Yeats’ Leda and the Swan and Van Duyn's Leda
In Greek mythology, Leda, a Spartan queen, was so beautiful that Zeus, ruler of the gods, decided he must have her. Since immortals usually did not present themselves to humankind in their divine forms, Zeus changed himself into a great swan and in that shape ravished the helpless girl (Carey 58-59). Both William Butler Yeats and Mona Van Duyn base their poems "Leda and the Swan" and "Leda," respectively, on this story of a "mystic marriage." Yeats' focus on the sexual act itself, along with his allusions to Leda's progeny, manifest a grave and terrifying tone. While he raises Leda to a status similar to that of Mary, mother of Jesus, Van Duyn portrays Leda as a universal mother. By making both figures, Leda and Zeus, ordinary, she gives a "surprising twist" (Greiner 337) to the original myth, emphasized by her witty tone. In addition, whereas Yeats suggests that Leda has gained something from her encounter with Zeus, Van Duyn asserts that she has gained nothing, portraying women in general as primarily objects of men's satisfaction.
Yeats begins his poem by concentrating on the mere depiction of the rape scene. Words such as "beating, dark, helpless," and "terrified" provide this violent act of intrusion with negative connotations. The victim, Leda, is helpless against the power of the aggressor, Zeus, and terrified by his actions. Recalling the original Greek myth, Yeats clearly shows Leda's resistance at every step ("staggering girl," "helpless breast," "terrified vague fingers push"). Zeus' relationship with Leda parallels human interaction in general with either Satan or God. In Christianity, the prevailing religion of Yeats' time, pious men attempt to push away evil to avoid coercion. Immoral men, on the other hand, avoid God, turning towards secular pleasures. Yeats' question concerning Leda's recognization of Zeus ("And how can body . . . but feel the strange heart beating where it lies?"), in a sense, queries how can man not recognize Lucifer by his deception and God by his virtue?
Rather than recounting the rape itself, Van Duyn emphasizes the characterization of Leda, a representative of all women. The line "her mind closed on a bird and went to sleep" implies that Leda does not even imagine that the bird is anything more than just that, a bird. She lacks both intelligence and curiosity, and hence reverts to her purpose in life, the act of giving. Leda's "openness" in this line refers to her willingness to submit, "To give: women and gods are alike in enjoying that ceremony, find[ing] its smoke filling and sweet."1 (337) Unlike the resistance Leda attempts in Yeats' poem, Van Duyn's Leda willingly provides her body for sexual pleasure, for she only wants to please the bird, symbolic of man.
Van Duyn briefly mentions Zeus' parasitic actions. She contends that Zeus enjoys his exploitation of Leda solely because of his narcissism2, for he seeks his own...