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William Butler Yeats' "Among School Children"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "Among School Children"

While William Butler Yeats is without a doubt a great poet, who delved deeply into truth and tried to understand historical events, he was not always successful in understanding certain principles. He set out on a journey of study that led him to Eastern Philosophical and Religious thought, but he did not quite understand the Eastern concepts that he attempted to exploit in many of his poems.

Although not among his works that broach the Eastern philosophical concepts, "Among School Children" is one of Yeats' most anthologized poems. It features numerous allusions to ancient Greek mythology and philosophy. Yeats was always a thinker, even if not always a clear thinking one.

Among School Children

I
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.

II
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.

III
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.

IV
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.

V
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?

VI
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.

VII
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;

VIII
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?

Reading of "Among School Children"

Commentary

William Butler Yeats served from 1922-1928 in the senate of the newly formed Irish Free State. His speaker in "Among School Children" is dramatizing what was likely an official, mandatory visit to a Catholic school.

First Stanza: An Old Man Visiting a School

I
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.

The speaker is visiting a Catholic school and "a kind old nun in a white hood" is escorting him through the "long schoolroom," explaining the lessons that the pupils are studying. They study math and music; they read and study history. They receive instruction in sewing, as they learn to be "neat in everything." All this is accomplished in the "best modern way."

The speaker then notices that the children are staring at him, who is a "sixty-year-old smiling public man." Yeats was born is 1865; thus he would be 60 years old in 1925, which means that he is visiting this school in the third year of his service in the senate. As a political man, he, of course, would be smiling, as he meets his public, even if they are only school age children.

Second Stanza: The Politics of Perversion

II
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.

The speaker has begun his narration in which he refers to himself as a ""smiling public man." As a political official his public must always see him smiling; thus, he keeps up the façade even as he meets with little children. He then veers off into a "dream" of a young girl whose copulation with the god Zeus has been considered a rape.

The speaker paints a drama of the event with the brush of a "body, bent / Above a sinking fire." He adds into the mix the young girl telling "a tale" "of harsh reproof." Or perhaps it was merely a "trivial event" but still it alters the child's day from "childish" to "tragedy." He then implies a coupling by employing the images of "two natures blent" into which the swan's semen and the girl's ova blend into a version of "Plato's parable" of "yolk and white of the one shell."

Third Stanza: Rape Musing

III
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.

The speaker then continues his musing about the rape of Leda by the Zeusian swan. While continuing to muse about that coupling, he is staring intently at "one child or t'other" as he wonders if this child’s countenance and behavior may resemble that of the young Leda. And as he thinks of this scenario, the speaker asserts that his "heart is driven wild," observing this little girl standing in from of him "as a living child."

Fourth Stanza: A Dream of Indulgence

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IV
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.

The speaker then unveils an image of his own qualities, suggesting that they might change the little girl if she were impregnated with his spawn. He wonders how stately and beautiful such a creature would be if resulting from a grandiose Irish senator and little girl attending this Catholic school. On the other hand, all these intrusive images might be resulting from nothing more than "a mess of shadows," as he speculates.

Then the speaker seems to be wrenched out of his dream as he claims he was "never of Ledaean kind," though he once went about as a very handsome man indeed, with "pretty plumage." But then "enough of that"—he must snap back into senator, public man persona, smile and show that he is still a "smiling public man" who resembles more a "comfortable kind of old scarecrow" than the dramatic features of the Ledaean scenario, including a Zeusian swan with fine feathers.

Fifth Stanza: Uncertain Future of Each Child

V
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?

The speaker then instead of remaining that comfortable old scarecrow now continues to envision the result of copulation. He now imagines a "youthful mother" holding a baby. He then wonders—through the gestation period and the difficulty of giving birth and then the reality of the child right there on her lap—if the young mother could possibly think of that child after it has lived for sixty or so years as a worthwhile accomplishment, that is, would the "pang of his birth" be worth it. After all his future will always remain an "uncertainty."

The speaker now is ruminating on his own uncertainty, as he has further delved dreamlike into the issue with these little girls—an issue that has inexplicably resulted in images of himself.

Sixth Stanza: The Prospect of Scaring a Bird

VI
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.

Again the speaker inserts himself into the narrative, "old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird"—the scarecrow image again. He seems to be railing against his own aging and appearance. But he nevertheless cannot leave the notion that his own hidden nature has imposed unexpected, disturbing dreams including these innocent little girls.

Thus, the disgruntled speaker then enlists "Plato" again to insert suggestive words that refer to his libido, for example, "nature but a spume," and Aristotle playing the taws "upon the bottom of a king," along with "golden-thighed Pythagoras," and "fingered upon a fiddle-sick." These terms have invaded the senator's state of mind, rendering him contemplative of the nature of hidden drives that spring up unbidden in unlikely places and events.

Seventh Stanza: Images and Worship

VII
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;

The speaker then draws a contrast between what a nun worships and what an ordinary mother worships. They both "worship images," but those images are not the same. The nun worship images that are hard, harsh, and tinged with craven-spelled beings that break hearts.

Mothers, on the other hand, worship "Presences," which inculcate passion along with piety and affection that dulls human awareness to the point that those who mock humankind are merely "self-born."

The wisdom of the ages cannot penetrate a small school where little girls can become targets for aged men who cannot seem to control their hidden urges with which they are born and against which those mothers have no power to struggle.

Eighth Stanza: The Nature of Unity

VIII
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?

The eighth and final stanza of this poem does not rest comfortably with first seven. It could, in fact, stand alone as its own full throated poem. It offers a melding of body and soul along with the Zen Buddhist idea of the unity of knower-knowing-known.

The speaker is offering the notions that the soul need not require the body to suffer for it, that beauty need not come from despair, and that the acquisition of knowledge need not require burning the "midnight oil." He, thus, is implying that unity of creation is exemplified in the "chestnut tree" which features roots, leaves, blossoms, and boles, and it, therefore, remains impossible to know which part that "great rooted blossomer" actually is.

Also, when a dancer is dancing and swaying to music, and an observer looks with delight upon that dance, the rhetorical question in the final line, paradoxically questions, "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" The obvious answer, of course, forces itself upon the mind that they are, in fact, united—they are the same entity as one cannot know one from the other.

The Final Stanza's Unifying Element

While the final stanza seems to separate itself from the rest of this poem, the unifying element is that all thoughts and all events ultimately proceed out of the mind of one Creative Force. The speaker has been visited dreamlike by mythological characters and events that he would likely never have deliberately thought to contemplate, especially as he is performing a civil duty in a public place. Thus, the question, are the speaker and his thoughts the same or are they separate entities?

If they are separate then the speaker may be filled with guilt because of his thoughts about the "living" child who stood before him, causing his heart to race. One the other hand, if it is all of one fabric and all is related, his thoughts come as naturally as a dancer dancing or as a tree being the sum of its parts.

Thus, readers could take away from the poem the notion that the final stanza works to place in perspective the speaker’s possible self-judgment. He can accept his thoughts as naturally occurring, or he can self-flagellate and likely disrupt his own ability to continue doing the work he must do.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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