Leda and the swan

Ledas and swans were a central theme in the poetry of William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), who rewrote his famous sonnet several times before creating the version widely known today. The poem may have been inspired by an early Roman marble relief from Argos, now in the British Museum.

The enormous bird of the relief balances with outstretched wings above the curled-up female figure, her neck clasped in its beak as its webbed foot melds into her thigh. Leda slightly lifts her left ankle, her hand is hidden from view – she may be reaching for her mantle that has fallen between her legs, perhaps fending off (or assisting?) the god.

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?

The second part of the sonnet illustrates Yeats’s poetic genius: the elliptical structure, the ambiguous meaning and the rhetorical question transform Leda, having encountered the divine, from rape victim into a shaper of history.

Ancient representations of the union between the Spartan queen and Zeus assuming the form of a swan also vary. For instance, a 4th century BC Apulian red-figure vase simultaneously places the scene in the sphere of love and divine initiation through death.

In the upper register, Zeus is about to embark on his adventure, turning to Aphrodite for help: the goddess, with a mischievous Eros in her arm, holds an iynx, a charm for seduction.

Below, Leda embraces the swan, which is striving towards her, with an almost maternal tenderness. Her companions have abandoned her, only Hypnos, Sleep, stands by her side, guiding her with his wand to another world.

There is a hole at the bottom of the vase which indicates it was never intended to be used as a container, but to decorate the tomb – in the context of the graveyard, the encounter of Leda and Zeus becomes linked with the passage to the afterlife.

William Butler Yeats: Leda and the Swan (1924).
Featured and top: Marble relief with Leda and the swan. From Argos, 50–100 AD. London, British Museum, 1973,0302.1 © The Trustees of the British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Bottom: Apulian red-figure vase, attributed to the Louvre MNB 1148 Painter. Ca. 330 BC. Malibu, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 86.AE.680. CC0 / Image available under the Getty’s Open Content Program.
Leda And The Swan. Royal Ballet, London, 2014. Choreography: Kim Brandstrup. Dancers: Zenaida Yanowsky and Tommy Franzen. Poems: William Butler Yeats, Leda and the Swan, The Mother of God read by Fiona Shaw. Music: Nico Muhly. Cinematography: Stephen Standen.

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