Yeats’s ‘Leda and the Swan’:
Psycho-Sexual Therapy in Action
W.B. Yeats’s heavily anthologized poem, Leda and the Swan, can be read in
endless ways: as a political poem, a poem influenced by Nietzsche’s idea of Will to
Power, a poem of knowledge ultimately achieved through violence. Is the poem simply
referr ing to a myth? Is it addressing historical determinism? Critical methodologies
attempt to address these issues and more in their treatments of Leda and the Swan.
However, to understand fully the poem and its implications, a formal close reading of th
e text must be combined with supplementary biographical information to inform a final
psychoanalytic reading of the poem. An understanding of the events surrounding Yeats’s
life, then, will contribute to a textual analysis to show that the poem can be re ad as
Yeats’s own particular rape fantasy, in which Maud Gonne is Leda and Yeats himself the
swan; and in displacing his frustrations into the poem, Yeats turns destructive impulses
into a constructive thing of beauty.
Leda and the Swan is a sonnet, one of the most precise forms of literature
known. An interesting paradox emerges, however, at first glance. The poem is written
in a traditional form (sonnet), using a traditional rhyme scheme, yet the subject matter
i s extremely non-traditional (violent rape as opposed to the usual love sonnets). This
paradox is representative of the many oppositional elements which abound in the text and
which help form the basis for understanding the oppositions which influence bot h Yeats
and the poem.
The rhyme scheme is traditional (ABAB CDCD EFG EFG) yet interestingly imperfect
in that four of the rhymes are not perfect: push and rush, up and drop
(Hargrove 244). This again is another oppositional element, typical of Yeats, and could
be seen to symbolize the opposition between Yeats, the last Romantic, and Yeats, the
A transition exists in the poem’s language, from an aggressive intensity to a
vague passive distance. The language in the beginning of the poem sets the tone of an
aggressive sense of urgency. Priscilla Washburn Shaw makes an excellent point when she
The action interrupts upon the scene at the beginning with ‘a sudden blow,’ and
again, in the third stanza, with ‘a shudder in the loins.’ It may seem inaccurate to say
that a poem begins by an interruption when nothing precedes, but the effect of t he
opening is just that (36).
The effect of this device is that it draws the spectator/narrator, and subsequently the
reader, into the action and into the poem.
The action continues for the first three lines of the first quatrain. Yeats
doesn’t bother with a full syntax until the final line of the quatrain, at which point,
the urgency relaxes (Hargrove 240). The language in the first full quatrain is
represent ative of the opposition inherent in the poem; in this case, between intensity
and distance (Hargrove 240).
The imagery, and wording in general, in Leda is also representative, in an
initial reading, of oppositional elements within the text. A first reading shows Leda
described in concrete terms and the swan in abstract terms. Leda is the staggering
girl and the poem refers to Her thighs, her nape, her helpless breast, and her
loosening thighs. The swan is never actually called Zeus or even the Swan (in fact,
Agamemnon is the only name mentioned in the body of the poem). The swan is described as
great wings, dark webs, that white rush, blood, indifferent beak, and
A second reading of the poem, however, shows that ambiguities do exist. The
concrete and abstract merge. Generalized terms are used for Leda (terrified vague
fingers) and concrete terms for the swan (wings, bill, beak). The purpose of this
ambiguity could be, as Nancy Hargrove explains, to stress that the god is, after all, a
real, physical swan engaged in a physical act (241). Regardless, this ambiguity is,
again, representative of the conflict within the poem.
Verbs play a major role in understanding Leda and the Swan. They are present
tense through the octave and the first part of the sestet (holds, push, feel,
engenders). They then shift to past tense in the last part of the sestet (caught,
ma stered, Did) (Hargrove 241). The verbs in the present tense imply an intense
immediacy while those in the past tense distance the reader (and perhaps the aggressor
as well) from what has just occurred. Additionally, as Nancy Hargrove points out, ther
e is a juxtaposition between active and passive verbs so that the active verb forms
(holds, engenders) belong to the swan while passive verb forms (caressed,
caught, mastered) belong to Leda (241). The verb forms, then, play an active role
in c ontributing to a close textual reading.
Yeats continuously makes use of various devices to further heighten ambiguous,
oppositional, and dramatic elements within his poetry. In his minimal use of the
possessive adjective, and the consequently greater use of somewhat unusual alternative
for ms, Yeats achieves effects which are curiously suspended between the concrete and
the general (Shaw 37), thus highlighting the ambiguities in the text. Further still,
the linguistic suggestiveness of the absence of any qualifiers for ‘body’ is consider
able (Shaw 37). It is considerable in that it makes us even more aware of the
ambiguities (whose body?). It linguistically suggests the lack of an identity; it is
essentially a dehumanizing element.
