Leda and the Swan


Yeats | Rilke | Lawrence | Graves | Mallarmé

Micole Bredean, Leda and the Swan, 2002 | Part I: Leda-Swan in ‘Mara, Marietta’ | Part II: Leda-Swan in Modernist Poetry





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.

Rubens, Leda and the Swan, 1599 | Swan photo: Malcolm Schuyl

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.

Swan photo: Malcolm Schuyl l Franz Russ the Younger (1844-1906), Leda and the Swan

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.

Cornelis Bos, Leda and the Swan (after Michelangelo), 1555 | Swan photo: The Blowup


A literary novel by Richard Jonathan

Available from AMAZON (paper | ebook) & iBOOKS, GOOGLE PLAY, KOBO & NOOK (see LINKS below)





Helen Sword


Posted by kind permission of Helen Sword, Professor, School of Humanities, University of Auckland (New Zealand)

Abbreviated from PMLA Vol. 107 No. 2 (March 1992) pp. 305-318

Bartolomeo Ammanati, Leda and the Swan, 1535


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.

Corneille van Cleve, Leda and the Swan, 1693

For male writers, however, the issue becomes more complicated. Modernist literature is replete with examples of what Sandra 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.

Yeats, Lawrence, Rilke

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…

Leda and the Swan: Greek mosaic, 3rd century AD | Roman coins, 3rd century AD |  Roman relief, 2nd century AD

… 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.

Leda and the Swan: James le Gros | Fred Einaudi (detail) | Steve Kenny


Robert Graves, decades later, injects a modernist sense of sinister brutality into the story by stressing the role of female desire and complicity.

Robert Graves

Heart, with what lonely fears you ached,
How lecherously mused upon
That horror with which Leda quacked
Under the spread wings of the swan.

Then soon your mad religious smile
Made taut the belly, arched the breast,
And there beneath your god awhile
You strained and gulped your beastliest.

Pregnant you are, as Leda was,
Of bawdry, murder and deceit;
Perpetuating night because
The after-languors hang so sweet.

Adolf Erbslöh, Leda and the Swan, 1909


Yeats’ ‘Leda and the Swan’ enacts, above all, the divine imposition of a mythic design on human existence. The poem privileges Leda’s rather than Zeus’s point of view, yet the poet identifies himself fully with neither; he stands above all as an observer, detached but empathetic, whose role is to enunciate to his audience the rape’s historical significance as annunciatory event. Yeats, himself a believer in the kind of revelatory parousia [‘second coming’] that ‘Leda and the Swan’ thematizes, would place the poem in a central position of A Vision, his 1925 occult tour de force setting forth the bizarre cosmological schema that had, he claimed, been revealed to him through his wife’s automatic writing. His accounts of A Vision’s origins describe a gendered genealogy of inspiration, his wife acting as a fertile but uncomprehending vessel for the voices from beyond that Yeats, as authoritative male, would subsequently interpret and systematize. ‘Leda and the Swan’ suggests a similarly gendered creative hierarchy: the poet, clarifying the historical significance of Leda’s rape, himself seems privy to the knowledge and power of which Leda, described in the poem as ‘staggering,’ ‘helpless,’ ‘terrified,’ and ‘vague,’ is as yet but dimly aware.

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 and the Swan

Yeats’s Leda, however, though ‘mastered’ both by Zeus and by the poet, is by no means a wholly passive figure. Her womb, the ‘there’ where Zeus’s shuddering loins ‘engender’ Troy’s destruction, microcosmically contains not only ‘Agamemnon dead,’ Mycenae’s future king inscribed within a yet-to-be-lived past, but also ‘the broken wall, the burning roof and tower’: the city of Troy at the instant of its demise. As a locus, then, of both human potentiality and historic process, Leda’s body participates in and indeed encompasses the whole cycle of birth, destruction, and regeneration that her rape initiates, embracing if not necessarily reconciling the dialectically opposed forces—humanity and divinity, spirit and flesh, motion and stasis, male and female, love and war—that inhabit and energize the poem.  Similarly, in ‘The Mother of God,’ another poem about a divine insemination, Yeats indicates that Mary’s womb nurtures the cosmos as well as Christ.

William Butler Yeats

The threefold terror of love: a fallen flare
Through the hollow of an ear;
Wings beating about the room;
The terror of all terrors that I bore
The Heavens in my womb.

