Today's poem is "Leda and the Swan" by William Butler Yeats, with commentary by Camille Paglia from her new book, BREAK, BLOW, BURN: CAMILLE PAGLIA READS FORTY-THREE OF THE WORLD'S BEST POEMS—just released from Pantheon Books.
Throughout BREAK, BLOW, BURN, Paglia does what each of us who reads and works on Knopf Poem-a-Day hopes to do: she renews poetry's vitality and place of centrality in our culture. (The action-packed words of the book's title are from John Donne.)
Paglia's discussion of each of the forty-three poems she presents—from the sonnets of Donne to Yeats to a song by Joni Mitchell—is no-nonsense, exuberant, rigorous, and celebratory. Academic jargon is nowhere to be found; Paglia's mission is to make these poems approachable and accessible in their full complexity. BREAK, BLOW, BURN provides intoxicatingly close readings by a fiercely provocative and generous diva.
Chapter Twenty-two follows in its entirety, ready for you to chew on and debate. Read on and you will discover Paglia's personal pick for "the greatest poem of the twentieth century."
Plus, additional links follow the text, including the official Web site for BREAK, BLOW, BURN, where Paglia proffers additional lists of her cultural favorites, from sculpture to scandal. There you can also find more excepts, Paglia's spring tour schedule, and a chance to WIN a signed first edition of the book.
William Butler Yeats
Leda and the Swan
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 5
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 10
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? 15
The theme of "Leda and the Swan," as of "The Second Coming," is the tragedy of history. Once again, a Yeats poem opens with a predatory bird, which now turns its violence against the human. In form, "Leda" is a rhyming sonnet that seems to have been physically traumatized. The first two quatrains float free, while the third section is cleft crosswise, its final segment dangling precariously, like Leda just before the swan drops her.
"A sudden blow": Zeus, the amorous king of the gods, swoops down in disguise from Olympus to take his pleasure, but the girl he targets experiences his desire as assault and battery. The poem begins with Metaphysical abruptness and rapidly unfolds in the present tense, drawing us into the scene. Like Leda, we are disoriented by a welter of sensory impressions, conveyed by multiplying participles ("beating," "staggering," "caressed," "caught") before we reach the clarifying subject ("He") in the fourth line. The myth of Leda and the swan was a popular romantic theme in Renaissance art (Leonardo and Michelangelo painted it), but the tale was treated as a charming, pastoral idyll and rarely if ever shown from the victim's point of view. In Yeats's version, womanizing is not a titillating sport but a ruthless expression of the will to power.
Despite their decorative association with delicacy and grace, swans are fierce and formidable creatures, as Yeats surely observed (he titled a 1919 book of poems The Wild Swans at Coole). The swan overwhelms and immobilizes Leda, "helpless" amid a grotesque profusion of wings and paddled feet (4). The swan seems both spidery ("dark webs") and serpentine, as he twists his long neck around to clamp her nape in his bill and pin their bodies together (3). "How can those terrified vague fingers push / The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?" (5-6). She is weak, confused, and perhaps blinded by a burst of divine light ("glory"). The phrase "loosening thighs" is ambiguous and provocative: have her strained muscles gone slack, or is there awakening complicity on her part? As with the earlier "caressed," a gentle stroking amid the commotion, the reader too is being seduced--toward voyeurism and away from honor and ethical judgment.
Nearly everything in the first half of the poem is tactile, including Leda's alarming sensation of the swan's "strange heart beating" next to hers (8). God is an alien beyond human emotions. The "white rush" in which Leda's body is "laid" (nestled in fluffy down as well as sexually conquered) is the bird's first strike as it forces past her feeble resistance, but it also describes Zeus's ecstatic ejaculation (7). While male swans (cobs) do have a small retractable penis, the coitus here seems to be of a god in incomplete metamorphosis: his own penis may remain magically intact.
But this is only one episode in an epic saga. Zeus has a purpose, and Leda is his instrument. "A shudder in the loins engenders there / The broken wall, the burning roof and tower / And Agamemnon dead" (9-11). The "shudder in the loins" is his pleasure and her fear. Impregnated, she will give birth to the entire classical era. From Leda's egg will hatch Helen and Clytemnestra, the sister femmes fatales. Faithless Helen will trigger the ten-year Trojan War, inspiring Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. Clytemnestra will slaughter her husband, Agamemnon, commander in chief of the Greek forces, and be murdered in turn by their vengeful son, Orestes. Aeschylus's trilogy about these events, the Oresteia, was the first great work of Western drama.
