greek leda

william butler yeats

leda and the swan: an image's coming of age

Whatever your stance on Yeats’ poetry,
you would not deny that the man has written a poem
the charms of which no devotee of art can possibly resist:
the unparalleled ‘Leda and the swan’ which sounds as follows:


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?

of this poem just catches the eye.

To begin with, there is the structuring of the whole episode. The poem may be divided in two halves. The first comprises the violent encounter of Zeus and Leda ending in ‘a shudder in the loins’, whereas in the second both spatial and temporal perspectives widen into infinity.

This partition matches the division of the sonnet into octave and sestet. Which is marked through the similarity of the two bold phrasings summarising the event in its constituent elements: ‘A sudden blow’ initiates the octave and ‘a shudder in the loins’ the sestet. It also coincides with a shift in the temporal perspective. The octave is in the present tense; the first half of the sestet at once projects us in the far future ‘(Agamemnon dead’); from this vantage point we look back on the violent encounter (‘did she put on his knowledge…?’) that now is irrevocably referred to the past. And this binary structure is echoed in the grammatical construction: each half comprises two sentences, each encompassing a single strophe, the first and the third of which are affirmative, the second and fourth interrogative. The alternation of affirmation and interrogation goes hand in hand with a change in the commitment of the reader, who seems to identify himself with the swan in the affirmative sentences, whereas in the interrogative ones he seems to ask himself how Leda might experience her brutal overpowering.

Over this apparent articulation in two halves is superposed a second, this time asymmetric, binary structure. It is marked by the typography: ‘being caught up’ is referred to the second half of the sestet. In the first half of this partition the unstoppable unfolding of the proceedings is depicted into its furthest consequences: everything is rendered in the present tense. In the second shorter half, written in the past tense, the deeper meaning of the event is fathomed.

A further counterpoint to the central partition is the shift in spatial perspective. No swan is staged, but ‘great wings’, ‘dark webs’, ‘his bill’ ‘his breast’, ‘the strange heart’ ‘the brute blood of the air’ ‘the indifferent beak’. And also from Leda we only catch a glimpse of ‘her thighs’, ‘her nape’, ‘her helpless breast’, ‘those terrified vague fingers’, ‘ her loosening thighs’ and ‘the strange heart’. In short: a perspective familiar to all those who happen to be cast by the spell of the flesh. Only with ‘body’, but foremost with ‘the feathered glory’ and its the counterpart: the ‘staggering girl’, does the camera seem to zoom out. But it is only when we are faced with the consequences of such promiscuous entangling of body parts that we are allowed a panoramic view on the whole: ‘The broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead’. Thus, the temporal partition in present and past tense is joined by a spatial partition between the more involved close up and a rather contemplative panoramic view.

As far as meter is concerned, it is apparent that the diction only unwillingly complies with the train of the iambic pentameter. We have to first witness the forceful resistance of the ‘great wings beating still’, the ‘dark webs’ and her ‘nape caught’ – an accumulation of stressed syllables wonderfully echoing the ‘sudden blow’ of the swan’s wings. But even when the metrical order seems to be restored, the asymmetry of the grammatical structure continues to oppose the regular flow on a more abstract level. Most conspicuously in that masterly - unforgettable - first half of the sestet:

A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.

The rhythm determined by the alternation of adjective and noun as it is initiated in ‘broken wall’ and ‘burning roof’, is not carried on in ‘tower’, which has to manage without adjective. But the latter surfaces again in the consequent ‘Agamemnon dead’, albeit this time after the noun. Over the repetition in the word rhythm a second pattern determined by the alternation of adjective and noun is superposed: a rotation from initial position to end position. To the unparalleled rhetorical effect that the whole procedure of begetting life is turned into its very opposite. To which we shall return below.

Next to the word rhythm and the alternation of adjective and noun also the sonorous body of language is summoned up to evoke the encounter. Think only of the way in which ‘he holds her helpless breast’ unabashedly renders Zeus’ heaving. Not to mention the ‘broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead’, the infernal sonority of which only joins the solemn stride of the meter to a veritable funeral march reminding of Wagner’s ‘Siegfrieds Tod’.


