeats himself theswan; and in displacing his frustrations into the poem, Yeats turns destructive impulsesinto a constructive thing of beauty. Leda and the Swan is a sonnet, one of the most precise forms of literatureknown.Order now
An interesting paradox emerges, however, at first glance. The poem is writtenin a traditional form (sonnet), using a traditional rhyme scheme, yet the subject matteri s extremely non-traditional (violent rape as opposed to the usual love sonnets). Thisparadox is representative of the many oppositional elements which abound in the text andwhich help form the basis for understanding the oppositions which influence bot h Yeatsand the poem. The rhyme scheme is traditional (ABAB CDCD EFG EFG) yet interestingly imperfectin that four of the rhymes are not perfect: push and rush, up and drop(Hargrove 244). This again is another oppositional element, typical of Yeats, and couldbe seen to symbolize the opposition between Yeats, the last Romantic, and Yeats, theModernist.
A transition exists in the poem’s language, from an aggressive intensity to avague passive distance. The language in the beginning of the poem sets the tone of anaggressive sense of urgency. Priscilla Washburn Shaw makes an excellent point when shestates,The action interrupts upon the scene at the beginning with ‘a sudden blow,’ andagain, in the third stanza, with ‘a shudder in the loins. ‘ It may seem inaccurate to saythat a poem begins by an interruption when nothing precedes, but the effect of t heopening is just that (36). The effect of this device is that it draws the spectator/narrator, and subsequently thereader, into the action and into the poem.
The action continues for the first three lines of the first quatrain. Yeatsdoesn’t bother with a full syntax until the final line of the quatrain, at which point,the urgency relaxes (Hargrove 240). The language in the first full quatrain isrepresent ative of the opposition inherent in the poem; in this case, between intensityand distance (Hargrove 240). The imagery, and wording in general, in Leda is also representative, in aninitial reading, of oppositional elements within the text. A first reading shows Ledadescribed in concrete terms and the swan in abstract terms.
Leda is the staggeringgirl and the poem refers to Her thighs, her nape, her helpless breast, and herloosening thighs. The swan is never actually called Zeus or even the Swan (in fact,Agamemnon is the only name mentioned in the body of the poem). The swan is described asgreat wings, dark webs, that white rush, blood, indifferent beak, andfeathered glory. A second reading of the poem, however, shows that ambiguities do exist. Theconcrete and abstract merge. Generalized terms are used for Leda (terrified vaguefingers) and concrete terms for the swan (wings, bill, beak).
The purpose of thisambiguity could be, as Nancy Hargrove explains, to stress that the god is, after all, areal, physical swan engaged in a physical act (241). Regardless, this ambiguity is,again, representative of the conflict within the poem. Verbs play a major role in understanding Leda and the Swan. They are presenttense through the octave and the first part of the sestet (holds, push, feel,engenders). They then shift to past tense in the last part of the sestet (caught,ma stered, Did) (Hargrove 241). The verbs in the present tense imply an intenseimmediacy while those in the past tense distance the reader (and perhaps the aggressoras well) from what has just occurred.
Additionally, as Nancy Hargrove points out, there is a juxtaposition between active and passive verbs so that the active verb forms(holds, engenders) belong to the swan while passive verb forms (caressed,caught, mastered) belong to Leda (241). The verb forms, then, play an active rolein c ontributing to a close textual reading. Yeats continuously makes use of various devices to further heighten ambiguous,oppositional, and dramatic elements within his poetry. In his minimal use of thepossessive adjective, and the consequently greater use of somewhat unusual alternativefor ms, Yeats achieves effects which are curiously suspended between the concrete andthe general (Shaw 37), thus highlighting the ambiguities in the text.
Further still,the linguistic suggestiveness of the absence of any qualifiers for ‘body’ is considerable (Shaw 37). It is considerable in that it makes us even more aware of theambiguities (whose body?). It linguistically suggests the lack of an identity; it isessentially a dehumanizing element. While the subject matter of the poem is violent and disturbing, the structure ofLeda conveys feelings of safety and beauty. Hargrove submits that the intensity ofthe rape is controlled by the narrow confines of the sonnet, an aesthetically pleasingand heavily structured art form (242).
Douglas Archibald asserts, The sonnet formachieves for ‘Leda’ this: violence and historical sweep held in one of the mosttightly controlled of poetic forms (196). The violence of the rape is then controlledwithin the constraints of the sonnet. Additionally, the sonnet itself is brief, thusensuring the rape will be brief as well. While the rape is controlled through the structure of the poem, the organizationof the poem reflects in an orderly manner the progress of the rape (Hargrove 243). The first quatrain presents the assault.
