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Leda And The Swan

.. of his inability to reconcile these personal conflicts and the poem, then, is an example of Yeats displacing his frustration, and doing so in a positive and safe manner. If this assertion is indeed accurate, Leda and the Swan would be consiste nt with Yeats’s later poems. Edmund Wilson writes, The development of Yeats’s later style seems to coincide with a disillusionment (17). Cleanth Brooks argues that Yeats proposed to substitute a concrete, meaningful system, substituting symbol as a way of combating harsh, technical reality (69).

Leda is consistent with the assertions. And, the key to the reality Yeats is attempting to address is Maud Gonne. Maud Gonne was a militant Irish nationalist with whom Yeats was very much in love, and who appeared as a tortured image in much of his poetry. She gave herself completely to her country and expected the same type of nationalistic dedication from Yeats. They loved one another deeply but were never able to reconcile the differences in their feelings. Maud Gonne loved Yeats in a platonic sense; Yeats desired a more all-encompassing love. Both Yeats and Maud Gonne considered themselves mystics.

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They belonged to the Heretic Order of the Golden Dawn, a society in which they attended seances. Maud desired a pure spiritual life and felt that type of life precluded physical contact (sex) w ith Yeats. Yeats aspired to a like belief system, but was unable to live up to these idealized standards. Under these conditions, Yeats and Maud Gonne entered into a spiritual marriage. Bernard Levine explains that The marriage was based on a commun ication through dream correspondence and astral vision (controlled release of spiritual tension) (127).

Levine suggests this spiritual marriage was the background and psychological excuse for the writing of ‘Leda and the Swan’ (125). Well before the poem was written, Maud Gonne had become an identifiable entity in Yeats’s poetry. In fact, Geoffrey Thurley refers to the poem as another Maud/Helen poem (165). Levine also states that Maud had become identified with Helen (the mythological daughter of Leda) as early as 1908 (125) and goes on to identify Maud with Leda as well (126). Consistent with his penchant for myth-as-metaphor, and mythology in general, Yeats declared sexual desire to be a myth.

Yet, at the same time, he wrote that he used to puzzle Maud Gonne by always avowing ultimate defeat as a test and he believed that his spiritual love for Maud could never be consummated except through sexual union, supporting the idea that the ‘mystic way and sexual love’ are inextricably related (Levine 125, 127). This conflict serves as an example of the type of opposition Yea ts could never reconcile and which would later manifest itself in Leda and the Swan. Yeats viewed Maud Gonne as having achieved purity and felt as though he too should be above sexual longing. Levine argues that, unable to overcome his sexual needs, Yeats had little alternative but to interpret his continual sexual longing as a betrayal of Maud (128). Interestingly enough, Yeats kept a woman in London for a time.

Perhaps Yeats provides a good example for us of a man suffering from the Virgin/Whore syndrome. The pure women in his life are untouchable and are romanticized in his po etry while those who succumb to his needs are referred to as harlots (Presences) (Levine 128). Yeats’s sense of betrayal, coupled with his failed attempts to suppress unacceptable desires, conceivably led to an enormous amount of guilt. In reference to sexuality and guilt, Francis Oppel suggests that Yeats understood the psychology of tragedy, in that orgasm (which engenders life and also equals death of sexual desire) enables one to overcome pain and, by extension, guilt and death (122). This overwhelming sense of guilt resulted in a disillusioned and angst-ridden Yeats, and the resultant frust ration led to, as Joseph Hassett terms it, an overwhelming preoccupation with hate (Introduction viii) and a sense of self hatred. This (self) hatred led a despondent Yeats to contemplate suicide. Levine quotes Virginia Moore as stating, Yeats dreame d that, walking along a path by a broken wall a precipice, he felt dizzy and longed to throw himself over (130).

By Leda and the Swan, Yeats was preoccupied with death, both consciously and unconsciously. Bernard Levine states simply that Because his relationship with Maud Gonne remained unconsummated, Yeats’s imagination fastened quite decidedly in his later years on the themes of sex and death (126). A bridge that Levine doesn’t seem to wish to cross, however, is the idea that Yeats’s later themes do focus on sex and death out of this sense of self hatred engendered by the guilt over his inability to live up to Maud’s standards and, initially, by the frustration he felt over Maud’s unwillingness to comply with his desires. Some critics even contend that hate is Yeats’s generative principle. Joseph M. Hassett contends that Yeats used his hate to penetrate the uncharted depths of his own mind (Introduction viii).

Ashok Bhargava (156) reaffirms this love-hate antithesis f ound in later Yeats. Quite simply, Yeats consciously attempted to suppress his physical desire and failed. This failure led to an unconscious resentment of the figure (Maud) perceived as responsible for this resulting guilt/self hatred. This (repressed ) resentment resulted in violent tendencies and the rape scene in Leda is, finally, the sublimation of sexual impulse. Several instances exist to support the correlation between aspects of the spiritual marriage and elements within the poem. Levine, again, cites Moore in noting these instances.

During the summer of 1908, Yeats saw a vision of Maud and himself joined b y a ‘sort of phantom ecstasy,’ which was accompanied by an impression of a swan floating in water. This was followed by a dream in which Maud reproached Yeats because she could not break down some barrier (127). Another time Maud wrote that she and Y eats had become one with ecstasy and Yeats had appeared to her triumphantly in a dream, after which she woke to a gust of wind blowing in her room and a voice of an archangel who announced that from her union a ‘great beauty may be born,’ once she had been ‘purified by suffering’ (127, 128). There is evidence of other such examples. Yeats, the idealistic Romantic, could not let go of the hope that Maud would one day become a willing participant, physically. Yeats must have hoped that his persistent passion and intensity would eventually persuade her to give in.

Elements from the j ust-noted example would support this hope and are found in the text of the poem: the swan image, barrier image, the idea of unity through sexual union. At this point, could Yeats’s unconscious have been softening the tone (and implications) of the rape in the poem? These examples suggest that is indeed the case. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the tone of the poem moves from aggressive to passive. Furthermore, a clue which supports the idea of a hope Yeats harbored lies in the revision process . Richard Ellman informs us that the poem went through several stages of revision. In earlier versions, Yeats portrayed the scene as an inarguable rape in which Leda is mounted (177). In the later, anthologized version of 1928, Leda has been given loo sening thighs, suggesting a type of acquiescence on Leda’s part. The implication for this shift, then, in language and tone in the final version of Leda and the Swan is that the change is an example of Yeats displacing his fantasy that Maud Gonne woul d eventually be swayed to engage him sexually and would become a willing, if passive, participant.

In the earlier versions, Yeats was displacing his aggression. In the final revised version, Maud Gonne as Leda takes an active response role. Finally, Leda and the Swan is a violent poem and can be seen as Yeats’s own particular rape fantasy; however, it remains an object of beauty. A close reading of the text focusing on the oppositions inherent within the poem, combined with an understand ing of the circumstances surrounding Yeats’s spiritual marriage to Maud Gonne shows the poem to be a manifestation of the conflict between reality and ideal, human and divine that Yeats spent years trying to reconcile. The poem allows Yeats to displace h is violent fantasies concerning Maud, yet it does so in a structured, controlled manner (ensuring safety), and it allows Yeats to, finally, retain a certain amount of romantic hope. Leda and the Swan was Yeats’s only realistic alternative to the conflict in his life, and as a form of self therapy, it remains a nearly perfect work of art.

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