Leda and the Swan

by Kiko Matsing


San Francisco, CA (2015)

SFO Art Deco exhibit: c. 1930, France, by Neva

Leda and the Swan
W. B. Yeats

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 story of Leda raped by Zeus in the form of a swan became an erotic motif in art in Renaissance Venice, and continued to be so in Modernism. Above is an Art Deco objet d’art, and Yeat’s oft anthologized poem of the same period.

What is it about the scene that’s erotically charged? The phallic neck wrapped around the woman’s breasts? Down feather frottage? The sadomasochism of the all-engulfing wings, of her restraint with sharp beak and webbed claws?

Yeats suggests the rape foreshadows the fall of Troy–a war fought over the rape of Helen, the fruit of Leda’s union with the swan. Sex and violence and art wrapped into one.

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