Had I not found content among the shows
Every common woman knows,
Chimney corner, garden walk,
Or rocky cistern where we tread the clothes
And gather all the talk?

What is this flesh I purchased with my pains,
This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop
Or strikes a sudden chill into my bones
And bids my hair stand up?

Myriem Roussel, Hail Mary, Jean-Luc Godard

That Mary bears ‘the Heavens’ in her body, while Leda incubates ‘broken’ and ‘burning’ buildings and a king who is always already dead, indicates both the limitations and the scope of each woman’s role as a passive yet indispensable instrument of historical change: though they gestate what they cannot control, both Leda and Mary fulfill the prophet’s, or prophetic poet’s, designated function of transforming godly annunciation into human enunciation by rendering a divine will intelligible and incarnate. Whether or not they ‘put on’ the god’s knowledge, then, these women surely participate in—perhaps even supersede—his power.

Salvador Dali: Madonna of Port Lligat, 1950 | Atomic Leda, 1949

Given especially Yeats’s own lifelong fascination with seances, automatic writing, and other forms of attempted contact with the unknown, one can hardly help wondering whether he—who would claim in 1936 to have ‘looked out of the eyes’ of ‘the woman in me’ and ‘shared her desire’—did not on some level covet for himself the receptive ‘female’ role, with all its visionary immediacy, that was filled in the Greek myth by Leda, in Christian lore by Mary, and in real life by his wife. Yet ‘Leda and the Swan,’ poised uncertainly between empathy and impartiality, amply documents the dangers of such unmediated access to divine inspiration. With its vivid depiction of the swan’s attack—from violent impact to shuddering orgasm to callous post-coital indifference—the poem betrays every bit as much fear of the ‘sudden blow’ as desire for Leda’s resulting visionary stature.

Heinrich Lossow (1843-1897), Leda and the Swan (detail)


While Yeats’s poem focuses on Leda’s role as visionary victim, Rilke presents the rape from an opposite, though similarly paradox-laden, perspective. Like Yeats, Rilke often linked creative inspiration specifically with the traditionally female receptivity and sexual passivity that Leda most obviously represents: ‘my soul is a woman before you,’ declares the monk in Rilke’s 1901 Book of Hours, making a passionate plea to God for religious inspiration, and in a 1904 letter Rilke even goes so far as to assert that ‘the deepest experience of creativity is feminine—for it is a receptive and birth-giving experience’. Later, however, in a 1912 account that strikingly parallels the sexual sequence of Yeats’s sonnet, Rilke employs decidedly less exuberant, though equally feminized, language to describe the poetic inspiration that had recently accosted him at Duino: ‘the spirit rushes in and out so brusquely, comes so wildly, and absents itself so suddenly that I feel as if I were being physically torn to pieces’.

Arturo Michelena, Leda and the Swan, 1887 (detail)

Rilke would spend much of his life trying to cultivate in himself—whether by repeatedly articulating his own aesthetic of femininity, by establishing friendships and love affairs with artistic women, or by translating the love poetry of women writers from Louise Labé to Elizabeth Barrett Browning—those receptive, ‘feminine’ traits that he believed to be the necessary characteristics of a successful poet. In his 1907 poem ‘Leda,’ however, despite his explicit association of religious and creative inspiration with the physical and emotional experiences of women, he largely avoids identifying with the story’s female protagonist. Instead, his poem offers an emphatically male point of view: it reverses the rape-by-the-Other metaphor by suggesting that, if the myth is to be read as a fable of poetic inspiration, Zeus rather than Leda stands in the poet’s role. Thus the story enacts not the violation by an inspiring Other but his own visionary penetration of his poetic object.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat,
erschrak er fast, den Schwan so schön zu finden;
er ließ sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden.
Schon aber trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,

bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins
Gefühle prüfte. Und die Aufgetane
erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane
und wußte schon: er bat um Eins,

das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand,
nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder
und halsend durch die immer schwächere Hand

ließ sich der Gott in die Geliebte los.
Dann erst empfand er glücklich sein Gefieder
und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoß.

Rilke | G. Kinnell & H. 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.

