By Rickman, H. P.
Contemporary Review , Vol. 265, No. 1544
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. …