Beyond the Lines: Leda and the Swan
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?
In the midst of the invasion of Ukraine, which the world watched develop over weeks, knowing exactly what was going to happen, I rediscovered Yeats’s great and prescient “Leda and the Swan” with renewed fascination. This most violent of poems, presaging the tragedy at Troy, is paradoxically created through opposing tension and harmony. The first two iambs of the initial line knock Leda to the ground, and kick us off our cognitive pedestal, reminding us of the innate power of the sonnet form. The remaining three iambs are three beats of wingspan above us, inducing terror before we even get to line 2.
This sonnet offers an orderly experience of dislocation, providing the reassurance of classical symmetry, instructing us in the sublime dread of witnessing divine presence, a reminder that to look on the deity is never a merely benign experience. Its cruelty is not arbitrary. For the Greeks, it’s fated, for Yeats, a wondering, much like that of his “Easter, 1916,” of how we bear up under historical events that seem nihilistic, but which we must fit within our desire for a cosmic plan from a God who may seem, at these times, indifferently permissive.
Signally, the rapacious swan may only be viewed by parts, line by line, never as a whole. Line 3: dark web and bill; line 4, breast; line 6, feathered glory; line 8, heart beating; line 9, shudder in the loins; line 14, indifferent beak. Yeats simulates, almost as with a hand-held camera of cinema verité, the disorder of a series of visual close- ups, and the merciful parsing out of the godhead into pieces, lest the witnessing subject get annihilated by the whole contemplation of ultimate knowledge.
The final sextet, the classical turn, transitions to the “broken wall” of Troy, and Yeats, characteristically brilliant in the micro-architecture of the sonnet form, literally breaks line eleven, to remind us that the poem is finally about the force of foreknowledge in the midst of savagery. The real question of “Leda and the Swan” is whether Leda’s recompense for mandatory proximity with the metamorphosed Zeus is to take on, if for an instant, the contours of the divine mind. The poem asks whether we humans are willing, or even able, to contemplate the ultimate consequences of the tragedies in which we are implicated. If we “put on his knowledge with his power,” all at once omnipotent rather than vassals, how would we handle that mandate?
Yeats uses the torque of myth and poetry to re-frame, metaphysically, the question of learning from history, in order to avoid repeating it. When one expresses the wish to learn, one should first remember that true knowledge is often frightening, a sudden blow. To make use of it, first you have to survive it.
Johnny Payne is Director MFA in Creative Writing at Mount Saint Mary's University in Los Angeles. He has published two previous volumes of poetry, as well as ten novels. In addition, he writes and direct plays in Los Angeles and elsewhere. His plays have been produced professionally and on university stages.