But let us first introduce the theme. The story of Leda stems from Greek mythology. Leda is the Spartan king Tyndareus’ wife. When she saw her chances, she did not hesitate to exchange her royal husband for a god: Zeus, even when he approached her in the shape of a swan. Which yielded her four eggs. Out of which not only hatched Castor and Polydeukes as well as Clytemnestra, but first and foremost the Helen of the Trojan war.

From way back, the theme has been very popular in the plastic arts. It will turn out to be very fruitful to first examine how it has been handled there.

The representation of loving couples has always been a problem in the plastic arts. For the obvious reason that of a couple intertwining – Brancusi’s animal with the two backs – the most enticing fronts are hidden from view. Literature knows not such problem. When reading Ovid’s verse ‘ Leda is lying between the swan’s wings’ (Metamorphoses VI, 109), not only do we see before our mind’s eye the pair of wings embracing Leda, but the body covered by these wings as well, not to mention the experience of the most diverse bodily sensations. In painting or sculpture, on the other hand, we are not faced with malleable representations for diverse senses, but with a concrete visual image. The painter that from the encounter of Leda and the swan would only show us the sight of spread out wings would not show at all: he rather would hide from view precisely what we so dearly wanted to see.

The classical solution consists in staging the bodies immediately before their entwining. But such is not a becoming solution in the case of Leda and the swan: we precisely wanted to witness the proceedings after the encounter! And to make a picture thereof raises a lot of problems.

To begin with, there is the tension between the impressive figure of Zeus and the rather humble shape of the swan wherein he is transformed. Especially since the little bird also has to mount the huge female body. Before the mind’s eye we inconspicuously adapt the shape of the swan, as with the already cited verses of Ovid. But when the scene is graphically depicted there before our very eyes, the discrepancy between the mighty Zeus and the rather humble shape of the swan catches the eye. It must be granted, though, that the very same humble shape also yields an unexpected gain: the beast with two backs has on one side exchanged a broad back with a slender neck, to the effect that nothing any longer prevents the full exposure of Leda’s enticing front (see Corregio’s Leda, 1530, Berlin Dahlem).

But whoever might reconcile himself therefore with the humble elongated shape of the swan, cannot possibly let it pass for the mighty Zeus. Unless he focuses on Zeus' mighty member: only of this true Adam can the swan be the becoming metamorphosis – the long neck then stays for the stem of the penis, the head for its glans, the winged trunk for the scrotum. And such life-sized organ cannot fail to head straightforward towards its goal: also in the real world the stretched out neck of a swan reaches to the genitals of a woman standing. Although the beak of a real swan, as opposed to that of reckless goose, happens to rather modestly bend downwards*.


leda relief

Of course, the painter might proceed to adapt the shape of the swan to Leda’s body. But he then faces new problems. To begin with, also the wings grow accordingly - and they come to stand higher at that. Would we let them play the role of the lover’s arms embracing his beloved, her beauty were hidden from view by a pair of wings again. Far more interesting, then, to let them flap and express the superior strength of the swan. The task of subduing Leda’s body is then relegated to the beak which has to catch Leda in her nape. This solution has been chosen in the Hellenistic relief above. The swan’s body, running out in the slender neck, no longer embodies the erect member, but the entire body of Zeus. To the effect that the penis is relegated to the lower regions where it is reduced to its former proportions. But there again it comes to face still other problems. Although of all the winged beings the swan has perhaps the biggest penis – rather: something that can be called a penis – it does not end up in a vagina, but in an arse – and that was not precisely what Zeus was after. In the Hellenistic relief the dorsal approach implied by the catching in the nape is replaced with a frontal one, as is more becoming to men – let alone gods! But the swan seems not to be able to cope with the frontal approach: Leda has to adjust something or other with her hand! The frontal twist in the lower regions finds its counterpart in a dorsal twist in the higher spheres, were the slender neck graciously bends downwards to catch Leda’s nape from the back. To the effect that the swans’ webs are no longer stamping on a feathered swan’s back, but on Leda’s white thighs. Also on the Roman representation below, where the artist has equally chosen for blowing up the swan, the focus is on the proceedings in the genital zone. And also here things seem not to work properly: Leda has to pull the swan's legs to get things straight. So, only after some considerable twisting, turning and adjusting can they find each other, Zeus and Leda.

roman leda

In the ancient representations, the focus is on the problematic nature of the encounter of beast and man. We have to await the heathen Renaissance to witness a deepening of the approach and the corollary invention of more convincing solutions.


leda da vinci

It is da Vinci (1452-1519) who sets the tone for the new approach. In his first drafts of the theme he tries to solve the problem of the shape by letting Leda bend, as parents do when trying to adapt to the small stature of their children – or Mary when kneeling before her holy son. But on the eventual painting (only known through its copies), Leda is standing again, and she is approached by the rather impressive swan on her side.