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

Rilke’s version of the Leda story departs significantly from mythological precedent: instead of transforming himself into a swan, Zeus actually enters a swan’s body, making for an opening line—’When, in his great need, the god entered him’—with confusing and even homosexually suggestive connotations. Documenting not just one act of penetration but two, the poem recalls the kind of triangulated sexual economy described by such explicators of literary homoerotics as Eve Sedgwick, who in Between Men traces displacements of male homosexual desire onto the body of a shared woman, and Wayne Koestenbaum, whose Double Talk posits male literary collaboration as a covertly homosexual act mediated through a shared text characterized as female. Leda’s body is undeniably shared by the poem’s two male figures; yet the swan serves an important mediatory function as well, for it shields Leda from the unfortunate fate of Semele, whose human form could not survive the intensity of Zeus in his unmasked sexual glory. In fact the swan takes on an almost hermaphroditic character, occupying both the male role of rapist and the traditionally female role of mediatrix that Yeats assigned to powerfully passive women like Leda and Mary.

Gustave Moreau: Jupiter and Semele, 1895 (detail) | Leda (detail)

Moreover, Rilke reverses the myth’s trajectory of revelation, suggesting that it is neither the swan nor Leda who garners true knowledge and power from the rape but rather Zeus, the rapist. As an allegory of poetic inspiration, then, the story reads something like this: the poet (Zeus) must enter the body of literary language and poetic perception (the swan) before he can fully master his poetic object (Leda); yet only after that mastery has been achieved does he really ‘feel his plumage’ and become ‘truly swan,’ truly poet. Although in other poems of this period, such as ‘Alcestis’ and ‘Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes,’ Rilke portrays women as potent and inviolable beings whose dark, mysterious powers he, as male poet, clearly envies and desires, in ‘Leda’ he seems to attribute such revelatory otherness mostly to the swan. As in Yeats’s sonnet, however, Leda’s body, and more specifically her womb, turns out to be the hidden center of the poem: the poem’s final word, ‘Schoß,’ though usually translated as ‘lap,’ also means ‘womb,’ so that Leda, far from serving as a mere instrument of Zeus’s desire, provides and indeed circumscribes the site of his creative transformation. ‘Inside a woman,’ as Lawrence Lipking notes, ‘is also where men take form’; even in adulthood, in Rilke’s understanding of the creative process, a man must reenter the realm of the female before he can emerge as poet. Infant-like, Zeus can be reborn or metamorphized—rendered ‘truly swan’—only in Leda’s lap/womb, the maternal, internal recesses of her body.

Leda, Swan, Zeus

Rilke’s ‘Leda’ depicts poetic inspiration not as an act of raw revelation but as an event composed in and mediated by language—a meaning figured by the plumage of the swan, whose feathers are also, of course, writing instruments. As Rilke’s poem makes particularly evident, the poetic appeal of the Leda myth stems not only from the classic situation, graphically enacted, of human intercourse with the divine but also from the swan’s potential as a multivalent literary symbol: swans are graceful, like the rhythms of poetry; white, like an unwritten page; romantic, singing only at the moment of death. For Rilke, then, the swan symbolizes both the cloak of language and, in a 1906 ‘thing poem’ called ‘The Swan’, the mysterious, still grace that humankind achieves in death.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Diese Mühsal, durch noch Ungetanes
schwer und wie gebunden hinzugehn,
gleicht dem ungeschaffnen Gang des Schwanes.

Und das Sterben, dieses Nichtmehrfassen
jenes Grunds, auf dem wir taglich stehn,
seinem angstlichen Sich-Niederlassen—:

in die Wasser, die ihn sanft empfangen
und die sich, wie glücklich und vergangen,
unter ihm zuruckziehn, Flut urn Flut;

whrend er unendlich still und sicher
immer miindiger und koniglicher
und gelassener zu ziehn geruht.

Rilke | G. Kinnell & H. Liebmann

This drudgery of trudging through tasks
yet undone, heavily, as if bound,
is like the swan’s not fully created walking.

And dying, this no longer being able
to hold to the ground we stand on every day,
like the swan’s anxious letting himself down—:

into the waters, which gently accept him
and, as if happy and already in the past,
draw away under him, ripple upon ripple,

while he, now utterly quiet and sure
and ever more mature and regal
and composed, is pleased to glide.

Swan photo: Rene M. | Sculpture: Brancusi, Leda, 1920 | Composite: RJ


Yeats, similarly, in his 1919 ‘The Wild Swans at Coole,’ uses swans to evoke memory and the ideals of youth.

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

Coole Park Turlough | Composite: RJ

Later, in his 1931 ‘Coole Park and Ballylee,’ the swans become a majestic yet highly ironized emblem of the human soul.

