W.B. Yeats and Carl Phillips in Conversation

I was thumbing through Angles of Ascent over the weekend and noticed a single dogeared page.  Page 379, I had annotated a poem by Carl Phillips “Leda, After the Swan.”  In the small group discussion a few weeks ago we were asked to discuss our favorite poems, this wasn’t mine, but we discussed it in length and after our conversation I found myself interested in the origins and the poem is it based off of.

“Leda and the Swan” was published in the mid 20s, by W.B. Yeats about the myth of the rape of Leda by Zeus who took the form of a Swan.  In our group we discussed the controversy surrounding the poem. Yeats focuses on the act itself and alludes to the Trojan War as well.  In the rape, Leda becomes impregnated with who will become Helen of Troy. Yeats posits that the rape of Leda leads to the Trojan War and thus the end of Greek civilization. When “Leda and the Swan” was published it stirred up controversy due to its explicit nature.  More recently however, it has upset feminist activists because of the way in which Yeats chooses to show the rape of Leda by Zeus, or the swan. The poem remains Yeats’ most commonly anthologized poems.

Yeats mixes violent action with gentle action in a way that makes the poem hard to interpret in a good light.  The poem opens with “A sudden blow,” indicating an abrupt and immediate attack by Zeus. The second line mixes violence and seduction: “Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed.”  I added italics to show the contrast in staggering and caressed.  Leda shocked by the initiation of a brutal act is staggering and the Swan, the aggressor caresses her thighs.  

The language suggests a blurring of lines.  I think this is part of why feminists have reacted to the poem with outrage.  In a poem that depicts rape of a young girl the language shouldn’t veer in the way it does from utter violence, to sweet seduction.

“Leda, After the Swan,”by Carl Phillips, responds W.B. Yeats’ call.  Phillips makes Leda the subject of her own trauma in a way that Yeats doesn’t allow.  The poem succeeds in allowing Leda to have a voice and narrate her story. Phillips shows the way that Leda suspected more than something purely animal: “I recognized/something more/than swan, I can’t say.”  

Yeats describes the brutal rape of a young girl by a large bird while Phillips shows how Leda might have felt after such a strange event.  In the same way that Yeats mixes, or questions the violence, Phillips offers the lines, “strike-or-embrace/position.” Phillips echoes the question of Yeats, but undoes this question later on in the poem when exploring the psychological effects of such an event.

The speaker of the poem, Leda speaks of how during the act, “feathers/came away in [her] hands” and with them a “bit of the world/… [came] down” as well.  Phillips uses the raven to indicate “sorrow.” The use of the raven as an object of sorrow is skillful in it’s contrast to the swan. A swan a large white regal bird. A raven a small neither “black nor blue” bird of a different elegance.  

Phillips deals with the story of Leda and the swan delicately, showing not the event in graphic detail as Yeats, rather he shows how Leda feels after the fact. Phillips effectively gives Leda ownership of her own story in a way that Yeats fails to.  

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