The interesting thing is that, in both versions, the beak no longer reaches to the navel, but to Leda’s very lips. It is no longer out at penetrating the vagina, let alone to catch Leda in her nape: its declared aim is bluntly Leda’s mouth. One of the formerly flapping wings now gently embraces Leda’s hip. And such entwining does hide nothing from view. On the contrary: since the encounter has shifted upwards, Leda can be taken under the arm from behind, to the effect that her magnificent front remains visible in all its splendour. It appears that the oral approach meets some resistance: although Leda willingly coils herself in the swan’s wings and turns her breasts toward the swan, she teasingly withdraws the lips in her face. And the same goes for the hesitating hips and her hanging leg.


leda michelangelo

In his painting of 1530 for Alfonso d’Este, which unfortunately enough has only come to us through the copies by Rosso Fiorentino, Rubens and Bos, Michelangelo (1475-1564) opted for a totally different approach. In sharp contrast with the Ancients and da Vinci, Michelangelo has his Leda lying supine. Therein she is a further development of the ‘Night’ from the Medici chapel – where another bird is paying his respects under the knees before the entrance of the gate: the owl Athena. But Michelangelo equally pushes ahead with da Vinci's innovation. While da Vinci’s Leda rather modestly opposes the indecent proposals of the swan, Michelangelo’s willingly abandons herself. No longer needs she to be forced by a bit of a beak in her nape: she is laying there for the kissing. To the effect that Zeus has a free neck: his beak no longer has to catch Leda in her nape, his is about to kiss the lips – or to penetrate the mouth? And the complicity of the half-sleeping Leda is further emphasized by the wriggling of her fingers, betraying a nearly concealed enjoyment. Only the right arm of the swan seems to refrain the endeavours of the swan – or does it rather press the warm, feathered body against her womb?

leda web

And that reminds us of the fact that Michelangelo’s swan is granted its natural proportions again. Which induces it not only to penetrate the mouth with its beak, but also the vagina with its penis: it suffices to get a glimpse on the position of the tail, which is spread like a fan over the vagina and the black web bluntly plopped down on the soft inner side of Leda’s white thighs. Although the dark tone of the tail may be motivated through its position in a shadow zone, it first of all seems to be the emanation of what it conceals: the black penis of the swan – vicariously made visible in that equally black web. Also another colour has shifted to the periphery: the red of the equally concealed vagina. The red draperies whereon Leda is spread are the nearly concealed representation of a vagina (see also the print of Bos). Not only Michelangelo is fond of making rather obscene representations shimmer through seemingly neutral draperies...

leda vagina

Thus, da Vinci’s swan as well as Michelangelo’s is resolutely turning perverse. But both masters immediately keep it on the straight and narrow. With this conflict corresponds the ambivalent filling in of the body of the swan. Although da Vinci’s swan takes the shape of a full-fledged human body, Leda only has to disappointedly turn away from a void, while at the same time the swan’s greedy beak is deliberately out at her lips. And even when Michelangelo’s swan remains a small bird, not only does its agitated body stubbornly try to penetrate the vagina, even more eagerly does the greedy neck edge its way between the breasts toward the mouth.


castor and pollux

The perverse move away from the genitalia to the neck and the beak finds its counterpart in the equally perverse move away from fertilisation and birth. No longer do penises or vaginas come to spoil the fun of begetting. And with birds also birth is no longer a question of repugnant slime, but a clean affair of white shells: the immaculate conception of the white egg (see: ‘La Cane et son omelette', forthcoming’).

