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Among School Children -- William Butler Yeats

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?
-- William Butler Yeats
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

36 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Katherine E. Hudson said...

Lucy, thank you, thank you! I too think it's a great poem (like the
others you cite) and appreciate your commentary greatly.

Jeremiah Per Dahlgren said...

Lucy and the others responsible for these poems here:

Thanks for posting this poem and for the commentary, which helped to clarify some of the more obscure and "dense" lines.

I am captivated by the famous lines, "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?" They recently came up in a professional journal article for school counseling, "Spirituality, Complexity, and Career Counseling," in reference to wholeness and the inseparability and connectedness of all life.

I am fascinated by Yates' eliptical, descriptive style, which alludes to many things that I am certain you almost have to be a classics scholar to understand fully (much in the same way that you really have to know classical literature to understand T.S. Eliot). Like all great arts and artists, he implies more than he states. Thanks again -- I'll be chewing on this one for awhile (am training "among school children" at the moment, and it brings up many, many deep feelings about the past, the future, the here and now, and eternity). Jeremiah Per Dahlgren

alpna said...

lucy thanks alot!! it helped me understand the poem immensenly. was due a project on it..had to analyse it n i jst cudnt figure it out!!
so thanks alot!!!

alpna,pari and sama

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