The second quatrain reflects Leda’s emotions. The first half of the sestet presents the ejaculation scene. The cut line represents adramatic moment in time: a death-like silence. The final part of the sestet shows theact receding into memory while posing the question of meaning (Hargrove 243). Yeats makes use of several technical devices to convey the intensity of what isbeing portrayed in the poem. Among these devices are alliteration (brute blood),iambic pentameter, and the meter in general.
Bernard Levine notes that no regularmetric al pattern exists but there is a pervading rhythmic base in which verbal stressdisplaces the accent-guided line (116). Nancy Hargrove elaborates by showing that themeter imitates the gasping and throbbing pulsations of the rape by its irregularity, its sudden sharp caesuras, its sentences spilling over from line to line, itsdramatic broken lines in the sestet, its piling of stressed syllables (243). The ambiguities in Leda imply a confrontation both real and imagined, physicaland intellectual. Bernard Levine addresses the ambiguity surrounding the staggeringgirl in line three. Staggering as intransitive participle means that the girl is literally physically staggering, but the transitive verb form shows that she staggersthe mind (of the swan), so to speak (115). Levine addresses another ambiguity in theconnotation of the word still in line one.
The bird is described (we assume) a shaving just dropped down on Leda, yet the word still implies a timeless continuity(117). The text, then, presents the rape scene, painting a vivid and terrifying pictureof its aggressive violence and its subsequent transition to passivity. The text alsoshows a pattern of oppositions and ambiguities which are manifestations of a series ofconflicts between the material world and the spiritual world: the physical and theintellectual. Nancy Hargrove remarks that the apparent opposition between abstract andconcrete is representative of that between human and divine (235). Shaw views it in amore personal light: as the opposition between self and world (35).
The oppositions inherent within the text, and the subsequent series of conflictswhich they represent, are important in that they are manifestations of and parallels tooppositional conflicts occurring in Yeats’s own life. The violent textual rape is th eresult of his inability to reconcile these personal conflicts and the poem, then, is anexample of Yeats displacing his frustration, and doing so in a positive and safe manner. If this assertion is indeed accurate, Leda and the Swan would be consiste nt withYeats’s later poems. Edmund Wilson writes, The development of Yeats’s later styleseems to coincide with a disillusionment (17). Cleanth Brooks argues that Yeatsproposed to substitute a concrete, meaningful system, substituting symbol as a way ofcombating harsh, technical reality (69).
Leda is consistent with the assertions. And, the key to the reality Yeats is attempting to address is Maud Gonne. Maud Gonne was a militant Irish nationalist with whom Yeats was very much inlove, and who appeared as a tortured image in much of his poetry. She gave herselfcompletely to her country and expected the same type of nationalistic dedication fromYeats. They loved one another deeply but were never able to reconcile the differencesin their feelings. Maud Gonne loved Yeats in a platonic sense; Yeats desired a moreall-encompassing love.
Both Yeats and Maud Gonne considered themselves mystics. They belonged to theHeretic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society in which they attended seances. Mauddesired a pure spiritual life and felt that type of life precluded physical contact(sex) w ith Yeats. Yeats aspired to a like belief system, but was unable to live up tothese idealized standards. Under these conditions, Yeats and Maud Gonne entered into aspiritual marriage. Bernard Levine explains that The marriage was based on a communication through dream correspondence and astral vision (controlled release of spiritualtension) (127).
Levine suggests this spiritual marriage was the background andpsychological excuse for the writing of ‘Leda and the Swan’ (125). Well before thepoem was written, Maud Gonne had become an identifiable entity in Yeats’s poetry. Infact, Geoffrey Thurley refers to the poem as another Maud/Helen poem (165). Levinealso states that Maud had become identified with Helen (the mythological daughter ofLeda) as early as 1908 (125) and goes on to identify Maud with Leda as well (126). Consistent with his penchant for myth-as-metaphor, and mythology in general,Yeats declared sexual desire to be a myth.
Yet, at the same time, he wrote that heused to puzzle Maud Gonne by always avowing ultimate defeat as a test and he believedthat his spiritual love for Maud could never be consummated except through sexualunion, supporting the idea that the ‘mystic way and sexual love’ are inextricablyrelated (Levine 125, 127). This conflict serves as an example of the type ofopposition Yea ts could never reconcile and which would later manifest itself in Ledaand the Swan. Yeats viewed Maud Gonne as having achieved purity and felt as though he tooshould be above sexual longing. Levine argues that, unable to overcome his sexualneeds, Yeats had little alternative but to interpret his continual sexual longing as abetrayal of Maud (128). Interestingly enough, Yeats kept a woman in London for atime. Perhaps Yeats provides a good example for us of a man suffering from theVirgin/Whore syndrome.