And that holds especially for our story. The four children springing from the encounter of Zeus with Leda were not precisely born, they rather hatched out of eggs. Already in his drafts does da Vinci throw Leda her offspring in the face. With Michelangelo, where the swan is nevertheless rather busy down there, no eggs are to be seen, at least on the copies of Rosso Fiorentino and Rubens. On the print of Bos already one egg has hatched and another one on the foreground is on the verge of doing so.

Even when the emphasis on the consequences of the deed is in line with the genital-fertile defence against the perverse proceedings of the swan’s neck, the fact that birds have to do without a penis and a vagina perverts their reproductive efforts from within.

And that equally holds of W.B. Yeats. Even when no eggs are mentioned in his sonnet, in ‘Among school children’ the poet stages a ‘Ledaean body’ wherewith he feels united as ‘the yolk and white of the one shell’. And that reminds us that we are dealing here with Yeats’ Leda. But only now are we ready to tackle the sonnet properly.


leda fingers

According to Charles Madge** the above mentioned Hellenistic relief would have inspired W.B. Yeats. Which is evidenced by the flapping of the wings, the emphasis on the web on Leda’s thighs, but foremost by the way in which the swan catches Leda’s neck and presses her face against its breast.

But equally right are all those who traditionally maintain that the poem is inspired by Michelangelo’s Leda. To begin with, Yeats’ Leda does not stand upright, as she does on the Hellenistic relief. She is lying supine, as with Michelangelo. And even when the webs on Leda’s thighs may also appear on the relief, marble has no colour, and it is precisely the resonance of that colour black that is more than echoed in that splendid ’her thighs caressed by the dark webs’. But foremost those ‘terrified vague fingers’ betray that also the painting of Michelangelo lies at the roots of Yeats’ sonnet. Even when they ward off, rather than wriggle out of pleasure. The mere fact that Yeats’ Leda uses frail fingers rather than full arms to ward off the brutal swan, at once reminds us of the fact that also on the Hellenistic relief Leda does not ward off. With her full arm she rather eagerly extends a helping hand – her wriggling fingers being hidden from view through the thighs.

It is apparent, then, that W.B. Yeats must have been strongly impressed with the greediness of Michelangelo’s swan and the complicity of his Leda, but foremost with the eagerness wherewith the Hellenistic Leda helps the swan reach its goal. Which does not prevent that this erotic fervour equally unleashed a strong counter-current in W.B. Yeats. Which departs not so much from the proceedings under Michelangelo’s fanning out of the tail, as rather from the more convincing proceedings between Leda’s thighs on the Hellenistic relief. Through such regression from the ‘Renaissance’ to ‘Antiquity’, the pushy beak that effortlessly reaches its goal, is whistled back to the place where it belongs: between the thighs. And to seal the genital metamorphosis W.B. Yeats also borrows the most striking gesture of the Hellenistic relief: the compelling force wherewith the swan catches Leda in the nape, which neutralises the organ of lust into a mere instrument. And the crowning glory of this work are those ‘terrified vague fingers’, wherein W.B. Yeats utterly negates the seemingly denied complicity of da Vinci’s Leda and the nearly concealed complicity of Michelangelo’s Leda.

It seems as though W.B. Yeats reduces the ambivalence between perverse and fertile strivings to the sole genital proceedings. The scale seems to resolutely tip in the direction of the pole of negation. In line with this negation W.B. Yeats stresses the reproductive consequences of Leda’s encounter: the ‘shudder in the loins’ ‘engenders’ – an echo of da Vinci’s emphasis on Leda’s eggs.


brueghel detail

But that very ‘engenders there’ following the ‘shudder in the loins’ puts a heavy damper on the triumph of the member foolhardy. What is begotten there is not precisely suited to welcome the deed of procreation: whoever would like to be the father of ‘the broken wall, the burning roof and tower and Agamemnon dead’? Which of course is a reference to the Trojan war waged on occasion of the unfaithfulness of Helen, one of Leda’s chicks. The fratricide is represented through another pair of chicks: Castor and Polydeukes. Also on da Vinci’s painting the hardly hatched mortals are already attacking each other. And the role of the fourth chick is played by Agamemnon, who was murdered by Helen’s (twin) sister Clytemnestra (in Aeschyles’ version).

