Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
W.B. Yeats and a Summary of 'Among School Children'
'Among School Children' is one of Yeats' later poems and focuses on human potential, how we as creative beings can work towards a unity of body and soul to fulfil that potential.
- The poem deals with several major issues: contrasting youth and old age, school work and life wisdom, love and physical pain, intellect and artistic expression.
- Overall, the theme is that of essential change, how a person deals with the passage of time, desire, ideals and how that person works towards harmony and union.
- The first five stanzas explore youth, old age and love from a personal perspective; the latter three becoming more impersonal as the speaker attempts to reach a unifying vision.
- Each stanza is a progressive step towards what is ultimately a question concerning expression and complete harmony of a human life.
- The ottava rima form in this poem works to create a sense of unity, but the mix of full and imperfect rhyme isn't fully tuned to this ideal. Note that the first 6 stanzas are complete within themselves, end stopped or given a question mark; each is a separate topic but gradually they build up to stanzas 7 & 8 which are connected by semi-colon - the last stanza freeing the speaker from cycles of toil and intellectual disappointment.
In 1922, Yeats became a senator in the Irish Free State parliament and part of his remit was to sit on an educational committee and investigate schools. The Irish Catholic Church ran many of them and it was on such an official visit in 1926 to St Otteran's in Waterford, run by the Sisters of Mercy, that Yeats had the idea for this poem.
In a diary entry for March 26th 1926 he wrote:
'School children, and the thought that life will waste them, perhaps that no possible life can fulfil their own dreams or even their teacher's hope. Bring in the old thought that life prepares for what never happens.'
'Among School Children' is one of several poems Yeats wrote dealing with the relationship of body to soul. Other poems include:
- To a Child Dancing in the Wind
- The Mask
- Ego Dominus Tuus
- The Double Vision of Michael Robartes
- A Crazed Girl
- A Dialogue of Self and Soul
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 history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way—the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into 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 rage
I look upon one child or t'other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age—
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something 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 it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once—enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
As recollection or the drug decide,
Would think her son, did she but see that shape
With 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 plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Solider Aristotle played the taws
Upon the bottom of a king of kings;
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What 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 those
That animate a mother's reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts—O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise—
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The 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?
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'Among School Children'
The first stanza sets up a scene of contrasts. Here is the speaker visiting a school run by nuns. He is observing and questioning, gaining answers from the nun and impressions from the children who are busy at their tasks.
It becomes clear towards the end of the stanza that the speaker is aware of the age and generation gap. He is 60 years old with limited time left, they are modern and have all their lives ahead of them.
Yeats at this time was a senator, an important official, and his duties involved the inspection of schools, mostly run by the Catholic church.
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That word cipher means to do arithmetic. It's not really used in that sense anymore.
The first person narrative continues but changes tack as the speaker starts to dream, to think about things past and present. Innocence is lost, but what will be the outcome?
The Ledaean body refers to the Greek myth Yeats wrote about in his poem Leda and the Swan. Leda is raped by Zeus in the form of a swan and gives birth to Helen of Troy and Castor and Pollux.
As the speaker walks through the schoolroom he is thinking back to a woman he loved with a youthful passion, a certain Maud Gonne (who refused Yeats's proposal to marry). She is the Ledaean body, a beauty, who loses her innocence, who tells the tale of blame that changed everything.
This is the speaker's fantasy, wishing to unite (in sensuality) with his first love, to become a complete human.
- The idea comes from Plato's Symposium which tells of the legend of the origin of human love, of how humans were cut in two by Zeus, the ancient Greek god, to reduce their power. And so, to become whole a human being needs to find the other missing half (ie the yolk needs the white of the egg).
The syntax - the way clauses and grammar is put together - is of interest in this stanza. It is one long sentence, broken up into clauses by astute use of commas and a dash. Use of enjambment when a line runs on into the next, alters the pace and momentum. Note line 11, which extends the usual pentameter by two feet, becoming an iambic hexameter:
Told of / a harsh / reproof, / or tri / vial / event
The speaker continues the imagining as he looks around, placing his beloved Maud Gonne in the schoolroom, as a child, before innocence was lost. It's a challenging position to be in, to look back in time and in the mind's eye see a woman he had a passion for become a child.
Yeats in real life found little satisfaction in love. Maud Gonne did not reciprocate, and he ended up marrying a woman for something less than whole love.
In a sense this stanza is saying...education cannot prepare a human for life's essential emotional lessons in love. There is a parallel between Yeats and Maud Gonne and the school children and their future experiences as adults.
Little wonder that the speaker is driven wild by these provocative images in his head.
That word Quattrocento relates to Italian art of the 15th century, so the speaker is becoming more visual in his use of language, painting a picture of a classical Maud Gonne, now in the present, and therefore old.
Lines 27 and 28 are particularly poignant because they portray this image of an old woman from the 15th century, who drinks wind and eats shadows as if they were meat - like someone out of a Celtic fairy tale.
Yeats as speaker is implying that Maud Gonne is now old and gaunt because of desires unfulfilled, partly based on real life events - they did have brief intimacies but her reluctance to commit permanently to Yeats affected him greatly.
The wind dries out, is a lost voice. And could it be that the shadows relate to those in Plato's Cave of Unknowing?
The speaker is looking back at what might have been when he still had the looks and energy but knows better than to feel sorry for past losses. He makes light of it, stays positive, admits metaphorically he's relaxed in his role as an official scarecrow.
This stanza focuses on motherhood and child bearing, the physical pain and labour of bringing a child into the world - is it worth it when that child turns into an adult? Then having to bring up the child knowing that it might never reach potential?
The phrase Honey of generation comes from the Greek philosopher Porphyry's essay on The Cave of the Nymphs, where it signifies a drug, that which nullifies the memory of the pre-natal foetus
Yeats again uses one long sentence to detail the experience of the mother and ask one question of value. How does the mother balance the physical aspect of delivery with that of maturity and growing up?
How does the physical bond relate to the spiritual?
There is a definite move away from the physical and personal - the speaker introduces three Greek philosophers in an attempt to find answers.
- Plato thought that the world of nature is a copy of an ideal world of real forms or prototypes that exist in a world transcending our own.
- Aristotle believed in investigation and dissected nature to find proofs. He was tutor to King Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great, hence the taws, the whip.
- Pythagoras was held to be an incarnation of the god Apollo (hence the golden-thighed) and thought the universe subject to mathematical laws, based on musical harmony, the music of the spheres.
- The Muses are the nine sister goddesses ruling over song, poetry, the arts and sciences.
These great thinkers are all subject to aging; they become scarecrows like the speaker, despite their theories and profound ideas.
The speaker concentrates on the female gender, going back to the nun, the mother and eventually the lover, Maud Gonne.
Religious people lie the nun worship ideal images, wanting perfection. Mothers dote on their children naturally, seeing in them a perfect being. But sooner or later cracks start to appear and these ideals disappoint, they too break hearts....
Yeats is building up to the climax of the eighth stanza, telling the reader that passion (his for Maud Gonne), piety (the nun's and their images) and affection (the mother's for her child) will develop their own ability to mock...it's self-born because of the intense longing for ideals.
After seven stanzas the speaker eventually introduces that which will not result in heart-ache, pain and disappointment but unity....this is a state where body mingles with soul and where natural expression takes over from cerebral knowledge.
Yet, questions still persist. Why? The chestnut-tree is given, an example of beauty...the tree as a whole labours to produce its blossom, each part necessary, reliant on the other for expression.
The body responds to music, the eye sharp and focused, the dance a creative, rhythmic expression of body and soul.
The speaker is concluding enigmatically - it is the artist inside that prevails, learning from nature and its own intuition, in harmony with the rhythm of discipline and form.
Physical love, lust, sex; religious feeling, the quest for an ideal; knowledge and theory and ideas are all well and good but it's the solo dance, the way we express being that has to come through if we're to avoid a sense of waste and despair.
Literary and Poetic Devices in 'Among School Children'
Alliteration: when two or more words close together in a line start with the same consonant:
changed some childish....Plato's parable...thinking of that...stood so...finger fashion...pretty plumage...sleep, shriek, struggle...drug decide...fingered upon a fiddle-stick...star sang...sticks to scare...that passion, piety...mockers of man's...body is not bruised...beauty born...blossom or the bole...dancer from the dance.
Alliteration brings texture and reinforces certain sounds for effect.
Assonance: when two or more words close together in a line have similar sounding vowels:
dream of a Ledaean...thinking of that fit...she but see...sixty or more winters...Upon the bottom...golden-thighed Pythagoras...Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings...Old clothes...wisdom out of midnight...
Caesura: pause in a line, often midway through punctuation (but not always punctuation, it can occur naturally in longer lines). For example, in lines 6 and 35:
In the best modern way- the children's eyes
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape
Enjambment: when a line runs on into the next with no punctuation, carrying sense (meaning) and momentum. For example, in lines 9-11:
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire, a tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
Rhyme and Metre (Meter in American English) in 'Among School Children'
'Among School Children' is a rhyming poem with 8 stanzas, each having eight lines, making 64 in total.
The form is known as ottava rima, originating in Italy, made up of a cross rhyming sestet and couplet, with rhyme scheme:
Most of the rhymes are full, for example:
questioning/sing/everything ... wild/child.
But many are half rhyme, or imperfect rhyme:
This reflects a tension between harmony (full rhyme) and discord (half and imperfect rhyme.
Metre (Meter in American English)
Ottava rima form is traditionally in iambic pentameter that is, each line should have five regular iambic feet...daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM ...with the stress on the second syllable and lines that rise.
Yeats however altered this pattern and although certain lines are pure iambic pentameter many others are not. For example, here are the first four lines:
I walk / through the / long school / room quest / ioning;
A kind / old nun / in a / white hood / replies;
The chil / dren learn / to ci / pher and / to sing,
To stu / dy rea / ding-books / and hist / ories,
So from the outset, pure iambic pentameter is not established. Read the first line and there is no regular daDUM rhythm. The long vowels reinforce a sense of slowness and the last word questioning falls away.
There is an iambic pentameter line—line 3—and the clear regular beat can be heard as the children go through their activity. The next line continues this but again the stress falls away with histories.
These three syllable end words continue, dispersed throughout the poem's sestets:
So look out for these lines that alter the basic iambic rhythm when you read the poem. They bring a different pattern and pace to the poem, add interest and challenge the reader to negotiate lines with added focus. For example:
World-fa / mous gol / den-thighed / Pythag / oras
Here we have a 10-syllable line with five feet, so it is an iambic pentameter because it has three iambs but watch out for the opening spondee (double stress) and ends with the quieter pyrrhic (no stresses or hardly detectable stress).
And this example is of interest, line 43 from stanza 6:
Solid / er A / ristot / le played / the taws
Again, 10 syllables and five feet, four of them iambic apart from the opening trochee (inverted iamb) with stress on the first syllable.
Plus this line, line 33, Stanza 5:
What youth / ful moth / er, a shape / upon / her lap
This time there are 11 syllables which tells you that there is a different kind of foot in the line. It comes midway and is an anapaest (dadaDUM) although the caesura - pause caused by the comma, rather disguises it.
These subtle and not so subtle metrical changes help mix up the rhythms and in conjunction with syntax help make this poem a joy to digest.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Poetry handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
© 2019 Andrew Spacey