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.
̶ I’d like to be the swan, like in Michelangelo.
̶ And who’d be Leda?
̶ You, of course.
̶ Would you like that?
̶ Yes, if you’re the swan.
̶ The swan dies singing.
̶ That’s a good way to die.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
John Everett Millais
Tamara de Lempicka
Nicolas de Staël
Hans Holbein, Younger
Vincent Van Gogh
Caspar David Friedrich
Leda and the Swan