A summary of a classic Yeats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Among School Children’ is one of W. B. Yeats’s great late poems. Like another of his famous poems from this stage of his life, ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, the poem is about Yeats looking back on his own life and feeling increasingly out of touch with the modern world. Here we offer a short summary and analysis of ‘Among School Children’, highlighting some of its major themes.
Among School Children
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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;
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?
‘Among School Children’ is written in the Italian verse form called ottava rima, rhymed abababcc. There are eight of these eight-line stanzas. Is the number eight important for this poem? Perhaps not. But there is a certain symmetry in the ‘eight by eight’ structure, with the total – 64 – not being too far off Yeats’s own age when he wrote the poem (he was actually 60).
In summary, ‘Among School Children’ is about a visit made by the ageing Yeats to a convent school in Waterford, Ireland in February 1926. As a Senator, Yeats is visiting the school as a public figure, but the poem is a record of his private thoughts. In the second stanza, his mind begins to wander, and Yeats dreams of his muse and love, Maud Gonne, when she was a young woman with a body like Leda (who was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, as Yeats treated in his earlier poem ‘Leda and the Swan’). Although Yeats and Gonne were never an item, she inspired him throughout his life, and he sees the two of them as kindred spirits – like the yolk and white of an egg.
In the third stanza, Yeats is torn back to the present moment in the schoolroom, and wonders whether Maud was like any of the young girls in the convent school, when she was their age. Yeats’s reference to ‘daughters of the swan’ suggests not Leda, but the woman her union with Zeus gave rise to: Helen of Troy, the beautiful Greek woman whose abduction brought about the Trojan War. (Helen of Troy features elsewhere in Yeats’s poetry, for instance in ‘Long-Legged Fly’, where she is described as one part woman, three parts child.) The schoolgirl he looks upon now seems to be the old Maud reincarnated as a young woman, ‘a living child’.
In the fourth stanza, he pictures Maud now, later in life, ageing as he himself is. It’s as if her late beauty was fashioned by a Renaissance artist. He then reflects on his past with Maud, and states that although he wasn’t quite the stuff of Greek myth, he, too, ‘had pretty plumage once’ – a nod to the swanlike form Zeus assumed when he raped Leda. He then recalls himself to the present and decides he must put a public face on while at the school, and so banishes such memories and meditations.
The fifth stanza, however, sees Yeats immediately returning to such self-analysis. This time, however, he considers it from the mother’s perspective: was it worth his mother suffering the pain of childbirth so that he could live his sixty-odd years on this planet? Yeats himself, in a note on ‘Among School Children’, said that he borrowed the ‘honey of generation’ image from an essay titled ‘The Cave of the Nymphs’, about a mythical idea that honey destroys women’s memories of their pre-natal lives.
The sixth stanza considers the same issue, this time from the perspective of three ancient Greek philosophers: Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. Plato was an idealist, Aristotle a materialist (who punished his most famous pupil, Alexander the Great, with a birch-like instrument known as the ‘taws’), and Pythagoras believed in ‘the music of the spheres’. Each had his own approach to the meaning of life.
The seventh stanza then shifts back to mothers, and indeed, to nuns (we are in a convent school, after all). Both mothers and nuns worship ‘images’: the mother, the image of her child, and the nun, a religious icon or statue, such as that representing Jesus or the Virgin Mary. But even nuns break hearts, just as mothers and other women do, for they are ‘self-born mockers of man’s enterprise’, ‘self-born’ because women are born of mothers but are also mothers themselves. They mock man’s glory and ambition, because they can give life whereas men cannot, and end up growing old and pathetic, like a ‘scarecrow’, as Yeats feels he has become.
In the eighth and final stanza, Yeats turns to the question of ‘labour’ – the word carrying a double meaning here, since it refers back to the themes of childbirth and motherhood touched upon earlier in the poem, but also suggests Adam’s toil after he and Eve were cast out from the Garden of Eden, following their Fall. ‘Blossoming’ suggests motherhood – bringing forth new life – while ‘dancing’ suggests a pleasant form of labour that isn’t about burning the midnight oil in search of wisdom, or harming the body through physical toil, but a creative act full of vitality that nourishes the soul. Yeats’s address to the chestnut tree provides a clue as to how we should interpret this final stanza, and, by extension, the overall meaning of ‘Among School Children’: does the essence of the tree lie in its leaves, its blossom, or its trunk? Is any one part of it more ‘treelike’ than the others? No: it is the sum of its parts. We cannot ‘tell the dancer from the dance’, because we are defined by what we do: when dancing, the dancer and the movement they create are one. If we cease to perform our ‘dance’ – this statement of who we are, which creates the very vitality that gives us meaning – we become what Yeats fears he has become, worn-out ‘scarecrows’ with no true ‘life’ as such.
‘Among School Children’ is at once public and private: its ‘action’ takes place in a public setting, but this public backdrop prompts the private musings of the aged poet; but he then makes his personal meditations public again, by choosing to publish the poem. In the last analysis, it is at once direct and elliptical in its meaning – typical Yeats, we might say. The symbols refuse to be pinned down too tightly. In order to dance, after all, one must have some freedom.
Discover more of Yeats’s greatest poetry with The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). For more discussion of Yeats’s work, see our summary of his ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ and our analysis of his classic 1919 poem ‘The Second Coming’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: W. B. Yeats by George Charles Beresford, 1911; Wikimedia Commons.