Study Guide

Leda and the Swan Sex

By William Butler Yeats


her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast. (line 2-4)

All these things seem to be happening at once. The different parts of the swan – the "dark webs" of his feet, his "bill" and "breast" – act as if independently of one another to trap Leda on multiple fronts.

The feathered glory from her loosening thighs? (line 6)

"Feathered glory"? The word "glory" reminds us that the swan is a god in disguise. Yeats performs a delicate balancing act between revealing enough information so that we don't have to guess at what he's talking about, but not revealing so much that his audience would consider the poem lewd.

And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies? (lines 7-8)

The swan moves swiftly and gracefully like a river. This "white rush" overwhelms Leda and begins to weaken her psychological defenses. She opposes the rape, yet Yeats seems to imply that she manages to notice the heartbeat of the animal on top of her. The speaker remarks on this shift with a question: "How could she not feel it?"

A shudder in the loins engenders there (line 9)

To "engender" means to create or bring to life: Zeus impregnates Leda. The "shudder in the loins" clearly refers to the completion of the sexual act. It's not certain whose loins are "shuddering." When it comes to body parts in this poem, Yeats frequently leaves out the possessive pronouns like "his" or "hers."

Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? (line 14)

Zeus adopts the animal nature of the swan and acts "indifferent" toward Leda once he has gotten what he wanted. He has no human emotions to express to her and doesn't care about what happens to her. He has been holding her by the back of the neck, and now he releases her to the ground.