While the subject matter of the poem is violent and disturbing, the structure of
Leda conveys feelings of safety and beauty. Hargrove submits that the intensity of
the rape is controlled by the narrow confines of the sonnet, an aesthetically pleasing
and heavily structured art form (242). Douglas Archibald asserts, The sonnet form
achieves for ‘Leda’ this: violence and historical sweep held in one of the most
tightly controlled of poetic forms (196). The violence of the rape is then controlled
within the constraints of the sonnet. Additionally, the sonnet itself is brief, thus
ensuring the rape will be brief as well.
While the rape is controlled through the structure of the poem, the organization
of the poem reflects in an orderly manner the progress of the rape (Hargrove 243).
The first quatrain presents the assault. The second quatrain reflects Leda’s emotions.
The first half of the sestet presents the ejaculation scene. The cut line represents a
dramatic moment in time: a death-like silence. The final part of the sestet shows the
act receding into memory while posing the question of meaning (Hargrove 243).
Yeats makes use of several technical devices to convey the intensity of what is
being portrayed in the poem. Among these devices are alliteration (brute blood),
iambic pentameter, and the meter in general. Bernard Levine notes that no regular
metric al pattern exists but there is a pervading rhythmic base in which verbal stress
displaces the accent-guided line (116). Nancy Hargrove elaborates by showing that the
imitates the gasping and throbbing pulsations of the rape by its irregularity,
its sudden sharp caesuras, its sentences spilling over from line to line, its
dramatic broken lines in the sestet, its piling of stressed syllables (243).
The ambiguities in Leda imply a confrontation both real and imagined, physical
and intellectual. Bernard Levine addresses the ambiguity surrounding the staggering
girl in line three. Staggering as intransitive participle means that the girl is li
terally physically staggering, but the transitive verb form shows that she staggers
the mind (of the swan), so to speak (115). Levine addresses another ambiguity in the
connotation of the word still in line one. The bird is described (we assume) a s
having just dropped down on Leda, yet the word still implies a timeless continuity
The text, then, presents the rape scene, painting a vivid and terrifying picture
of its aggressive violence and its subsequent transition to passivity. The text also
shows a pattern of oppositions and ambiguities which are manifestations of a series of
conflicts between the material world and the spiritual world: the physical and the
intellectual. Nancy Hargrove remarks that the apparent opposition between abstract and
concrete is representative of that between human and divine (235). Shaw views it in a
more personal light: as the opposition between self and world (35).
The oppositions inherent within the text, and the subsequent series of conflicts
which they represent, are important in that they are manifestations of and parallels to
oppositional conflicts occurring in Yeats’s own life. The violent textual rape is th e
result of his inability to reconcile these personal conflicts and the poem, then, is an
example of Yeats displacing his frustration, and doing so in a positive and safe manner.
If this assertion is indeed accurate, Leda and the Swan would be consiste nt with
Yeats’s later poems. Edmund Wilson writes, The development of Yeats’s later style
seems to coincide with a disillusionment (17). Cleanth Brooks argues that Yeats
proposed to substitute a concrete, meaningful system, substituting symbol as a way of
combating harsh, technical reality (69). Leda is consistent with the assertions.
And, the key to the reality Yeats is attempting to address is Maud Gonne.
Maud Gonne was a militant Irish nationalist with whom Yeats was very much in
love, and who appeared as a tortured image in much of his poetry. She gave herself
completely to her country and expected the same type of nationalistic dedication from
Yeats. They loved one another deeply but were never able to reconcile the differences
in their feelings. Maud Gonne loved Yeats in a platonic sense; Yeats desired a more
Both Yeats and Maud Gonne considered themselves mystics. They belonged to the
Heretic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society in which they attended seances. Maud
desired a pure spiritual life and felt that type of life precluded physical contact
(sex) w ith Yeats. Yeats aspired to a like belief system, but was unable to live up to
these idealized standards. Under these conditions, Yeats and Maud Gonne entered into a
spiritual marriage. Bernard Levine explains that The marriage was based on a commun
ication through dream correspondence and astral vision (controlled release of spiritual
tension) (127). Levine suggests this spiritual marriage was the background and
psychological excuse for the writing of ‘Leda and the Swan’ (125). Well before the
poem was written, Maud Gonne had become an identifiable entity in Yeats’s poetry. In
fact, Geoffrey Thurley refers to the poem as another Maud/Helen poem (165). Levine
also states that Maud had become identified with Helen (the mythological daughter of
Leda) as early as 1908 (125) and goes on to identify Maud with Leda as well (126).
Consistent with his penchant for myth-as-metaphor, and mythology in general,
Yeats declared sexual desire to be a myth. Yet, at the same time, he wrote that he
used to puzzle Maud Gonne by always avowing ultimate defeat as a test and he believed
that his spiritual love for Maud could never be consummated except through sexual
union, supporting the idea that the ‘mystic way and sexual love’ are inextricably
related (Levine 125, 127). This conflict serves as an example of the type of
opposition Yea ts could never reconcile and which would later manifest itself in Leda
and the Swan.