The pure women in his life are untouchable and areromanticized in his po etry while those who succumb to his needs are referred to asharlots (Presences) (Levine 128). Yeats’s sense of betrayal, coupled with his failed attempts to suppressunacceptable desires, conceivably led to an enormous amount of guilt. In reference tosexuality and guilt, Francis Oppel suggests that Yeats understood the psychology oftragedy, in that orgasm (which engenders life and also equals death of sexual desire)enables one to overcome pain and, by extension, guilt and death (122). Thisoverwhelming sense of guilt resulted in a disillusioned and angst-ridden Yeats, and theresultant frust ration led to, as Joseph Hassett terms it, an overwhelmingpreoccupation with hate (Introduction viii) and a sense of self hatred. This (self)hatred led a despondent Yeats to contemplate suicide.
Levine quotes Virginia Moore asstating, Yeats dreame d that, walking along a path by a broken wall a precipice, hefelt dizzy and longed to throw himself over (130). By Leda and the Swan, Yeats was preoccupied with death, both consciously andunconsciously. Bernard Levine states simply that Because his relationship with MaudGonne remained unconsummated, Yeats’s imagination fastened quite decidedly in hislater years on the themes of sex and death (126). A bridge that Levine doesn’t seem towish to cross, however, is the idea that Yeats’s later themes do focus on sex and deathout of this sense of self hatred engendered by the guilt over his inability to live upto Maud’s standards and, initially, by the frustration he felt over Maud’s unwillingnessto comply with his desires. Some critics even contend that hate is Yeats’s generative principle. Joseph M.
Hassett contends that Yeats used his hate to penetrate the uncharted depths of his ownmind (Introduction viii). Ashok Bhargava (156) reaffirms this love-hate antithesis found in later Yeats. Quite simply, Yeats consciously attempted to suppress his physicaldesire and failed. This failure led to an unconscious resentment of the figure (Maud)perceived as responsible for this resulting guilt/self hatred.
This (repressed )resentment resulted in violent tendencies and the rape scene in Leda is, finally, thesublimation of sexual impulse. Several instances exist to support the correlation between aspects of thespiritual marriage and elements within the poem. Levine, again, cites Moore in notingthese instances. During the summer of 1908, Yeats saw a vision of Maud and himselfjoined b y a ‘sort of phantom ecstasy,’ which was accompanied by an impression of aswan floating in water.
This was followed by a dream in which Maud reproached Yeatsbecause she could not break down some barrier (127). Another time Maud wrote that sheand Y eats had become one with ecstasy and Yeats had appeared to her triumphantly in adream, after which she woke to a gust of wind blowing in her room and a voice of anarchangel who announced that from her union a ‘great beauty may be born,’ once she hadbeen ‘purified by suffering’ (127, 128). There is evidence of other such examples. Yeats, the idealistic Romantic, could not let go of the hope that Maud would oneday become a willing participant, physically. Yeats must have hoped that his persistentpassion and intensity would eventually persuade her to give in.
Elements from the just-noted example would support this hope and are found in the text of the poem: theswan image, barrier image, the idea of unity through sexual union. At this point, couldYeats’s unconscious have been softening the tone (and implications) of the rape in thepoem? These examples suggest that is indeed the case. Additionally, as previouslymentioned, the tone of the poem moves from aggressive to passive. Furthermore, a cluewhich supports the idea of a hope Yeats harbored lies in the revision process .
RichardEllman informs us that the poem went through several stages of revision. In earlierversions, Yeats portrayed the scene as an inarguable rape in which Leda is mounted(177). In the later, anthologized version of 1928, Leda has been given loo seningthighs, suggesting a type of acquiescence on Leda’s part. The implication for thisshift, then, in language and tone in the final version of Leda and the Swan is thatthe change is an example of Yeats displacing his fantasy that Maud Gonne woul deventually be swayed to engage him sexually and would become a willing, if passive,participant. In the earlier versions, Yeats was displacing his aggression. In thefinal revised version, Maud Gonne as Leda takes an active response role.
Finally, Leda and the Swan is a violent poem and can be seen as Yeats’s ownparticular rape fantasy; however, it remains an object of beauty. A close reading ofthe text focusing on the oppositions inherent within the poem, combined with anunderstand ing of the circumstances surrounding Yeats’s spiritual marriage to Maud Gonneshows the poem to be a manifestation of the conflict between reality and ideal, humanand divine that Yeats spent years trying to reconcile. The poem allows Yeats todisplace h is violent fantasies concerning Maud, yet it does so in a structured,controlled manner (ensuring safety), and it allows Yeats to, finally, retain a certainamount of romantic hope. Leda and the Swan was Yeats’s only realistic alternative tothe conflict in his life, and as a form of self therapy, it remains a nearly perfectwork of art. Poetry Essays