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The rape of Leda.

THE story of Leda and the swan is the subject matter of poems by two of the greatest 20th century poets of Europe: R. M. Rilke and W. B. Yeats. So what is there in that bizarre story which attracted two poets, writing in different languages and emerging from very different backgrounds, in fact, what made it retain its attraction over three thousand years?

The story is familiar enough: Zeus, the father and ruler of all the gods of Ancient Greece was attracted by Leda and assuming the shape of a swan, raped her when she was having a swim. (Some versions suggest seduction rather than rape, but the two poets imply the latter. The line can be a fine one but it would have been fairer for Zeus to accept the responsibility of rape as the Greeks took a severe view of the degree of complicity of a married woman allowing herself to be seduced.) Zeus was notorious for his numerous dalliances with mortal women, as well as for assuming various guises -- such as that of a bull, a pigeon or a shower of gold -- to further his amorous aims. To a faithful wife he appeared in the shape of her own husband who was away at the time. Frequently there was offspring from such unions and in Leda's case, one of the children was Helen, the cause of the Trojan war.

The tales of Zeus's philandering were part of a scandalous -- and to us astonishing -- view of their gods held by the early Greeks. They saw them as powerful but sharing human vices such as vanity, jealousy and vindictiveness. They described them as lying, murdering, showing favouritism and being sexually promiscuous.

To us, today, these stories sound like the gossip columns of the tabloid press with gods and heroes, playing the role of celebrities. Did they cater for the salacious voyeurism of those ancient peoples? If there had been a popular press, one can easily imagine the headlines: LEDA LAYED IN LAKE or CHIEF OF THE GODS COMMITS ADULTERY IN DISGUISE. One can also envisage all too easily how extraterrestrial rape can serve as one of several welcome excuses for pregnant girls (found in the bulrushes -- indeed!).

However, the aim of this essay is not to account for religious doctrines already attacked and largely on the wane in classical Greece, but to focus on the intriguing fact that these myths have not lost their appeal through two thousand years of 'Christianity and are meaningful to contemporary poets and their readers. There is, after all, no dearth of recent scandal and pregnant girls neither need nor could get away with the excuse of being raped by a superhuman being.

Undoubtedly Greek art, literature and philosophy never lost their influence on European cultural and intellectual life, an influence powerfully reinforced since the Renaissance. Where medieval painters had concentrated on Biblical subjects, new generations of artists used the stories of Ancient Greece, not least the exploits of Zeus. There is, indeed, a picture of Leda and her swan by Leonardo da Vinci though, far from being a scene of rape, it looks more like a Victorian photograph of an uxorious couple. Leda's arm is loosely draped round the swan who looks up at her. At the bottom of the picture are the kids.

Here, after this brief introduction to the theme, are the two poems: first, Rilke's published in 1908 in Der Neuen Gedichte Anderer Teil (Second Part of New Poems).


Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat erschrak er fast, den Schwan so schon zu finden; er liess sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden. Schon abet trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,

Bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins Gefuhle prufte. Und die Aufgetane erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane und wusste schon: er bat um eins,

das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand, nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder, und halsend durch die immer schwachre Hand Liess sich der Gott in die Geliebte los. Dann erst empfand er glucklich sein Gefieder und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoss.

My prose translation: When, in his need, the God entered him he was nearly startled to find the swan so beautiful; quite confused he allowed himself to vanish into him. But already his deception carried him on to action, before he tested the feeling of an untried being. And she, receptive, already recognised who was coming in the swan and already knew: he asked for one thing which she, confused in her resistance, could no longer hide. He descended and embracing across the ever weakening hand the god abandoned himself into the beloved. Only then did he feel blissfully his plumage and really became swan in her lap.

A couple of general comments may help to prepare for a comparison of the poems. Firstly, though the poem is titled 'Leda' more than half of it presents Zeus's feelings into which the poet enters with empathy, while little more than a quarter represents Leda's point of view. (The rest is neutrally descriptive.)

The second point is that there is some ambiguity about it being simply a rape. Though resistance and an interposed hand are mentioned, that resistance is confused and Zeus' act is described in terms of affection --Leda is described as the beloved -- rather than assertion of power.

Yeats' poem dates from 1923 and is part of the collection called the 'Tower'.


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?

Here there is no empathy and, excepting only the 'terrified fingers', no reference to emotions. It is a detached account which adds to the description of the scene a historical perspective by pointing to the casual chain which leads from the conception to the destruction of Troy and eventually to the murder of Agamemnon by his wife. It is unambiguously brutal rape after which the victim is indifferently discarded. Puzzling are the last two lines for we do not normally expect a rape victim to acquire the rapist's power, let alone his knowledge, but it provides a clue which we shall presently take up.

So what is so special about this rape that, having been part of religious beliefs much older than Christianity, it should hold the attention of great poets of our own time? My slightly frivolous reference to the fascination of gossip mongering, and the excuses of pregnant girls are not sufficient explanations. Obviously this story, as so many other adventures attributed to Zeus and other divinities, represent the incursion of the divine into human life, an incursion which is both fateful and creative. After all the Christian God, too, produced a son and through him affected history, though clearly there are, at least, two differences. Christians believe in the perfect goodness of God, a vision not shared by those early Greeks. Secondly, the conception of Christ is -- except in blasphemous jokes -emphatically not attributed to a sexual act. On the contrary the 'immaculate conception' and 'the virgin birth' are emphasised.