Yeats viewed Maud Gonne as having achieved purity and felt as though he too
should be above sexual longing. Levine argues that, unable to overcome his sexual
needs, Yeats had little alternative but to interpret his continual sexual longing as a
betrayal of Maud (128). Interestingly enough, Yeats kept a woman in London for a
time. Perhaps Yeats provides a good example for us of a man suffering from the
Virgin/Whore syndrome. The pure women in his life are untouchable and are
romanticized in his po etry while those who succumb to his needs are referred to as
harlots (Presences) (Levine 128).
Yeats’s sense of betrayal, coupled with his failed attempts to suppress
unacceptable desires, conceivably led to an enormous amount of guilt. In reference to
sexuality and guilt, Francis Oppel suggests that Yeats understood the psychology of
tragedy, in that orgasm (which engenders life and also equals death of sexual desire)
enables one to overcome pain and, by extension, guilt and death (122). This
overwhelming sense of guilt resulted in a disillusioned and angst-ridden Yeats, and the
resultant frust ration led to, as Joseph Hassett terms it, an overwhelming
preoccupation with hate (Introduction viii) and a sense of self hatred. This (self)
hatred led a despondent Yeats to contemplate suicide. Levine quotes Virginia Moore as
stating, Yeats dreame d that, walking along a path by a broken wall a precipice, he
felt dizzy and longed to throw himself over (130).
By Leda and the Swan, Yeats was preoccupied with death, both consciously and
unconsciously. Bernard Levine states simply that Because his relationship with Maud
Gonne remained unconsummated, Yeats’s imagination fastened quite decidedly in his
later years on the themes of sex and death (126). A bridge that Levine doesn’t seem to
wish to cross, however, is the idea that Yeats’s later themes do focus on sex and death
out of this sense of self hatred engendered by the guilt over his inability to live up
to Maud’s standards and, initially, by the frustration he felt over Maud’s unwillingness
to comply with his desires.
Some critics even contend that hate is Yeats’s generative principle. Joseph M.
Hassett contends that Yeats used his hate to penetrate the uncharted depths of his own
mind (Introduction viii). Ashok Bhargava (156) reaffirms this love-hate antithesis f
ound in later Yeats. Quite simply, Yeats consciously attempted to suppress his physical
desire and failed. This failure led to an unconscious resentment of the figure (Maud)
perceived as responsible for this resulting guilt/self hatred. This (repressed )
resentment resulted in violent tendencies and the rape scene in Leda is, finally, the
sublimation of sexual impulse.
Several instances exist to support the correlation between aspects of the
spiritual marriage and elements within the poem. Levine, again, cites Moore in noting
these instances. During the summer of 1908, Yeats saw a vision of Maud and himself
joined b y a ‘sort of phantom ecstasy,’ which was accompanied by an impression of a
swan floating in water. This was followed by a dream in which Maud reproached Yeats
because she could not break down some barrier (127). Another time Maud wrote that she
and Y eats had become one with ecstasy and Yeats had appeared to her triumphantly in a
dream, after which she woke to a gust of wind blowing in her room and a voice of an
archangel who announced that from her union a ‘great beauty may be born,’ once she had
been ‘purified by suffering’ (127, 128). There is evidence of other such examples.
Yeats, the idealistic Romantic, could not let go of the hope that Maud would one
day become a willing participant, physically. Yeats must have hoped that his persistent
passion and intensity would eventually persuade her to give in. Elements from the j
ust-noted example would support this hope and are found in the text of the poem: the
swan image, barrier image, the idea of unity through sexual union. At this point, could
Yeats’s unconscious have been softening the tone (and implications) of the rape in the
poem? These examples suggest that is indeed the case. Additionally, as previously
mentioned, the tone of the poem moves from aggressive to passive. Furthermore, a clue
which supports the idea of a hope Yeats harbored lies in the revision process . Richard
Ellman informs us that the poem went through several stages of revision. In earlier
versions, Yeats portrayed the scene as an inarguable rape in which Leda is mounted
(177). In the later, anthologized version of 1928, Leda has been given loo sening
thighs, suggesting a type of acquiescence on Leda’s part. The implication for this
shift, then, in language and tone in the final version of Leda and the Swan is that
the change is an example of Yeats displacing his fantasy that Maud Gonne woul d
eventually be swayed to engage him sexually and would become a willing, if passive,
participant. In the earlier versions, Yeats was displacing his aggression. In the
final revised version, Maud Gonne as Leda takes an active response role.
Finally, Leda and the Swan is a violent poem and can be seen as Yeats’s own
particular rape fantasy; however, it remains an object of beauty. A close reading of
the text focusing on the oppositions inherent within the poem, combined with an
understand ing of the circumstances surrounding Yeats’s spiritual marriage to Maud Gonne
shows the poem to be a manifestation of the conflict between reality and ideal, human
and divine that Yeats spent years trying to reconcile. The poem allows Yeats to
displace h is violent fantasies concerning Maud, yet it does so in a structured,
controlled manner (ensuring safety), and it allows Yeats to, finally, retain a certain
amount of romantic hope. Leda and the Swan was Yeats’s only realistic alternative to
the conflict in his life, and as a form of self therapy, it remains a nearly perfect
work of art.