Yeats portrayed Western culture as inseminated with treachery and violence from the start. The rape of Leda begins a chain of disasters that will continue to his own day. "The broken wall, the burning roof and tower" apply to all wars but show ravaged Troy in flames as well as the victorious Greek signal fires leaping from peak to peak to Argos (the first scene in the Oresteia). The burning tower also suggests Zeus's raging phallic aggression, just as the "broken wall" is Leda's violation and defloration. (Though she was already married to a king, Yeats treats Leda as a virginal, undefended maiden.)
The poem roots the constructions of civilization in the convulsive "loins," the gut or viscera from which surge driving, irrational ambitions and great achievements. But Yeats shows the latter only in decline and fall: "Agamemnon dead" is an emblem of annihilated male authority and pride. While Troy still burns, we eerily see him, as if by time-lapse photography, already slain on the day of his triumphant homecoming. He lies toppled like Shelley's pharaoh. In the time frame of the sonnet's composition, "Agamemnon dead" also refers to the failure of state and military leadership in World War I, with its strategic blunders and massive waste of life. The age of heroes is over.
Because of its vast historical vision and agonizing pantomime of passion and conflict, "Leda and the Swan" can justifiably be considered the greatest poem of the twentieth century. It reflects the disillusionment of European and North American artists and intellectuals with the West, whose buoyant confidence in its own moral superiority and technological progress had been shattered by the Great War, as it was then called. The "sudden blow" that opens the poem reproduces the shock of events, numbing and destabilizing. The poet wonders whether Leda, "being so caught up" in her brief, bruising encounter with God, gained "knowledge" of the meaning of history (12-14). Did her penetration by Zeus's "power" give her mental penetration? Or was she, like us, mired in earthly limitation? She says nothing.
Neither Zeus nor Leda is named in the text itself, so that the scene becomes archetypal: the poem records a pivotal moment of contact between humanity and divinity. The exchange is painfully one-sided but revelatory: "mastered by the brute blood of the air," Leda sees God for what he is—a sadistic marauder, as tarnished as a fallen angel (13). Sated, the swan lets her "drop" from his "indifferent beak," a curt phrase that accentuates her cumbersome materiality, her reduction to a thing and a trophy, as well as his cavalier disrespect for his own creation (15). Losing interest, God callously discards his toys.
By implication, the poem refers to another commandeering of a virgin by a bird-god—the impregnation of a startled Mary by the Holy Spirit, depicted as a beam of light or white dove. (Yeats makes the Mary parallel explicit in "Two Songs from a Play.") God plays a game of hit-and-run—infusing each declining age with ferocious new energy, then disappearing again for two thousand years. A fellow Irish writer, Samuel Beckett, borrowed Yeats's theme of a capriciously self-withholding God for Waiting for Godot, where vagabonds scrabble beneath the blank sky.
The last section of "Leda and the Swan" has a split-level structure, mirroring its content. The irregular gash produced by a broken line mimics the modern breakdown in religious and cultural traditions—the mournful subject of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land (1922), with its fallen idols and disconnected allusions. From this point of view, "Agamemnon dead" would be the failure even to recognize the name "Agamemnon": classical culture has receded and no longer feeds and informs the present. Visually, the last stanza's jagged pattern resembles a thunderbolt, Zeus's emblem. Yeats has projected himself into Leda's story: he wrote elsewhere, "We who are poets and artists...live but for the moment when vision comes to our weariness like terrible lightning, in the humility of the brutes" (Per Amica Silentia Lunae). Illumination is sporadic, partial, and costly. Knowledge is not cumulative but subject to periodic destruction and loss, necessitating recovery and revival. Like "The Second Coming," "Leda and the Swan" ends with a question. There is no resolution. All human beings, like Leda, are caught up moment by moment in the "white rush" of experience. For Yeats, the only salvation is the shapeliness and stillness of art.
From BREAK, BLOW, BURN by Camille Paglia. © 2005 by Camille Paglia. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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