Power, Lust, and Swans

TRIGGER WARNING: Sexual assault. Please read with caution if you are sensitive to this topic. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can be reached at 1-800-656-4673.

Leda and the Swan, a lost painting by Michelangelo

“How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?”

Yeats’ Leda and the Swan does not bring to mind nature, nor the complexity of time. It does not strike me as a quintessentially “Yeats” poem, contemplating the duality of opposition or calling for pacifism. Leda and the Swan batters me with the reality and brutality of sexual assault. The aggressive diction replicates the hatred and aggression with which these acts are committed. Leda is “helpless” against that dark swan, incapable of escaping his violence, yet the swan is described as “indifferent.”

“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?”

The brute blood of the air, the metallic taste of pain which cannot be spoken. Yeats’ poem beautifully identifies the very essence of assault. Her misplaced guilt hangs in the air. She wonders if she had done anything to provoke such an attack. The use of the word “power” highlights her innocence, yet she can’t help but to question her own actions. The perpetrator is indifferent, because assault is not a matter of lust, but of power.

The Fault in Michelangelo’s Depiction

Michelangelo’s painting depicts a naked woman kissing the swan. She seems relaxed, even pleased, by the events of the night. This painting places fault on Leda, as if she were complicate in the violence. The taboo of bestiality is thrown around Leda, as if she fell prey to sinful lust, as if she had a choice. Perhaps a more accurate accurate depiction would be the engraving by L. Garreau. The power that the swan exerts over Leda is aggressively clear, and her helplessness is tangible. Yeats’ poem does not romanticize the assault; on the contrary, it demonizes the swan. It does not forgive Leda but rather refuses to place any blame on her to require forgiveness in the first place.

File:Leda and the swan. Engraving by L. Garreau after J. Verkolye Wellcome V0048212.jpg
“Leda and the Swan” Engraving by L. Garreau

The Significance of a Question Mark

The punctuation in Leda and the Swan paints a picture of the experience of a sexual assault. Pauses, questions, and false stops before it is truly over. The colon following “A sudden blow” marks the beginning of the event. The commas are like struggled breaths throughout. The period after he subdues her, holding her to him, illustrates the finality of what is to come: she cannot escape. It is not until Agamemnon is dead, the warrior, her son, that it is all over. The period ends the assault, and the break in the text begins the healing process. She asks herself if this is her fault, and the poem is ended with a final question mark. The significance of a simple question mark ending the poem rather than a period is that it demonstrates that, although the physical event is over, she is not free from the damage that is to come. The healing process begins with her question: could she have prevented this?

Leda and the Swan does not address greater existence. It does not speak to the relationship between the past and present, nor does it romanticize nature. It focuses on the savagery, the depravation of sexual assault. It does not attempt to reach for a bigger picture, because there isn’t one. Yeats describes it as, “The broken wall, the burning roof and tower.” Sexual assault is burning, unrelenting. The poem is deeply uncomfortable, and for that I applaud Yeats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *