Analysis of Among School Children by William Butler Yeats

 

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, at Sandymount near Dublin in Ireland.  He was fascinated by Irish legends and the occult, which influenced his early works. His later works were more influenced by physical and realistic subject matter and with the cyclical theories of life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. Yeats wrote this poem, ‘Among School Children,’ most probably in 1926 after his visit in that year to a progressive convent school at Waterfront, St. Otteran’s School.

The poem begins with an observation about the young girls who were awed by the poet’s visit to their school. Then the poem moves away from direct observations to a reflection about a young girl he knew and to a philosophical reflection about life, youth and the creative process.

 

Overview

Title: It is about the personal experience of the poet who visited a Christian girls’ school. While walking among the fresh saplings, he realizes the true essence of life.

Form: a rhyming poem with 8 stanzas, a type of stanza called ottava rima, an eight-line stanza that rhymes, developed by early Italian Renaissance poets, used for long narrative poems. Each having eight lines, making 64 in total.

Meter: iambic pentameter with some alterations.

Rhyme scheme: ABABABCC

Theme: the inseparable connection between life, love and death. / How life should be enjoyed not in parts but as a whole since love and despair are both intertwined in the journey of life/ the inevitability of death.

 

Deep-end Analysis

 

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.

 

visual imagery: kind old nun in a white hood, children’s eyes…wonder stare open, smiling public man

alliteration: cipher and to sing, sixty-year-old smiling

allusion: best modern way (refers to the Montessori Method introduced into the school system) cipher (mathematics)

 

The speaker relates his personal experience of visiting a school run in the church. He understands the age difference between the children and himself as well as the change in the system of education.

 

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.

 

enjambment: the stanza is a one long sentence which alters the momentum in the poem.

allusion: Ledaean body (Related to Greek myth Leda, who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan and gives birth to Helen of Troy.  In the poet’s real life, he is referring to Maud Gonne who Yeats loved but never married.) Plato’s parable (Refers to the Greek myth, Zeus cut humans into two to reduce their power, to regain the full power, one must find the other half.)

metaphor: Ledaean body (a body that is lost its innocence) into the yolk and white of the one shell (yolk needs white to be perfect as an egg similarly, a man needs to find his other half, that means his beloved in order to be perfect.) childish day (early day when they were young)

visual/kinesthetic imagery: …a Ledaean body, bent/ Above a sinking fire (a beautiful woman near a fire place, trying to kindle it.)

caesura: …some childish day to tragedy - /Told… (a pause to emphasize)

oxymoron: youthful sympathy (immature emotions which lead to infatuation)

 

When he sees the children, his mind recaps of his young age and the girl he loved. He now refers her as Ledaean body. Though she had been a beautiful girl, now she has lost her childhood innocence and become an old woman. He recaps how their emotions blended together changing the Plato’s parable and making them united. This reveals the fantasy of Yeats to be united with his beloved to be a complete person. However, it was not successful as Maud Gonne refused his marriage proposal.

 

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.

 

allusion: daughters of the swan (referring to Helen of Troy)

parallelism: daughters of swan and paddlers’ daughters (the richest and the poor)

caesura: so at that age -/…, paddler’s heritage-…

alliteration: fit of grief, if she stood so

assonance: I look upon one child or t’other

 

Poet is still engulfed in his fantasy; he now tries to imagine Maud Gonne as a school child, sitting among the children in the class. He draws parallel among each child to Maud Gonne, as she a child of similar age; He sees everybody shares almost similar appearance and qualities; had his beloved be in the same age she would have been the same. Knowing this his heart beats fast as he sees his beloved in the form of children in the classroom.

 

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.

 

allusion: Quattrocento finger (the portrait of an old woman by some fifteenth-century Italian painter who had painted her old-age portrait with hollow cheeks.)

simile: Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind

visual imagery: her cheek hollow just as she drank air

anaphora: and, and

caesura: …plumage once – enough of that

alliteration: smile on all that smile and show

 

The speaker tries to imagine Maud Gonne as an old woman who drinks wind and eat shadows. He compares her present state as the paint of the Italian painter. He turns back to himself and understands that his youth is too faded making him like an old scarecrow. However, he opts to behave in a pleasant way by smiling with others. Though he urges to stay positive, his grimace of lost relationship at the ripe age is evident by his hesitant speech.

 

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?

