William Butler Yeats' "Among School Children"

Updated on October 11, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

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

Source

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

The poet served from 1922-1928 in the senate of the newly formed Irish Free State. His narration of a visit to a school in "Among School Children," by today's standards, would likely be enough to have him branded a sexual pervert by his political opposition.

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. And 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, but perhaps he is smiling for additional reasons.

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 then begins a narration that, by today's political standards, could be interpreted as a perversion by any political opponent who wished to tarnish the reputation of the "smiling public man."

The speaker veers off into a "dream" of a young girl whose copulation with the god Zeus has been considered a "rape." He 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 alters the child's day from "childish" to tragedy."

The speaker 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."

A unscrupulous political opponent might likely argue that a sixty year old man put in mind of the "rape" of Leda by Zeus indicates that that politician is a danger to women. Only a perverted, toxic male mind would be dreaming of that "Ledaean" body while visiting a school where many little girls are studying. And although this suggestion is ludicrous, by today's standards on the left, it would work marvelously for senators such as Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), and Mazie Hirono (D-HI).

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 digs the hole of perversion even deeper as he continues his musing about the "rape" of Leda by the big Zeus swan. While continuing to muse about that coupling, he is staring intently at "one child or t'other" as he wonders if he raped them would they take on the "colour upon [her] cheek" as Leda must have done.

And as he thinks of this scenario, the speaker asserts that his "heart is driven wild," because a little girl is standing in from of him "as a living child." A sixty year old man, remember, is having this perverted image of himself as Zeus and the little girl as Leda, and it drives him wild. The perversion and danger is palpable. Enough to give Senator Booker another "Spartacus" moment!

Fourth Stanza: A Dream of Indulgence

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 lecherous old speaker then draws an embarrassing picture of how his own qualities might change the little girl once she is 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 this phooey might result in nothing more than "a mess of shadows for its meat," or so he queries.

Then the old lecher seems to be yanked out of his dream of raping these children, as Zeus had raped Leda, and 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 not the lecherous old coot his dreams have now branded him, but rather he is simply a "comfortable kind of old scarecrow."

If he thinks this observation and turn of events would save him from the groupthink mob of Whitehouse-Bookerites out to smear him, he would have to rethink that proposition. Because look where he goes next!

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 not 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."

Although the speaker now seems to be ruminating on his own uncertainty, those who seeks to blacken his reputation will see only that he has further dreamed of his issue with these little girls that results 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 toxic masculinity has imposed perverted dreams up these innocent little girls. Thus he enlists "Plato" again to insert code words hat 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, those yammer-mouthed, sex-crazed lefties would insist are coded language revealing the senator's state of toxic manhood.

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 mankind are merely "self-born." The wisdom of the ages cannot penetrate a small school where little girls can become passion pits for aged men who cannot help themselves against the toxic masculinity with which thy 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 final stanza of this poem simply does not belong with the rest of the poem. It could, in fact, stand alone as its own full throated poem. The sex-crazed, toxic masculinity bashers, therefore, would have nothing to say about this stanza, and they would pretend that it does not even exist, for its message would demolish all the ludicrous claims they had spewed forth regarding the speaker's perverted dreams of molesting young girls. The final stanza offers melding of body and soul along with the Zen Buddhist idea of the unity of knower-knowing-known. The speaker who has offered the notion that the soul need not require the body to suffer for it and that beauty need not come from despair, and the acquisition of knowledge need not require burning the "midnight oil."

The speaker then implies that unity of creation is exemplified in the "chestnut tree" which features roots, leaves, blossoms, and boles, and thus it remains impossible to know which part that "great rooted blossomer" actually is. And 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, declares that "the dancer from the dance" are, in fact, united—they are the same entity as one cannot know one from the other.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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