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Analysis of Poem The Song of the Old Mother by W.B.Yeats

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

W.B.Yeats

W.B.Yeats and The Song of the Old Mother

The Song of the Old Mother is a single stanza, short rhyming poem made up of five couplets. It reflects the deep love Yeats had for all things Irish and is one of a number of song poems published in the book The Wind Among The Reeds, of 1899.

W.B. Yeats was 34 years of age when the collection appeared and it would be his last venture into the purely romantic stage of his development as a poet. Some years later he met up with the young American modernist Ezra Pound, who encouraged him to adopt new ways of poetic structure with leaner language.

There's no doubt that Yeats's poem was influenced by the English poet and engraver William Blake, who started his final epic poem The Four Zoas in 1797. Full of symbolism and religious references, it starts with Night the First:

The Song of the Aged Mother which shook the heavens with wrath

Here the Mother is a mythical mother who it is said 'perceives the eternity in all things.' The line contains both iambic and anapaestic beats, as in Yeats's poem.

But, The Song of the Old Mother can be looked at in two ways. Taken literally it is the song of an aging peasant woman who has many domestic duties to perform. Perhaps she is a servant employed by wealthy people to get the household up and running before the children, who dream of romance and marriage and fun, are awake.

There are is a strong contrast between the older working woman, who is perhaps only concerned with work, and is inactive sexually, and the younger ones in their bed, with mere concerns for their appearance and their strong romantic dreams.

In symbolic terms this old mother is the country of Ireland, destined to serve her masters - England - becoming worn out by the demands of her tasks, whilst the English do nothing but dream and flirt and become upset at the least little thing that doesn't go their way.

The Song of the Old Mother

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;
And the young lie long and dream in their bed
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,
And their days go over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress:
While I must work because I am old,
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

Analysis of The Song of the Old Mother

The Song of the Old Mother uses lilting rhythms, long vowel sounds and full rhyme to create an atmosphere of familiar unhappiness, even resentment, as the old mother goes about her domestic tasks, with the young ones still in bed.

And it's this contrast between old and young that gives the short poem its focal point and main theme. It's not just age that separates mother from young, it's the fact that she is no longer able to fully enjoy her physicality, and her sexuality.

In a literal sense these couplets depict the hard life of an old woman who has to work from dawn until dusk to survive, whilst the lazy young ones sleep on, no doubt unaware that their household is made and kept by a servant.

But there may be more to these lines than meet the eye. As previously mentioned, this old mother has issues regarding her sexuality and her fertility, this is why there is such a strong comparison between the protagonists.

For example, note the use of the word seed in the context of the fire. It occurs twice in the poem, near the beginning and right at the end, so it's an important clue as to what is getting under the skin of this old mother.

This must be the seed that is at first aglow but by the end of the stanza is feeble and cold. That is, the old mother realises that she no longer has the power to conceive - she's only got her work as a kind of consolation - but the young ones are ready for romance, even marriage and are more concerned about the way they look.

So there is the idea in this poem of a rift between generations, the old mother fully conscious of her limitations in old age especially since she has to share the same space as those idle young dreamers.

Further Analysis of The Song of the Old Mother

The Song of the Old Mother is a ten line poem made up of five full rhyming couplets. What is important to note in this lyrical poem is the varied tetrameter beat, on a theme of iambic and anapaestic feet, which produces a lilting and rising feel, almost like a chant.

Metre (meter in American English)

  • Let's go through each line metrically (stressed syllables in bold):

I rise / in the dawn, / and I kneel / and blow (iamb+anapaest+anapaest+iamb)
Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow; (anapaest+anapaest+trochee+iamb)
And then I must scrub and bake and sweep (iamb+anapaest+iamb+iamb)
Till stars are beginning to blink and peep; (iamb+anapaest+anapaest+iamb)
And the young lie long and dream in their bed (anapaest+iamb+iamb+anapaest)
Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head, (anapaest x3 + iamb)
And their days go over in idleness, (anapaest+iamb+anapaest+iamb)
And they sigh if the wind but lift a tress: (anapaest+anapaest+iamb+iamb)
While I must work because I am old, (iamb x3 + anapaest)
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold. (anapaest x2 +iamb+anapaest)

  • Each line has a slightly different rhythm, except for lines 1 and 4 which both have anapaests in the middle of the line between iambs. This means that the reader experiences a sort of wave-like motion of sounds, down, around and up again.
  • Each line ends on a rising beat.
  • The second line contains a trochee foot, an inverted iamb, which brings a natural slight pause between fire and flicker.

Alliteration

There are several examples of alliterative language, which brings texture to sound and increases interest for the reader:

Line 2 : fire flicker

Line 3 : scrub and bake and sweep

Line 4 : beginning to blink

Line 5 : lie long

Line 9 : While I must work

Line 10 : fire gets feeble.

Repetition

Repeating words and phrases helps reinforce ideas and introduces echoes. In this particular poem the monotony of the work is reflected in several repeats:

And then/And the/And their/And they/And the

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

Comments

Andrew Spacey (author) from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK on April 29, 2018:

Appreciate the visit. Yeats's earlier poems are well worth the effort.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 28, 2018:

I enjoyed your analysis of this W. B. Yeats poem of an older working woman. Thanks for introducing me to it as well as delving more into the meaning of it.

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