In that ‘Agamemnon dead’ resounds still another reproach to the deed of begetting. In ‘Among schoolchildren’ W.B. Yeats complains the ‘youthful mother’ ‘honey of generation had betrayed’:

What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap (...)
that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape (...)
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With sixty or more winters on its head,
A compensation for the pang of his birth
Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?

What the honey-sweet ‘shudder in the loins’ engenders, is not so much life, rather death. Not to mention all those minor burdens that the poor mortals lift on their shoulders for the lust of one moment’s sake. In the short term the ’pang of birth’. In the somewhat longer term: the care for their progeny ‘that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape (…)’. And at long last the growing realisation that all these offers have been in vain: we only beget to doom to death. For the sole taste of honey’s sake!

No wonder that love recoils in the face of such dreadful perspective! W.B. Yeats, though, never speaks out this truth. He rather prefers to state without any further explanation that love is merely an transient transport – or to phrase it with Schopenhauer: a cunning of nature that is merely out at eternal reproduction. Time and again W.B. Yeats stresses the transience of love. In ‘Never give all the heart’ he holds that:

it fades from kiss to kiss;
for everything that’s lovely is,
but a brief, dreamy, kind delight

That is precisely why he warns us ‘Never give all the heart’. With as an encore:

‘He that made this knows all the cost,
for he gave all his heart and lost’

Which of course causes the soul to leave her limbs, as in ‘The lady’s second song’:

Soul must learn a love that is
Proper to my breast,
Limbs a love in common
With every noble beast.

Which again sheds a new light to the swan as ‘the noble beast’


Also in ‘the Mother of God’ a woman is impregnated by a bird, equally ‘wings beating about the room’. Although this time it is a dove, and although this time not a daughter is hatched, but a son. Destined to death by his very father

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?

Herein W.B. Yeats joins a tradition that we swept under the carpet to allow ourselves a rapid transition from Antiquity to the Renaissance. But just as only as a metamorphosis of Mary Venus is reborn on Botticelli’s painting, just so the genuflection of da Vinci’s Leda before her eggs is a nearly concealed echo of Mary falling on her knees before her son Jesus. Who was brought to the world to redeem us of the sins of precisely the fratricidal twins that hatched from the swan’s eggs…


unheimliches © SB

Indulging in the kind of love he has in common with ‘every noble beast’ leads to man’s fall. The endeavour to break the fall unleashes the perverse move. The tempestuousness wherewith the unruly procreative violence, embodied in the flapping of the wings of dove and swan alike, is enforcing itself, unleashes an even stronger unwillingness to surrender. For only at first sight does W.B. Yeats negate Renaissance’s perverse strivings. In fact W.B. Yeats faces us with the central conflict that sets alight the perverse fire, while at the same time allowing the perverse counter-move to expand in ever wider circles.

To begin with, Leda is overpowered by a ‘noble beast’ and not by a mere man or god. The metamorphosis of man into bird releases the male of precisely the source of all evil. And even when W.B. Yeats neutralised Michelangelo’s greedy swan neck to a compelling beak, the perversion literally returns through the back door: the catch in the nape implies an approach from behind. In ‘Crazy Jane talks with the Bishop’ (Words for Music Perhaps, VI) W.B. Yeats himself betrays what is performed there in the lower regions as the counterpart of the ‘nape caught in his bill’ and under the guise of a ‘shudder in the loins’:

Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement.

The obliteration of the penis is completed by the vagina’s metamorphosis into a cloaca.

But the repressed returns not only through anal channels. The process of desexualising strides further along a path that also here has been paved by painters. Michelangelo’s Leda is completely naked. The impression of nakedness is only enhanced in that Leda’s hair is covered with a skin-coloured headgear. And neither is there left any trace of the pubic hair: it is covered by the fan of the swan’s tail. Which only enhances the contrast between the white-feathered body of the swan and the utterly naked body of Leda. But the very sharpening of the contrast unravels a secret affinity. Precisely because Michelangelo smoothes away the difference between naked skin and hair, it all the more comes to catch the eye that Leda’s body ends up in a horny headgear – a nearly concealed echo of the way in which the feathered swan’s body changes in the horn of the beak. Such surreptitious assimilation of the ‘Ledaean body’ is further enhanced through Michelangelo’s emphasis on those wriggling fingers and those remarkably agile limbs. Also da Vinci’s Leda seems eager to become a swan: he lets her whole body – la figura serpentina – balance in opposite directions alongside diverse axes. An echo of the above described convolutions that had to be performed to make Leda’s and the swan’s body match?

