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The rape of Leda

November 4, 2011

“William Butler Yeat’s poem ‘Leda and the Swan’ is about rape.”

There is a part of me that wants to disagree with the above statement. Of course, given the text of the poem itself, doing so is somewhat impossible:

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?

Ever so often I find myself silently reciting one of the above lines and become slightly disturbed. It’s a disturbing poem, after all. It’s disturbing because it describes a rape in such a sensual way that you both feel the heightened emotions described and take pleasure in that feeling. You’ll feel the sensual power of the poem if you don’t just read the words off the page (I would say “if you read them out loud” but really you can achieve the same effect by reading them aloud silently, so to speak). The reasons for this are myriad; it has to do with how Yeats uses rhyme, alliteration, assonance, rhythm, enjambment, … , all those techniques that make for a fruitful close reading.

Such a reading would be fun but I’d rather not do one here, now. My point is this: the poem is not just about rape, or even primarily. It’s also, and more importantly, about the relationship between human and divine. The rape of Leda becomes a symbol for how the divine inserts itself into the human world and the tragic consequences of that insertion. This doesn’t mean we can ignore the sexual aspect of the poem, of course, but it does mean that they are subordinate; the poem is written from within a tradition (the Christian one) in which our relationship with the divine is described as erotic precisely because human sexuality is seen as an image for that relationship.

Of course this doesn’t make the poem less disturbing. I would say rather that the way in which it is not about rape makes it more disturbing; the poem doesn’t just present us with a localized dilemma–“how can we find beautiful a description of a morally repugnant act?”–but rather forces us to confront a philosophical and theological paradox–“how can God be good if he made man evil?”

The question the poem poses in the last four lines can be elaborated as follows: When Zeus raped Leda, her gave her and, more importantly, her children a measure of divine power; it was this power that brought about both untold destruction (through the destruction of Troy and murder of Agamemnon–the first brought about by Helen, Zeus’ daughter, the second by Clytaemnestra, not Zeus’ daughter but still somehow a result of the same act) and the beginning of history and poetry (for Yeats the age of Greek civilization began with Leda’s children–as the Christian age began with Christ–and Yeats would have considered poetry to have begun with Homer). All human greatness, then, comes out of violence. And this human dependence on violence is a result of divine violence; Leda’s rape was how it all began. So–what are we to make of this divine violence? Yeats suggests–but only suggests–that it could be seen as good only if humanity gained “knowledge” as well as “power” from the encounter.

This is, in a way, the standard question of theodicy (i.e. why is there evil in the world?), and not that far away from the standard answer (i.e. that man must be allowed to sin because he must be allowed free will if he is not to be a slave). But it differs in several important respects. First, it does not frame the question in terms of sin and freedom, but in terms of power and knowledge. Second, it does not ask the question in order to justify God (Yeats doesn’t quite believe in God), but rather in order to determine whether humanity itself is good or evil. And third, because it does not distinguish clearly between God and nature; Zeus rapes Leda in the form of a swan, and the question posed at the end emphasizes that she is infused with the “brute blood of the air,” blood both animal and divine. These three differences, of course, can be summed up by saying that Yeats was a gnostic. And he was.

But his poem resonates whether or not his audience agrees with his philosophy, and presents an interesting challenge to those who don’t, in particular to those who (like me) are Christian. Yeats is obviously playing with the account in Genesis of the creation and fall of man and with the New Testament account of the redemption arrived at via Christ’s Incarnation. He suggests that all four are the same event: the creation of man was his fall and offered the potential for his redemption, because man is not just man, but a divine being made incarnate. And all of this was the result of an act of cosmic violence. Yeats is right, I think, in using rape as the image for what God does to man in the gnostic view. The Christian, on the other hand, sees the Church as the bride of Christ.

So what’s the problem? Well, this: the Christian image may be marriage, not rape, but a lot of Christian art about the subject is immensely violent. Some is violent in content: many stories by Flannery O’Connor, e.g. “Revelation”; many poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins, e.g. “The Wreck of the Deutschland” and “Carrion Comfort”; heck, John Donne’s “Batter my heart” sonnet is even explicitly sexual in its violence. If these are to be taken as exemplary Christian art, and not a perverse deviation from it, then what, exactly, Yeats the critic of Christianity asks, is the difference between their violence and that of the swan?

This is the kind of question it is easy to answer correctly and hard to answer to the critic’s satisfaction.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 5, 2011 11:40 am

    A very interesting commentary. I’m glad to see anyone discussing Yeats, Hopkins and Homer. Not sure about the Christian allusion but appreciate the thought provoking essay. Please keep writing. Tom Callahan

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