William Butler Yeats's "Leda and the Swan" retells the story from Greek mythology of the rape of a girl named Leda by Zeus, the most powerful of the Greek gods. The "twist" of the story is that Zeus is disguised as a swan. Yeats presents this tale in a relatively graphic way, so modern readers may find the language disturbing. Stories about sex with animals were fairly common in classical societies like Ancient Greece, and the myth of Leda and the swan was once well known.
"Leda and the Swan" was published in Yeats's 1928 collection The Tower – one of the most celebrated and important literary works of the 20th century. The Tower includes other great poems like "Among Schoolchildren" and "Sailing to Byzantium."
The Tower was published five years after Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Yeats saved his best for last; he was in his 60s when he wrote this masterpiece. He was also serving in the Irish Senate at the time. If you're into bold statements of opinion, at least one major critic has called "Leda and the Swan" the greatest poem of the 20th century (source).
Yeats's poem was inspired by a Greek myth in which Zeus rapes Leda, the daughter of a king named Thestius. In many versions of the story, Zeus merely seduces Leda. This is definitely not the case in Yeats's graphic version. After the rape, Leda gets pregnant and gives birth to Helen of Troy. According to the story, Helen was hatched from an egg.
We need some background on Helen of Troy and the Trojan War before we get to "Leda and the Swan." Helen was the most beautiful woman in the world, and her abduction by a young man named Paris led to the Battle of Troy, the centerpiece of Homer's Iliad. Yeats's poem makes dramatic reference to the destruction of Troy. Yeats would also have been familiar with the many artistic depictions of the story of Leda and the swan by sculptors and painters like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Yeats is one of Ireland's most well-known and important poets. Some critics have interpreted "Leda and the Swan" as an allegory for the "rape" of Ireland by its colonial masters, the British. Other critics have found its depiction of rape to be tantalizing to the point of offensiveness. However you feel about it, there's no denying the beauty of Yeats's words, even if the actions they describe are horrible.
We should say a word about how we might view this poem from an ethical perspective. For one thing, if this were a poem about a sexual assault involving two human beings, there's no way that any poet could get away with using the sensual language that Yeats uses, and its unlikely that it would receive the critical reception that this poem has received. "Leda and the Swan" was probably intended to be erotic, and some scholars chose to view it that way. But that is not the only way this poem can be interpreted.
Myths—a lot of them, anyway—are weird. Once you start poking around into the those tales that the ancients told each other to explain how the world works, you get into a lot of really bizarre stuff: three-headed dogs, little goat-men, and Cyclopes just for starters. The Greeks, in particular, had a lot of wild stories, many of which involved their gods behaving badly.
Case in point: "Leda and the Swan."
So why should you care about Yeats's retelling of this admittedly brutal story? Well, for starters, it's a pretty bold move to try to recast something as violent and despicable as rape (even swan-rape) through the lens of art. One question this poem invites us to ponder is: what, exactly, is fair game for artistic content, and poetry in particular? Are there just some subjects that art should avoid altogether? Should Yeats have toned down the language to make it clear that what goes on in this poem is unethical in the extreme? Does the fact that this is an ancient myth somehow make the rape of Leda more acceptable to an audience? In what ways has our modern civilization evolved from the ancient world?
Yikes. Those are all big questions to ponder. Of course, if you're not into pondering, then you can also relate to the way this poem tackles the butterfly effect. You know, how one action begets a whole series of effects that occur later in time? In this case, Zeus turning into a swan and forcibly impregnating Leda resulted in the birth of Helen, over whom the Trojan War was fought. No Helen = no Trojan War. No Trojan War = no Iliad. No Iliad = the loss of a major work of classical literature by our man, Homer. How's that for a butterfly effect?
Yep, reading this poem will also remind how everything is, in some way, connected in a cosmic chain of cause-and-effect--even the stories we tell ourselves. And so, everything has meaning in an in inter-related web. Reading this poem is a useful reminder of that, even while it depicts an unsavory and oft-forgotten story from the ancient world. Thanks, W.B.