Guest poem sent in by Lucy Garrett
(Poem #1441) 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 histories, 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?
Saturday's poem by Harindranath Chattopadhyaya [Poem #1438] reminded me of Yeats' poem Among School Children, which by some terrible omission you don't yet seem to have on the archive. The poems both deal with the relation between the creator and the creation. This is quintessential Yeats: dense, allusive, intense and erotic; obsessed with death, desire, age, religion and art. It's wonderful stuff. Read it out loud and feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. Some notes on the text might be helpful: Verse 2: "a Laedean body" : see also Leda and The Swan & No Second Troy (both on Minstrels). Yeats is referring to the love of his life, Maud Gonne (mostly unrequited). In many of his poems she appears as a figure from Greek mythology (as well as being as beautiful as Leda, whom Zeus loved in the form of a swan, she is also often likened to Helen of Troy because she is fierce and warriorlike). See also the completely gorgeous poem: "He Wishes For the Cloths of Heaven." How did the girl resist? "Plato's parable" and "natures blent / into a sphere from youthful sympathy": Plato said that everyone on earth before birth formed part of a sphere. At birth we are split in half and we spend the rest of our life searching to find our mate - the other half of the sphere. In some cases the whole was female, in other cases male, in other cases half and half. Hence he explained homosexuality and heterosexuality. Sweet, no? It's commonly thought that he might not have put this theory forward totally seriously... Verse 3: "daughters of the swan": see Leda and the Swan again. Yeats is finessing the likeness to Leda - she looks like one of Leda's daughters. See the poem for the rather passionate circs of the conception. The remainder of the poem contrasts human life with art, philosophy and religion. It sets up a contrast (often seen in Yeats' poetry) between the permanence yet hollowness of art ("old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird") and the often disappointed/frustrated mortality of man's life (I am particularly keen on the notion of a baby as a shape that the "honey of generation" has betrayed into life and which the young mother wouldn't think worth the trouble of giving birth to, were she to see him with 60 winters on his head. Please also note that the 60 winters is a reference back to Yeats himself in the 1st verse - Yeats is counting himself among those not worth giving birth to). Also interesting to note the capitalised "Son" - allusion to religion. Verse 7 asserts that art is triumphant over life - it mocks life in its perfection and breaks hearts. Don't you love the line "But keep a marble or a bronze repose"? Verse 8 is the answer to all the above. It creates a triumphant synergy between art and its creation - man in the act of creation is drawn into the immortality of the creation and the creation, although pure and perfect, must depend on the man. The process is natural and entirely unforced. Therefore the two are one and interdependent. Also absolutely glorious poetry: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?" This theme of the interdependence of man and art and the power of art to transfigure mortality is explored in many of Yeats' poems. I recommend Lapis Lazuli, Sailing to Byzantium and Byzantium in particular, as some of the greatest poetry ever written as well as sophisticated analyses of this dichotomy. See also Proust's A La Recherche de Temps Perdu for the world's longest ever discussion on the point. Love to all, Lucy Garrett