Leda and the Swan
by William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939
Yeats' friend Lady Gregory recorded in her journal for September 17, 1923:
Yeats talked of his long belief that the reign of democracy is over for the present, and in reaction there will be violent government from above, as now in Russia, and is beginning here. It is the thought of this force coming into the world that he is expressing in his Leda poem, not yet quite complete. He sat up till 3 o'c this morning working over it, and read it to me as complete at midday, and then half an hour later I heard him at it again.
Yeats, already a famous poet, was 58 years old, and a working politician — a Senator in the newborn Irish Free State. He was living at 82 Merrion Square in Dublin. The bitter and bloody Irish Civil War had been over only a few weeks, and themes of violence, especially of things being engendered by violence, were much on Yeats's mind. Bullets had been fired through the windows of his house.
The poem was published in at least three slightly different forms. I have taken this one from the Collected Poems, ed. Richard J. Finneran. The classical background is the legend of Leda being raped by Zeus, who came to her in the form of a swan. Out of this union came Helen, cause of the Trojan war — the broken wall, etc. of the poem's closing lines.
I reviewed Roy Foster's very fine biography of Yeats for the Claremont Review of Books, here.
• Play the reading
• Text of the poem
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?