But the metamorphosis of Leda in a swan does not halt with the smoothing out of her hair and the voluptuous posture of her body: Leda also lays eggs. That seems to go for itself. But on a closer look we would rather expect eggs when a human male impregnates a female bird. When, conversely, a bird impregnates a woman, it would be more obvious that she would cuddle little swans in her womb, until at last little swan beaks would protrude from the vagina rather than children’s heads – in a variant of the story it is Nemesis that lays the scorned eggs… after her previous transformation in a goose. Not only in her alluring demeanour and her voluptuous gestures has Leda become a swan, her metamorphosis comprises her organs as well: she lays eggs and has become a bird. The metamorphosis from vagina to cloaca was only a prelude to the metamorphosis from mammal to winged bird, the sequel to Zeus’ becoming a swan.


leda bacchiaca

Also W.B. Yeats seems to be ridden by the desire to smooth away every difference between the swan and Leda. The metamorphosis of the loving couple into a couple of birds is an old dream of W.B. Yeats’. Does he not sing in 'The white birds':

‘For I would we were changed to white birds on the wandering foam: I and you!’

With W.B. Yeats, the smoothing away of the difference between man and animal seems to encompass the smoothing away of the difference between man and woman. An obvious solution is their metamorphosis into a swan. It is rather impossible to tell a male swan from a female: both share a virginal front. And that sheds a new light on the fact that it is Zeus that presses Leda’s breast against his: ‘he holds her helpless breast upon his breast’. On the Hellenistic relief Zeus does not press Leda’s breast against his breast but Leda’s face. And this is also the case in a former version of the first quatrain:

A rush, a sudden wheel, and hovering still
The bird descends, and her frail thighs are pressed
By the webbed toes, and that all-powerful bill
Has laid her helpless FACE upon his breast.

Leda’s face upon Zeus’ breast: this immediately reminds us of a mother breast-feeding her child. But it is not Leda who breast-feeds Zeus as on Bacchiaca's painting above. It seems as if through his metamorphosis into a swan Zeus is at the same time turned into a mother. As if the desire of the mouth, that the beak had to give up to catch Leda in the nape for copulation’s sake, surfaces again in the shape of the nipples growing out of the breast of the swan – which, otherwise than with mammals, shows no sexual difference between male and female.

But W.B. Yeats must have been equally disturbed by the difference between mother and child as by the difference between man and woman. That is why in the second version is restored the reciprocity that previously existed between beak and lips: Zeus no longer presses Leda’s head against his breast, but her breast against his. To be more precise: his breast without breasts against Leda’s breast with two breasts. And to also smooth away this last asymmetry, they both feel the same in that region: if not each others bosom, than at least each other heart beating!

And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

Which immediately reminds us of the already quoted verses from ‘The lady’s second song’:

‘Soul must learn a love that is
proper to my breast,
limbs a love in common
with every noble beast’

Whereas on the level of the limbs protrusion and hole oppose one another, on the level of the soul two hearts feel one another's beating. From beast to breast, the journey goes through three stations: from sperm, through milk, to blood. From the feeding breast to the beating - pumping - heart: such shift is indicated in the already cited verses from ‘The mother of God’ where Mary complains about her godly son:

This fallen star my milk sustains,
This love that makes my heart’s blood stop

A similar shift is at work in Luca della Robbia’s Leda, where the swan is not out at Leda’s breast, but rather at the place beneath it where Christ shows his wound:

leda della robbia

And that is how Leda turns into something of a Jesus Christ. Who in his turn is often represented as a pelican feeding his young with the blood flooding from his heart – the very reversal of the image of Mary with the divine child on her breast. It seems as if we are landed up in a veritable whirl of the sexes and the generations.

But there is more. The first version sheds a new light on some oddities in the second version, that otherwise might have inadvertently escaped our attention. With the image of a swan descending from heavens in mind, we are ready to read the ‘in’ in ‘laid in that white rush’ as a ‘by’. But that very same ‘in’ cannot fail to suggest that it is not the swan, but Leda who descends from heavens ‘in that white rush’. And that lends only its full weight to the wording in the second quatrain of the first version where Leda is bluntly laid ‘on’ that white rush:

How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs!
All the stretched body's laid on the white rush
And feels the strange heart beating where it lies.

In line with such increasing osmosis of the sexes lies a second shift. In the first version ‘body’ refers to Leda’s face pressed on Zeus’ breast . But in the second version ‘body’ refers to the embracing bodies as such - Leda’s body as well as the body of her swan:

And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?

The incipient metamorphosis of Leda turns out to be the mere prelude to a further metamorphosis: Zeus’ transformation in a woman/mother and Leda’s concomitant transformation in a man. Or to be more precise: both come to partake of the hermaphrodite by incorporating each other. And hence can eternally entwine, like Aristofanes spherical beings, hinted at in the verses:

‘For nothing can be sole or whole
that has not been rent’

which – significantly enough – immediately follow the already cited ‘Love’s mansion in the place of excrement’ (Crazy Jane and the Bishop). Also in ‘Among School Children’ the reunification in the egg is described:

and it seemed that our two natures blent,
into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato’s parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell

The hermaphrodite is only a figure of the denegation of multiplicity as such. Its completion is the self-sufficient solitary – the one and only God – hinted at in ‘A prayer for my daughter” where ‘the soul’ learns at last

that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
and that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;

And so we have laid bare all the roots and ramifications of Yeats’ magnificent image. It appears that W.B. Yeats has with unparalleled mastery condensed the central conflict of human existence, far more concisely - since brought to a head - than da Vinci and Michelangelo.

With this reading in mind, many an accepted interpretation rather evaporates. Foremost Yeats’ own interpretation. He believed that the age of democracy was going to its end and that a government ‘from above’ would be installed to subdue the anarchic masses, as in Russia. But W.B. Yeats himself betrays how, when working on his Leda, he was so caught by the image of the bird and the girl, that ‘all politics went out of it’ (Cullingford). And we readily believe him. Did he not write himself (in ‘Politics’):

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?

And the same holds of other interpretations: from the Platonic, through the Nietzschean, the… , to the feministic (Cullingford). Idem for the interpretations of Michelangelo’s Leda. Whatever might have been the meaning intended within the context of Alfonse d’Este’s diplomacy (Wallace), every attempt to reduce the meaning of this work to mere diplomatic symbolism would overlook that already da Vinci had introduced the new theme within a totally different context. Here we stumble on the ‘immanent’ lecture of genuine art, which is out at throwing off the yoke of symbolism laid upon its shoulders (see: 'Are Rubens and Beuys colleagues?').

Which did not prevent W.B. Yeats from giving a transcendental twist to the very image he so brilliantly knew to bring to a head and at the same time to amplify. Did he not let it end on the question: ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power?’ Whereby he caused his creation to become vulnerable: after all no human creation is perfect. We already described how a second asymmetric partition overlapped a first symmetric one. Were it not for the overall rhythm of the sonnet to ask for its further unrolling, the breath of Yeats’ image has irrevocably breathed its last when also Agamemnon has given up the ghost. Perhaps a vague consciousness of such a rupture induced W.B. Yeats to typographically separate the second half of the last verse of the first half of the sestet and to refer it to the last – ‘added’ half.

I would like to spare myself the effort of answering Yeats’ question in terms of his worldview – which is utterly alien to mine. And I do so all the more eagerly, since also this addition is susceptible to a lecture that is perhaps rather non-Yeatsean, but nevertheless not less imposed by the logic of his own image. On its wings the swan is carried into the skies, but with its webs it paddles in the waters - where the cold-blooded fishes reign. The skies and the waters wherein the amphibious swan is at home are thus opposed to the earth. And even though also a swan can waggle on its webs: it is man that naturally walks on the earth’s surface. Only from the surrounding waters and skies – the outer-human world – does the ‘brute blood of the air – come to invade man’s world and make him – Leda – stagger, if not fall as if (s)he were a second Eve.