An anti-sex bias is entrenched in Christianity by the idea of woman as a temptress, Jesus' bachelor status and St. Paul's unenthusiastic endorsement of marriage as better than burning and perpetuated by the insistence on chastity of priests, nuns and monks. Other religions did not share this bias and we read of temple prostitutes and orgies linked to religious ceremonies.

The Greeks shared this positive attitude towards sex as Nietzsche (a fine Greek scholar though perhaps not wholly unbiased towards Christianity) testifies. In The Twilight of the Idols, he writes:

'For the Greeks the sexual symbol was the venerable symbol par excellence.' (What I owe to the Ancients, 4)

and continues in the next section:

'It was Christianity with its resentiment against life at the bottom of its heart, which first made something unclean of sexuality.'

Even so, Christianity retains -- though carefully sanitised -- sexual symbols and metaphors for the relation between the human and the divine. Christ is the bridegroom of the Church, nuns, his brides and the language of mysticism and religious ecstasy are rich with expressions which carry sexual implications.

For the poet the intrusion of the divine into human affairs, the incarnation of the God within the material world carries special significance because they and their audiences attribute their creations as due to inspiration. The Greek poets and many poets since claimed to be inspired by a Muse or, directly by Apollo. Plato -- in the Apologia -- suggested that poets wrote 'by a sort of genius and inspiration, they are like diviners or soothsayers...' (Jowet translation). Rilke claimed that the inception of the Duino Elegies -- his masterpiece -- was due to an Angel's voice calling out the first line in a storm, as he walked outside the Castle of Duino and described the completion of them years later: '...there was a nameless storm, a hurricane, in my mind (like that time in Duino), everything in the way of fibre and web in me split'. There are also repeated references in his letters about the poetry being 'given to him' (I have taken this from the Introduction to the translation of the Duino Elegies by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender).

Does it sound a little far-fetched to link Zeus's philandering and the story of the swan raping a woman to reflections on poetic inspiration? To say that stories like these represent divine intervention that poetry relies on such a divine intervention is not enough. Links are missing to the argument that specific poems can be interpreted in a specific way.

The first link in the chain is the manifest fact, frequently noted by critics, that writers tend to be preoccupied with their craft and refer to it not only in articles and letters but in their literary works. Such preoccupation is natural enough. If poetry is your profession and daily occupation -- as it was with Rilke and Yeats -- you are likely to reflect on what you are doing. Both poets were 'natural singers' displaying from an early age a capacity for beguiling rhythms and melodies. There is also ample evidence that they remained dependent on 'inspiration', suffered blocks which they laboured to overcome by preoccupations with spiritualism and the like. Both as natural endowment and as inspiration, poetry was a gift, experienced as divinely bestowed.

Yet, though this may sound paradoxical, both poets, like many others, were searingly aware of poetry as an exacting craft to be painstakingly learned and improved, so as to achieve mastery. Though it is outside our control whether there will be a gift or when it might arrive, the mind needs to be open and prepared for it, ready to receive it and to make disciplined use of it. This is true not only in poetry but in all inspiration. The alleged apple falling on Newton might have been a gift from the gods, but apples had fallen in vain on millions of people.

In consequence poets, such as Rilke and Yeats reflected both on the miracle of inspiration and the task it imposed on them. The poets' general role in life and their own practice became frequent themes of their poetry. This makes it prima facie plausible to consider these Leda poems also concerned with this theme.

Beyond this the difference of treatment of the theme by the two poets already noted briefly reflect difference in temperament and outlook, in point of view and emphasis on different aspects of the act of creation. In Rilke's poem the focus is on Zeus on whom he showers the empathy so characteristic of much of Rilke's poetry. The process lovingly described is a dual entering. Zeus first enters into the swan and having assumed that identity which has become for him more than a disguise, he enters into the beloved, the first a merger with a role, the second with the object of desire but both a form of self-realisation. Insofar as we get Leda's point of view, it is that of being a vessel, the passive recipient of a need driven force she only dimly comprehends.

In Yeats we encounter more 'the cold eye' which he recommends for observing life and death. The woman's helplessness and terror in the face of a sudden assault is detachedly described, as are the fateful consequences of this procreative act. Then follow the mysterious final lines which suggest that the victim, brutally overpowered may come to share the power and knowledge of the force to which she was subjected. This is not something you encounter in the police records or psychiatric findings of rapes. It makes sense, though if interpreted as a metaphor for poetic inspiration, overpowering the poet yet bestowing on him enlightenment and releasing his powers.

Many poets -- like Rilke too, as we have seen -- have described inspiration as a violent irruption into their mental life, a kind of possession. And of course, they emerged from it with new knowledge and power. So, identifying the underlying theme of the poem as poetic conception, makes not only sense of some of the lines but accounts for the curious fact that a 20th century poet should be preoccupied with the Olympian rapist of ancient legend. The same question is answered in the case of the Rilke poem when we identify the philandering god with the relentless effort of the poet's imagination to penetrate and make its own its poetic material.

[H. P. Rickman is Visiting Professor in Philosophy at City University. He has published ten books and many articles mainly on philosophy but also on literary subjects.]
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Author:Rickman, H.P.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Sep 1, 1994
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