William Butler Yeats

Under my window-ledge the waters race,
Otters below and moor-hens on the top,
Run for a mile undimmed in Heaven’s face
Then darkening through ‘dark’ Raftery’s ‘cellar’ drop,
Run underground, rise in a rocky place
In Coole demesne, and there to finish up
Spread to a lake and drop into a hole.
What’s water but the generated soul?

Upon the border of that lake’s a wood
Now all dry sticks under a wintry sun,
And in a copse of beeches there I stood,
For Nature’s pulled her tragic buskin on
And all the rant’s a mirror of my mood:
At sudden thunder of the mounting swan
I turned about and looked where branches break
The glittering reaches of the flooded lake.

Another emblem there! That stormy white
But seems a concentration of the sky;
And, like the soul, it sails into the sight
And in the morning’s gone, no man knows why;
And is so lovely that it sets to right
What knowledge or its lack had set awry,
So arrogantly pure, a child might think
It can be murdered with a spot of ink.

Sound of a stick upon the floor, a sound
From somebody that toils from chair to chair;
Beloved books that famous hands have bound,
Old marble heads, old pictures everywhere;
Great rooms where travelled men and children found
Content or joy; a last inheritor
Where none has reigned that lacked a name and fame
Or out of folly into folly came.

A spot whereon the founders lived and died
Seemed once more dear than life; ancestral trees,
Or gardens rich in memory glorified
Marriages, alliances and families,
And every bride’s ambition satisfied.
Where fashion or mere fantasy decrees
We shift about—all that great glory spent—
Like some poor Arab tribesman and his tent.

We were the last romantics—chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever’s written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.

‘Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.’ | Photo: whoisbenjamin | Triptych: RJ


Elsewhere in the rich imagistic vocabulary of symbolist poetry, the swan represents the poet who, like Baudelaire’s albatross, stumbles awkwardly and ridiculously on land but soars gracefully in its own medium; alternatively, the swan is poetry itself, as in Mallarme’s sonnet ‘Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui,’ where ‘le cygne’ (the swan) homonymically suggests ‘le signe’ (the sign), its frozen captivity in a lake of ice recalling both the fascination with perfection and the danger of sterility implicit in Mallarme’s crystalline aesthetic of ‘poesie pur’. As the bird of Apollo, the god of poetry, the swan evokes order, reason, and grace; yet its role in the Leda myth renders it an unpredictable, Dionysian creature as well. Thus the swan participates in, indeed embodies, one of the essential paradoxes of lyric poetry, which equally privileges ‘spontaneous overflow’ and structured artifice.

Stéphane Mallarmé

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid de mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

Mallarmé | P. Terry & M. Z. Shroder

Will new and alive the beautiful today
Shatter with a blow of drunken wing
This hard lake, forgotten, haunted under rime
By the transparent glacier, flights unflown!

A swan of long ago remembers now that he,
Magnificent but lost to hope, is doomed
For having failed to sing the realms of life
When the ennui of sterile winter gleamed.

His neck will shake off the white torment space
Inflicts upon the bird for his denial,
But not this horror, plumage trapped in ice.

Phantom by brilliance captive to this place,
Immobile, he assumes disdain’s cold dream,
Which, in his useless exile, robes the Swan.

Photo: Ken Kullik | Torso of Apollo: Louvre | Composite: RJ


Whereas Rilke highlights the beauty and serenity that constitute the swan’s Apollonian aspects, his English contemporary D. H. Lawrence seems to have been intrigued above all by its Dionysian potential. Like Mallarme’s swan, Lawrence’s acts as a symbol of poetic language and poetic power; yet the wild, unmastered creature of his 1929 poem ‘Swan’ represents not the domesticated purity of a symbolist idyll but a cosmic principle both sinister and regenerative.


at the core of space
at the quick
of time
and goes still
the great swan upon the waters of all endings
the swan within vast chaos, within the electron.

For us
no longer he swims calmly
nor clacks across the forces furrowing a great gay trail
of happy energy,
nor is he nesting passive upon the atoms,
nor flying north desolative icewards
to the sleep of ice,
nor feeding in the marshes,
nor honking horn-like into the twilight.

But he stoops, now
in the dark
upon us;
he is treading our women
and we men are put out
as the vast white bird
furrows our featherless women
with unknown shocks
and stamps his black marsh-feet on their white and marshy flesh.

