Leda and the Swan

Cornelis Bos, Leda and the Swan (after Michelangelo), 1544-66

Part Three Chapter 6

With these questions you plunged me into the enigma of your own desire. And thus we came to talk of animals as sexual ciphers, of paintings with satyrs and centaurs, bulls and serpents. When I mentioned Leda and the Swan your face lit up, and as your gaze held mine we knew that the divine bestiality of that bird moved us equally.

Sole to dorsal surface, dorsal surface to sole, your feet, crossed at the ankles, caress one another. Dazzling me with whiteness, they twist and turn: So this is the mystery and holiness, this is the shining loveliness, of the spotless bird.

Heinrich Lossow, Leda and the Swan

William Shackleton, Leda and the Swan, 1928

You whisper:

̶  I’d like to be the swan, like in Michelangelo.
̶  And who’d be Leda?
̶  You, of course.
̶  Hmmm…
̶  Would you like that?
̶  Yes, if you’re the swan.
̶  The swan dies singing.
̶  That’s a good way to die.

William Butler Yeats

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?

Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931) Leda with Swan

Hugues Taraval (1729-1785), Leda and the Swan

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann

When the god in his need stepped across into him,
he was almost shocked to find the swan so beautiful;
and in his confusion he let himself disappear into him.
But the dissimulation quickly led to the act,

before he could even test the feelings
of this untried state. And she, opened,
could already see who it was coming down in the swan
and knew at once: he asked for one thing,

which she, confused in her resistance,
no longer could hold back. He came down
and, pushing his neck through her weakening hand,

the god released himself into the beloved.
And then he took joy in his plumage
and really became a swan in her lap.


From Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann, The Essential Rilke  (NY: Harper Collins, 2000; p. 35)

By L. R. Lind

Upon a theme from Greek mythology both writers exercise intense analysis, from it they generate a compressed and tremendous emotion. Regardless of the symbolic purpose involved in each sonnet, there is a wide divergence in angle of vision. Yeats, in the better known of the two poems, sees the onslaught of the god turned swan through Leda’s eyes. In the moment of union, whence sprang Helen, the cause of the Trojan war, Yeats sees, while he half-identifies himself with Leda, the terror of the girl: the image of the moment is fearful and charged with pathos, equivalent in its essence to the moment when Zeus, pursuing another amour, descends upon Danae in a shower of golden sunshine. The sestet is the more difficult and less successful part of the poem. Here Yeats relieves the tension of the vision by leading the reader’s mind toward the ultimate implications of the act, the sack of Troy ‘And Agamemnon dead,’ toward historical speculation. While the rhetorical question Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? is clearly intended to bring the emotion to climax in the midst of the (mythological) orgasm, it serves rather to dissipate the emotion, to deflect it into another channel. At the precise point where the poem should end, Yeats has caused the current of interest to swerve and to take on a different aspect. In the light of reality which must break in upon him, the reader rejects the fantastic imputation that Leda, by union with the swan, could have taken on the knowledge and power of Zeus. She was to him (‘the indifferent beak’), as Yeats well knew, only one of many loves, the simple object of his mighty passion. Yeats is not far from rationalization in these two lines; to attempt to rationalize the myth is to diminish its effectiveness as an image. Danae may well have been the soil, fructified by the sun’s rays; but what is Leda? Only a frightened girl who, by grotesque rape, becomes the mother of Helen.

Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Leda and the Swan, 1755

Peter Paul Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1599

Each poet chooses a different creature as the vehicle of terror. Rilke sees the swan-Zeus alone. Leda is scarcely present in his poem; the phrases ‘the weakening hand’, ‘the beloved’, and ‘in her lap’ are Rilke’s only references to her. For Rilke, it is the moment just before and immediately while Zeus undergoes his curious transformation which is the focus of emotion. Zeus is bewildered, even frightened in an animal way to find the swan (himself) so beautiful: the terror here is his, not Leda’s, and it arises from an intense introspection. The magical change from god to bird takes place in spite of the half-reluctance of Zeus; his betrayal of Leda impels him to the deed before he had had, animal-wise, the time to adapt himself to his strange new form. Praying that Leda may not in the inevitable struggle deny herself completely to him, the god descends and ‘loses himself within the beloved’. The last two lines bring the sonnet compactly together, reinforce the image, and maintain the concentration without deflection: And then he took joy in his plumage / and really became a swan in her lap. The metamorphosis, simultaneous with the end of the poem, is completed with magnificent finality only when the swan comes to rest upon Leda’s body. Yeats and Rilke exhibit an extraordinary sensitivity for the frightening beauty of the mythological image and present it by way of the sonnet-form with varying degrees of convincing poetic reality. Rilke, to me, is the more successful because his gaze is narrowed from beginning to end of his poem; in his economy he allows no bifurcation of attention. Yeats intrudes upon his image and therefore reduces its impact.


The paper can be found in full at JSTOR.

By Helen Sword

Inspiration, at its best, signifies a positive, generative influence, a fertilizing encounter of human and divine energies. But although poets and mystics throughout history have figured creative and religious inspiration in terms of sexual union and shared sexual ecstasy, the dark side of inspiration is violation, a violent overwhelming of self by Other that finds its sexual analogy in rape. As the Leda myth itself dramatizes, the rape analogy is an uncomfortable one for male and female writers alike, for it posits a sexual cosmogony that characterizes the inspiring Other as male and thus explicitly feminizes the inspired poet. For women, of course, rape is not merely an abstract concept; even if no woman actually fears being violated by a swan (or, one would hope, by Zeus in any form), tales like the Leda myth, in which human contact with the divine is couched in the vocabulary of sexual conquest, can serve as telling metaphors both for female poets’ real-life experiences of male domination and for their anxieties of male literary influence.

Women writers confronting the Leda myth, then, might reasonably be expected to identify, at least in imagination, with Leda and her plight; that is, one can hardly conceive of a woman writing about the myth solely from Zeus’s point of view, except perhaps with heavy irony.

Mihaly Munkacsy (1844-1900), Leda

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Leda and the Swan

For male writers, however, the issue becomes more complicated. Modernist literature is replete with examples of what Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar have termed ‘sexchanges’: literary appropriations of opposite gender roles and disguises. Yet male identification with Leda requires a kind of emotional cross-dressing that few men, given especially Leda’s status as victim, have been willing to undertake or sustain. Three modernist poets in particular—namely, Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, and Rainer Maria Rilke—frequently courted and laid claim to outside inspiration by actively cultivating such ‘passive’ traits as sensitivity, receptivity, and intuition, qualities that all three explicitly associated with a feminine mode of being and to which all repeatedly attempted, using a variety of personal and poetic strategies, to gain some form of access. Yet these same poets proved conspicuously unwilling, in their literary responses to the Leda myth, to place themselves fully in the imagined role of the female, perhaps because they recognized in Leda’s plight the central paradox of their own visionary enterprise: Leda’s ‘knowledge’ and ‘power’ are achieved only through her powerlessness, her unwilling submission to another’s will and desire.

Leda has not always been regarded as a victim, of course, nor has her rape consistently been represented as an act of undesired brutality. Most modern narrators of the myth, in fact, have skirted the rape issue entirely by suppressing or denying the essential violence of the situation. Taking their cue, perhaps, from the legions of painters and sculptors, from Greek antiquity onward, who have represented Leda’s encounter with the swan in terms of romantic playfulness or sexual acquiescence, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century writers have portrayed Leda’s story not as a violent drama of pursuit and violation but rather as a peaceful idyll.


The paper can be found in full at JSTOR.

François Boucher, Leda and the Swan, 1740