Against this background the question ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power?‘ acquires a new meaning. At first sight its seems to fit the classic opposition between man as spirit versus woman as body, which without doubt governed the (also political) conceptions of W.B. Yeats, as is evidenced by ‘on Woman’, where it is written:

May God be praised for woman
That gives up all her mind…

But in the light of that damned ‘honey of generation’, an unexpected overtone comes to accompany those ominous words. God in the shape of a swan - that is no less than the reproductive drive, that willy-nilly pursues its own goals without bothering about the poor, blind mortals abused as mere instruments. Merciless does it load a heavy burden on the shoulders of the very men and women that think to dedicate themselves to love and equally merciless does it deliver them to war, decay and death. Alongside the entire way of the Cross, poor overpowered Leda – in this lecture as well as in the ancient one: mankind – lets herself deceive through ever new chimera’s, whispering into her ears that man can pursue his own - human - goals: if not the divine ‘shape on the lap’, then at least the merger via the ‘loosening thighs’, or if need be ‘the feel of the heart beating’ – and since this is doomed to remain utterly ‘strange’ – at last: 'self-delight’. In this second lecture of ‘Leda and the swan’ no longer the sexes are opposed: the divine and beastly rape the human. Before being the metamorphosis of Mary and her dove, Leda (da Vinci’s ‘figura serpentina’) and the swan (‘the brute blood of the air’) are the metamorphosis of Eve and the serpent (‘the cold blood of the waters’). The feathered swan in the skies as the counterpart of the slimy snake in the waters. Or the cold-blooded fish: after all, just like the swan has to waggle on man’s earth, so the serpent can only snake on it.

And herein is to be found the very power of this poem and the merit of its poet. For according to the good old romantic tradition the poet, not otherwise than Leda for the swan, is only the vehicle of a wisdom that manages to edge its way through the musings of the poet. And – as is already implicit in the structure of this essay – W.B. Yeats did not succeed on his own. He is merely the last - albeit the supreme - link in a long chain of forebears, that one after another laid bare ever new coordinates wherein the constituent forces of the image come to nestle. Until they are condensed in a dynamic whole of strongly opposing forces. Which is a pinnacle that cannot be surpassed anymore. Similar highlights are the Don Giovanni of Mozart and da Ponte. Or better still: the Salome of Oscar Wilde and Richard Strauss. For the latter has in common with W.B. Yeats’ Leda that it were equally painters who paved the way.

It suffices to cast a glance on the countless Ledas painted since Michelangelo to convince oneself of that truth. Only in Yeats’ sonnet did Michelangelo’s Leda find its accomplishment. And no poet will probably ever surpass it.

© Stefan Beyst, October 2002

* Enzo Michelangeli was so kind to send me the following comment: 'One might also note that the Italian vulgar name for penis, "cazzo", is thought to be derived from "ocazzo", pejorative form of "oco", which is an obsolete form for "gander", i.e. the masculine of "oca" (goose). See also its milder name "uccello" (bird) and of course the English "cock".'

**cited from Cullingford.


BEGHELLI, Chiara: 'Leonardo and the myth of Leda. Models, memories and metamorphosis of an invention', Telematic Bulletin of Art, September 1th 2001, n. 281.
CULLINGFORD, Elizabeth Butler: "Pornography and Canonicity: The Case of Yeats' `Leda and the Swan,'" in Representing Women: Law, Literature, and Feminism, ed. Susan Sage Heinzelman and Zipporah Batshaw Wiseman (Durham: Duke Univ. Press, 1994), 165-87.
FINNERAN, Richard J. (Editor): 'The Collected Works of W.B. Yeats Volume I: The poems' Revised Second Edition (Paperback)
HARGROVE, Nancy D. "Esthetic Distance in Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan'.", The Arizona Quarterly 39 (1983): 235-45.
HOLSTAD, Scott C.: 'Yeats's 'Leda and the Swan': Psycho-Sexual Therapy in Action, Notes on Modern Irish Literature.
WALLACE, W.E.: 'Michelangelo's Leda: the diplomatic context' in: Renaissance Studies Volume 15, Issue 4, December 2001: pp. 473-499.


The Yeats Society
Becky Villarreal
Michael Lahanas
Jeff Cleff

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