Among School Children
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;A kind old nun in a white hood replies;The children learn to cipher and to sing,To study reading-books and histories,To cut and sew, be neat in everythingIn the best modern way - the children's eyesIn momentary wonder stare uponA sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bentAbove a sinking fire. a tale that sheTold of a harsh reproof, or trivial eventThat changed some childish day to tragedy -Told, and it seemed that our two natures blentInto a sphere from youthful sympathy,Or else, to alter Plato's parable,Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rageI look upon one child or t'other thereAnd wonder if she stood so at that age -For even daughters of the swan can shareSomething of every paddler's heritage -And had that colour upon cheek or hair,And thereupon my heart is driven wild:She stands before me as a living child.
Her present image floats into the mind -Did Quattrocento finger fashion itHollow of cheek as though it drank the windAnd took a mess of shadows for its meat?And I though never of Ledaean kindHad pretty plumage once - enough of that,Better to smile on all that smile, and showThere is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lapHoney of generation had betrayed,And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escapeAs recollection or the drug decide,Would think her Son, did she but see that shapeWith sixty or more winters on its head,A compensation for the pang of his birth,Or the uncertainty of his setting forth?
Plato thought nature but a spume that playsUpon a ghostly paradigm of things;Solider Aristotle played the tawsUpon the bottom of a king of kings;World-famous golden-thighed PythagorasFingered upon a fiddle-stick or stringsWhat a star sang and careless Muses heard:Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.
Both nuns and mothers worship images,But those the candles light are not as thoseThat animate a mother's reveries,But keep a marble or a bronze repose.And yet they too break hearts - O PresencesThat passion, piety or affection knows,And that all heavenly glory symbolise -O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing whereThe body is not bruised to pleasure soul.Nor beauty born out of its own despair,Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,How can we know the dancer from the dance?
The poem was inspired by a visit that Yeats made to a Co. Waterford school in 1926. As a member of the senate he was part of a committee which was reviewing the working of a new curriculum established in a number of model schools. The opening stanza of the poem places Yeats in a classroom situation. The faces of the children remind him of Maud Gonne. He begins to question the ageing process and his quest for 'unity of being'. The poem was, he said, his 'last curse on old age'.
Stanza I: Yeats is in a county Waterford school room in the company of a kind old man faced by the staring eyes of the children. Yeats' public persona unmask is evident in this stanza as he adopts the pose of -: "A sixty-year-old smiling public man" while in reality he is a bitter aging unfulfilled poet. The kind old man and Yeats are in clear contrast to the youthful faces of the children and it is this stark reality that turns the poets mind inwards. He also visits the Felve system. Yeats sees it as regimented and not providing for the individual response that he associates with artist and writer.
Stanza II: Yeats' mind immediately turns to thoughts of Maud Gonne. He again uses the metaphor of Helen of Troy in describing Maud Gonne as 'Ledaean body'. The image he conjures up is of a present day Maud reminiscing about his childhood and allowing Yeats an insight into that period of their life. Yeats first met Maud when they were teenagers when she visited his home in London. He felt because their childhood was spent apart that their relationship was lacking in some understanding. By learning of her childhood, Yeats now believed that they would achieve the perfect platonic relationship. He uses the idea of Platos parable from the work Symposium. In that work Plato suggested that male and female were identical at birth but grew apart as they developed. Yeats investigated the image suggesting that while he and Maud were born apart they have gradually come closer together, so that they are comporable to the yolk and white of one egg. His preoccupation has continued into stanza three.
Stanza III: In this stanza he wonders if any reminder of her as a child can be seen in the faces in the children sitting before him. Although he describes Maud Gonne as a semi-devine image, he recognises that there may be a similarity between her and the childhood of ordinary children -: "For even daughters of the swan can share Something of every paddler's heritage" The belief in this possibility excites in Yeats the idea of Maud Gonne as a child:- "She stands before me as a living child."
Stanza IV: In this stanza the reality of the present reasserts itself and an image of an ageing Maud Gonne is presented, however, even in what is a less than perfect image, Yeats finds a means to attribute a magnificence to Maud. He compares her to a renaissance sculptor which were remarkable for the realism in which they portrayed the subject while still retaining an artistic perfection. Maud Gonne's features are therefore portrayed as -: "Did Quattrocento finger fashion it Hollow of cheek as though drank the wind And took a mess of shadows for its meet?" Yeats though realising his imperfections also sees the degradation of his own state with age. In the final lines of stanza four, Yeats, rather than admit to the reality, puts on a mask - the sixty year old smiling public man redescribed as-: "a comfortable kind of old scarecrow."
Stanza V: In this stanza Yeats moves from a personal and universalises his theme. He is fascinated by the aging process and the mortality of man. He wonders if a mother nursing her new born son would, if she saw him as a sixty year old man, felt that the pain of childbirth was worth it given the decrepid state of her sons body. He sees the process of birth as a turmoil for the child suggesting that birth is accompanied by the timing of forgetfulness which gradually includes the infant to forget the prenatal existence in the womb. He interprets the suckling of a new born child as symbolising a battle memory and forgetfulness as on one hand the child seeking to return to the prenatal environment and as the other is forced by its humanity to continue with its mortal existence.
Stanza VI: In stanza six Yeats investigates the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle and Phythagarous. Plato's philosophy suggested that this world was but a shadowy reflection of the real world. Aristotle by contrast had a more prismatic philosophy. As the tutor of Alexander the Great, Aristotle's philosophy was givin an opportunity to prove himself and did so by the military victories by his pupil. Phythagarous saw the world in terms of music and he believed that the alignment of the planets was comparable to the musical notes on a scale. None of the philosophers provide a solution for Yeats. As each declined into old age and died.
Stanza VII: In this stanza Yeats considers the question of the worshipper and the worshipped . He begins with a seemingly paradoxical comparison between nuns and mothers. Suggesting that an image worshipped by a mother i.e. infant child, while differed from the statues worshipped by nuns are in essence as unresponsive-: "Yet they too break hearts" What Yeats means here is that a child will not always returns to its mothers love or with- "With sixty or more winters on its head" will not match up to the perfect image it has of it. While a religious statue representing the saint will not always answer the nuns prayers. In the second half of the stanza he introduces a third element that of the unrequited lover (that is Yeats himself) and suggests that all those who worship images of perfection are ultimately disappointed by them, the reality is not the ideal - that the images we create in our mind are far removed from the actual object that forms our love.
Stanza VIII: The original draft of the poem finished at the end of stanza VII but on reflection, Yeats felt that it was too pessimistic. Stanza VIII provides us with a passable refuse from this pessimism a suggestion that perhaps unity of being is obtainable. Yeats provides us with two metaphors-: i) a chestnut tree. He shows that the tree is made up of many separate components -: "Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?" but in doing this he recognises that the essence of the tree is its unity-: "Great-rooted blossomer" Similarly Yeats recognises that it is impossible to speculate the dancer from the dance as one without the other would not exist.