Leda and the Swan by Cy Twombly

The images in the two poems “Leda and the Swan” and “Leda”  interpret the romance between a Swan and a girl named Leda described in a Greek myth. The poems both show  a sexual encounter, but H.D. shows the power of the Swan can be alluring and not just intimidating.  When William Butler Yeats begins his poem, it’s with violent action,  “A sudden blow” setting the tone for the rest of the poem as aggressive and masculine. Leda is a weak victim of the Swan: she is described physically, with a focus on each part of her body. She is “staggering”(2) not walking, with  “helpless breast”(4) and “loosening thighs”(6).  Her body is trapped in the beak, the Swan “indifferent” to her feelings. The description of her fingers as “vague” and “terrified” in line 5 also shows how she is an ambiguous character not knowing what is happening to her. The poem is about the action, the bodies, and not the characterization of the girl. The reader doesn’t hear her thoughts or see her point of view.  The poem is from the perspective of the swan. The animal power of the Swan is bigger than expected. A swan is a big bird, but to overpower a person would take supernatural strength. This Swan seems, rather than being a typical animal, to have a personality and majesty of Zeus.  He has a “feathered glory”(6) and “great wings”(1) that show his massiveness. The poem is written like a Petrarchan sonnet in the first two stanzas but with a variation.  The last two stanzas don’t fit the pattern.  The third stanza has three lines, and the volta occurs in the 12th line where the girl’s perspective and thoughts are finally questioned.

Leda and the Swan by Reuben Nakian

In “Leda” by H.D. , the author is a woman. She is much more economical in her words, with short phrases instead of whole sentences on each line. She focuses more on the description of the beauty and character than on the action.  The Swan seems like a romantic figure even in the description of his color.  He is unusual, a “red swan”(3) with “red wings” (3) with a “purple down”(5) on his”soft  breast”, a “darker beak”, and “coral feet”(7). This colorful description is exotic and beautiful, making the Swan seem attractive unlike the majestic and intimidating power of Yeats’ version. Although this Swan is still majestic (this quality is found in both poems) –  “Kingly kiss, no regret”(17)  also shows that the scene is of a romantic encounter: the gold day-lily / outspreads and rests /  beneath soft fluttering/   of red swan wings /and the warm quivering /of the red swan’s breast.
The repetition of the adjective “slow” also emphasizes the less fearsome and more relaxed setting of H.D.’s poem.  “Slow lifting of the tide” slow riverslowly drifts” sets the easy tone.

Leda and the Swan by Man Ray