Carina Nebula, ESO | E. Gerlach, Leda & the Swan, 2019 (detail) | H. de Watrigant, Swan | Composite: RJ

Lawrence’s swan, as the poem is quick to emphasize, defines itself primarily through its abnegation of previous literary traditions: it does not honk hornlike into the twilight as we might expect Yeats’s clamorous memories to do, nor does it swim calmly like Rilke’s death swan, nor does it fly north, like Mallarme’s cygne, ‘desolative icewards / to the sleep of ice.’ In fact the poem itself, in its unfettered form, forceful diction, and unconventional imagery, seems to partake of the swan’s vibrant energy, as Lawrence, striving for raw power rather than for intricate artifice, sounds a vehement rejection of the symbolist aesthetic governing Mallarme’s elaborate verbal labyrinths and Yeats’s and Rilke’s immaculate versifications.

Black swan photo: David Clode (detail) | Eugeniusz Gerlach, Leda and Black Swan, 2019

In a painting from around 1928 called Leda, Lawrence depersonalizes the eponymous maiden by showing only her naked torso beneath the body of the swan; in Singing of Swans, painted the same year, two white swans fly overhead as several naked human beings of indeterminate gender interact on the ground below. Even more than Yeats, then, who describes Leda’s rape as one in a series of annunciatory events shaping human history, or Rilke, who perceived in Zeus’s dual penetrations the poet’s revelatory enterprise, Lawrence universalizes the Leda myth, transposing its action to the present and suggesting that many ‘featherless women,’ not just one, have felt or will feel the stamp of his ‘vast white bird.’ In ‘Swan’ he conceives of the poet simultaneously as a participant in (‘But he stoops, now / in the dark / upon us’) and an observer of the primal scene between woman and god, woman and beast (‘and we men are put out / as the vast white bird / furrows our featherless women / with unknown shocks’).

Fred Einaudi, Leda and the Swan (detail) | D.H. Lawrence, Leda (detail)

But a second poem from 1929, ‘Leda,’ makes it clear that the poet feels ‘put out’ above all because he himself longs to share more fully in the women’s revelatory experience, to gain access, in Yeats’s terms, to the ‘knowledge’ and ‘power’ generated by the swan’s ‘unknown shocks’.

D.H. Lawrence

Come not with kisses
not with caresses
of hands and lips and murmurings;
come with a hiss of wings
and sea-touch tip of a beak
and treading of wet, webbed, wave-working feet
into the marsh-soft belly.

Lawrence’s poetics of inspiration articulates itself here as fiat, a plea to the inspiring Other not for a kinder, gentler visionary influence (‘Come not with kisses / not with caresses’) but rather for a ‘sudden blow,’ an energetic, un-mediated impact; the more violent the annunciation, Lawrence suggests, the more vibrant and intense the resulting enunciation.

Fred Enaudi, Leda and the Swan | Swan photo: Malcolm Schuyl

In 1913, Lawrence described poetic inspiration as a necessary but frightening violation: ‘I feel as though I stood naked for the fire of Almighty God to go through me, and it’s rather an awful feeling’. In ‘Leda,’ written more than a decade and a half later, he calls for a similarly violent force to energize his poetry and put him back in touch with the universal mystery from which England’s industrialized postwar society had, he felt, isolated itself. The political implications of Lawrence’s aesthetics of violence are of course open to question, and certainly too complex to discuss in detail here; while it is surely an exaggeration to say, with Bertrand Russell, that Lawrence’s ‘mystical philosophy of “blood” led straight to Auschwitz’, it does seem likely that his enthrallment to cults of submission and power might well have led him, had he lived past 1930, into unfortunate accord with the blood-based mysticism that would come to animate so much fascist myth-making. Lawrence was hardly alone among modernist poets, however, in his belief that violence is a necessary precondition for change; Yeats’s fascination with the Leda myth sprang from a similar conviction, while T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound proved to be no less prone to sympathizing, so to speak, with the devil.

Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot

Although, in ‘Swan’ and ‘Leda,’ Lawrence avoids identifying himself entirely with the ‘featherless women’ who passively undergo the swan’s stamping and furrowing, his Leda poems do focus on victimization: not on the ordeal of the violated women, however, but on the sexual angst of the left-out, put-out men. If man does not regain access to the unscientific, mysterious universal forces that the swan’s chaotic energy represents, Lawrence suggests, he risks losing his own sexual identity and being cuckolded, in effect, by a bird—an anxiety familiar to no less a paradigmatic product of literary modernism than Stephen Dedalus, who in the early chapters of Ulysses irreverently pictures Mary explaining her pregnancy to her incredulous husband: ‘C’est le pigeon, Joseph’. For Lawrence, the divine Other effects its ornithological incarnation in the form not of pigeon but of swan (Yeats even posits an inspirational canary!). But whereas Stephen Dedalus, namesake of the inventor of human flight, empathizes with Jesus, whose ‘father’s a bird’, Lawrence directs his warnings to a modern Joseph: ‘Do you think, scientific man, that you’ll be father of your own babies?’ he asks in a poem called ‘Give Us Gods’; ‘There’ll be babies born that are cygnets, Oh my soul!’. He goes on to describe ‘the father of all things’—his cosmic swan ‘within the vast chaos, within the electron’—brushing past his own body on its way to inseminate the world’s women.

Thor’s Helmet Nebula, ESO | ‘Leda and the Swan’: P. M. Padua, 1939 | Steve Kenny | James le Gros | ‘Swan’: H. de Watrigant | Composite: RJ

D.H. Lawrence

Give us gods, O give them us!
Give us gods.
We are so tired of men
and motor-power. —

But not gods grey-bearded and dictatorial,
nor yet that pale young man afraid of fatherhood
shelving substance on to the woman, Madonna mia! shabby virgin!
nor gusty Jove, with his eye on immortal tarts,
nor even the musical, suave young fellow
wooing boys and beauty.

Give us gods
give us something else —

Beyond the great bull that bellowed through space, and got his throat cut.
Beyond even that eagle, that phoenix, hanging over the gold egg of all things,
further still, before the curled horns of the ram stepped forth
or the stout swart beetle rolled the globe of dung in which man should hatch,
or even the sly gold serpent fatherly lifted his head off the earth to think —

Give us gods before these —
Thou shalt have other gods before these.

Where the waters end in marshes
swims the wild swan
sweeps the high goose above the mists
honking in the gloom the honk of procreation from such throats.


where the electron behaves and misbehaves as it will,
where the forces tie themselves up into knots of atoms
and come untied;
of mistiness complicated into knots and clots that barge about
and bump on one another and explode into more mist, or don’t,
mist of energy most scientific —
But give us gods!

Look then
where the father of all things swims in a mist of atoms
electrons and energies, quantums and relativities
mists, wreathing mists,
like a wild swan, or a goose, whose honk goes through my bladder.

And in the dark unscientific I feel the drum-winds of his wings
and the drip of his cold, webbed feet, mud-black
brush over my face as he goes
to seek the women in the dark, our women, our weird women whom he treads
with dreams and thrusts that make them cry in their sleep.

Gods, do you ask for gods?
Where there is woman there is swan.

Do you think, scientific man, you’ll be father of your own babies?
Don’t imagine it.
There’ll be babies born that are cygnets, O my soul!
young wild swans!
And babies of women will come out young wild geese, O my heart!
the geese that saved Rome, and will lose London.

‘There’ll be babies born that are cygnets’ | ‘And babies of women will come out young wild geese’ | Composite: RJ

Both anxiously fearful and jealously covetous of Leda’s archetypal role as receptive female, Lawrence finally translates his own ambivalence, in a poem called ‘Won’t It Be Strange?,’ into an almost poignant fear simply of being left out.

D.H. Lawrence

Won’t it be strange, when the nurse
brings the new-born infant
to the proud father, and shows its little,
webbed greenish feet made to smite the waters behind it?

or the round, wild vivid eye of a wild-goose staring
out of fathomless skies and seas?
or when it utters that undaunted little bird-cry
of one who will settle on icebergs, and honk across the Nile?—

And when the father says: This is none of mine!
Woman, where got you this little beast?
will there be a whistle of wings in the air,
and an icy draught? will the singing of swans,
high up, high up, invisible
break the drums of his ears
and leave him forever listening for the answer?

D.H. Lawrence, Mexico, 1923 | ‘Woman, where got you this little beast?’ | E.X. Kapp, D.H. Lawrence, 1923


Envious of Leda’s contact with the unknown, craving her annunciatory knowledge and power, yet loath to surrender their own creative authority by emulating her passivity, Yeats, Rilke, and Lawrence offer us a modernist Leda as complex and paradoxical as their own attitudes toward visionary experience and the poetics of gender.

Edouard Houssin, Leda and the Swan, 1888 | Norman Parkinson, Frauke with Swan, 1984



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Mara Marietta