The language of the second stanza poses more difficult problems for the reader. Leda’s ‘vague fingers’ (5) and ‘loosening thighs’ (6) suggest that, although she is hurt and helpless, there is a brief moment of mutual sexual pleasure. Cullingford argues that ‘male representations of rape as pleasurable for women are extremely dangerous’ but I would say that the implication is equally as dangerous for men and women alike. For men, it could be said that Leda’s reaction justifies Jove imposing himself on her.
For women, it could be said that it is acceptable for men to impose themselves because of that brief moment of sexual gratification. The gender issues of the poem seems to culminate in the last two lines: ‘Did she put on his knowledge with his power / Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? ’ (13-14) Is the speaker suggesting that there is a power shift between the two just after the ‘shudder in his loins’ (9)? Is Leda empowered by the rape, as she gains insight into future events which will be the cost of Jove’s temptation? Is this a warning to the male reader that there is a price to pay for sexual imposition?
It is inconclusive who is the victor in this power struggle between the sexes at the moment when the ‘indifferent beak’ lets Leda drop: is it the swan who has his achieved his sexual gratification but at the price of the fall of Troy, or Leda, who has been violated and discarded, but knowing that her revenge will be exacted when Troy falls? The poet appears to be critical of both genders, but above all presents his fear of the power struggle between the sexes because of the destruction and chaos it causes, here manifesting itself in the fall of Troy.
The sexual power struggle between men and women is also found in the ‘Crazy Jane’ poems. Unlike Leda, Jane spurns the male antagonist in what Innes describes as belonging ‘to a long tradition of writing in which women question male authority’. She tell the bourgeois and puritanical Bishop in ‘Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop’ that she prefers the ‘foul sty’ (6) of human sexual experience, rather than ‘in a heavenly mansion’ (5). She does not conform to the female ideals set by patriarchy, as she is neither a mother nor a virgin.
Jane opens ‘an imaginative space for women’s desires and pleasure in a culture that occludes them’. A female figure has been given a meaningful voice, and creates tension between the two sexes as she tries to free herself from patriarchy’s suffocating clasp. Yet whilst Jane has been given a meaningful voice, she is still presented as ‘the old madwoman’. She is so characterized by her subversive views that she has even earned the epithet ‘Crazy Jane’. Richard Ellmann argues, however, that it is because of her name that she can ‘speak with all the prerogatives of the Elizabethan fool, without, of course, being crazy at all’.
Thus, it seems that Crazy Jane is used as a mouthpiece for speaking out against oppressive male patriarchy, despite her depiction as an ‘old madwoman’. Gender issues are prominent throughout Yeats’s love poetry. Yeats said of his love poetry that: ‘each divines the secret self of the other, and refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life’. In his early poem, The Wanderings of Oisin, Niamh is presented as a weak female figure and Oisin as the heroic male.
Although initially Niamh claims Oisin as her lover, once they are married, is in constant fear that she might lose him. Every time he is reminded of Ireland and the human world, Niamh ‘grows as the waters are white’ (109), tries to distract him from leaving her. Oisin finally abandons Niamh, who grieves for him, saying that she will ‘die like a small withered leaf in autumn’ (131). Yeats writes in epic form, which immediately offered Oisin a traditional model of masculinity: the epic hero leaves his woman behind; just as Aeneas deserted Dido, Oisin deserts Niamh. The gender implications are noteworthy.
The mirror held up for Oisin reflects that he should remember his duty to his country and resist the temptation of women. The speaker suggests that women are a lesser concern than nationalism because there is a greater cause to be searching for, and women fall by the wayside in the grand scheme of things. The mirror held up for Niamh firstly reflects women as seductresses, diverting men from their noble duties, and secondly reflects women as weak, with their destinies ultimately in the hands of men. The inversion of depiction of gender can be found in ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, which is written in the courtly tradition.
Cullingford ascribes the resurrection of the medieval courtly lyric to Rossetti, by whom Yeats was greatly influenced. The courtly tradition ‘reverses the normal distribution of sexual power’, placing the male at the feet of the female. For example, in ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, the ‘poor’ (6) poet cannot afford ‘the heavens’ embroidered cloths’ (1) so can only ‘spread’ his dreams under the woman’s feet and begs her to ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams. ’ (8) The woman is placed alongside the gods, presented as being worthy of being a goddess in her own right.
She is empowered through her elevation, literally walking over the lover, who is a mere mortal by comparison. Unlike The Wanderings of Oisin, there is a reversal of unrequited love; the woman rejects the man instead of the man rejecting the woman. Yet this courtly tradition has come under much scrutiny. Whilst it does appear that the woman is empowered, Felski speculates that ‘the dividing line between a repressive stereotype and an empowering symbol of cultural identity is often a very narrow one’. This could not be truer of the woman in ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.
Whilst the woman appears to be empowered by her goddess status, in fact, it is in this very idealization that she has become a ‘repressive stereotype’. The blue cloths remind the reader of ‘the costly vestments of a priest dedicated to the Virgin Mary’ who has been used as an example of the ideal woman throughout history. When the lover holds up the ‘mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life’, the woman finds that she must emulate the Virgin Mary in order to become the ideal woman for men. Moi concludes this point perfectly. He argues that ‘the patriarchy persists in oppressing women as women’.
Like the symbol of Cathleen for Ireland, men have created the female goddess in love poetry not to empower women but actually to confine them to paradigm femininity. The conclusion is that there can be no light cast on Yeats’s poetry by an analyses that places gender issues in the foreground. This is because there is no common thread to be drawn from the way that Yeats treats gender from poem to poem. For example, in ‘Easter 1916’ he condemns women’s involvement with politics which will result in the loss of femininity, but in the ‘Crazy Jane’ poems, he gives a strong voice to a woman who successfully opposes oppressive patriarchy.
In The Wanderings of Oisin, he depicts women as the weaker sex, distracting men from more noble causes, yet in ‘He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’, Yeats empowers the woman through her rejection of the lover. Yet we also find ambivalence in attitudes towards gender in a single poem alone, such as in ‘Leda and the Swan’, in which Leda is violated but also appears as potentially victorious, or in ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ and ‘Red Hanrahan’s Song about Ireland’, in which the presentation of the ideal woman is both empowering yet confining.
This lack of continuity throughout Yeats’s poetry proves that Yeats does not write from conviction, but he writes for the sake of the poem. He said himself that he ‘takes pleasure alone’ in the poems which ‘found something hard and cold’, even if it opposed ‘all that I am in daily life and all that my country is. ’ Yeats will adopt whatever viewpoint is needed to serve the purpose of a poem to make it both convincing and beautiful.