 

allusion: Honey of generation (a phrase taken from Porphyry's essay 'The Cave of the Nymphs'. Honey of generation is seen as a drug which erases the memory of the previous life of the child)

metaphor: a shape upon her lap (the infant) Honey of generation had betrayed (a child descended from the kingdom of souls after drinking the draught of oblivion, forgetting/betraying his memory of the previous life) sixty or more winters on its head (white streaks of hair on the head when one turns into the age of sixty.) the pang of birth (labor pain)

contrast: the playful child vs the same child at his old age

alliteration: sleep, shriek, struggle/ drug decide

enjambment: Yeats again uses one long sentence to detail the experience of the mother and ask one question of value.

 

The poet wonders whether a mother sees her child as a figure of an old person when he/she is in the form of an infant. Poet further questions that: is it worthy to have such a labor pain to give a life knowing it is going to face deterioration? Here, poet contrasts the child who is naturally playful and fresh to the same child in his old age with white hair. He further explains the uncertainty of the future life of a child as nobody can predict the future. The poet suddenly transforms his view point from personal to more universal and philosophical revealing the transitory nature of human life. 

 

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.

 

allusions:

Plato:   He thought that the world of nature is a copy of an ideal prototypes that exist in a world transcending our own.

Aristotle: He believed in investigation and dissected nature to find proofs. He was the tutor to King Philip of Macedonia, Alexander the Great…

Pythagoras: He was said to get golden thighs as he is an incarnation of the god Apollo and thought the universe subject to mathematical laws, based on musical harmony, the music of the spheres.

The Muses: they are the nine sister goddesses ruling over song, poetry, the arts and sciences.

 

visual imagery: golden thighed, old clothes upon sticks

assonance: (see how the assonance play when describing the philosophers) old clothes upon old sticks (this is a huge contrast to draw parallel revealing the transient nature of everything)

alliteration: king of kings, stick or strings, stick to scare

 

Poet discusses the ironical nature of life. Whatever the theories of nature presented by philosophers, they have only one common reality, that is: everything changes, everything undergoes decay and destruction. Despite of the great theories of nature and life, philosophers too get old and become scarecrows.

 

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 symbolize—

O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;

 

parallelism: both nuns and mothers worship images (nuns worship images related to Christianity and mothers worship the images of their children) … that passion, piety or affection knows (love towards beloved, he might refer to Maud Gonne, piety of nun towards god and affection of mothers toward children)

contrast: that animate mother’s reveries/but keep a marble or a bronze repose/ and yet they too break hearts… (children becoming old as they are human and animated and statues and images are unchanged break the hearts of mothers and nuns)

caesura: …symbolize- O self-born…  (stops his analysis to lay down the conclusion)

assonance: marble or a bronze repose/ o self-born mockers of

alliteration: passion, piety

metaphor: heavenly glory (love towards beloved and the god) self-born mockers of man’s enterprise (passion, piety or affection which ultimately bring suffering)

 

Poet generalizes nuns’ devotion towards idols of god, mothers’ affection towards their children and lovers’ love towards the beloved that would bring sufferings to them because all those emotions are self-generated to create attachments. Poet concludes that human sufferings are caused by human’s attachments towards animate, inanimate and abstract things.   

 

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?

 

symbol: dancer from the dance (dance: the way of living, dancer: human)

parallelism: The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair, (perfect mind in the perfect body)

anaphora: nor (to compare beauty, happiness and wisdom)

visual/kinesthetic imagery: body swayed to music, O brightening glance

personification: blear-eyed wisdom (wisdom is personified) chestnut tree (great rooted blossomer)

 

The poet examines the connection between the body and the soul. He shows that the body and soul must be united to come to the perfection. That means, true beauty cannot be gained if the mind is sad; similarly, mind cannot be happy if the body is sick. As well as, only through the brain work, one cannot be a perfect person. To be perfect, the body, brain and soul should be united and reply equally. Poet takes the chestnut tree as an example, as he says the flower, leaf or trunk cannot individually decide the chestnut tree. All those parts together create and define the tree as a chestnut tree. Similarly, dancer and dance are not two things. This ultimately defines that: physical love, lust, sex; religious feeling, the quest for an ideal; knowledge and theory and ideas separately do not define human, human is the complete package.

Yeats seems to aware the readers about life through his own life experiences. He defines life is its own twists and turns, changes and deterioration and happiness and despair. One cannot reject the nature of life as well as those changes do not define a person. If you become an old person, that is not your fault, that is the nature of life. Understanding this help a person to lead a happy life. It is the lesson Yeats learnt when he walks among the school children.

Hope you understood the gist of this long work of art. If you find this useful, please share it with others. Leave a comment to enrich this post.

Sources: Resource book provided by NIE, owlcation.com, poem analysis .com

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