Among School Children Themes
by William Butler Yeats

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The central themes of “Among School Children” are best exemplified in the central action: A sixty-year-old official is visiting with elementary school children. The age-old poetic themes of innocence versus experience, naïveté versus wisdom, and youth versus age permeate every stanza of the poem.

Yeats, who in his youthful work frequently dealt with incidents of passing and loss, virtually became obsessed with those themes as he became older and faced his own mortality in more real, less abstract terms. By this point in his career, Yeats was examining the consequences and effects of time’s passage not only on the human body but also on the human spirit—both for the individual and for the race as a whole—invariably basing his meditations on personal experience.

In Yeats’s hands, these timeless themes take on a profound significance, because while he views human life as tragic, his vision is not nihilistic. He never does actually enunciate what purpose human life may serve, but he does believe that there is a purpose. “Among School Children” illustrates how the individual might frustrate that purpose by imagining either that he is the master of his own destiny or that there is no such thing as destiny.

Maud Gonne serves as a prime example of this frustration of purpose. The poet, who is condemned to remember the brightness and promise of her youth, must live with the meaningless fruits of her actions now that the heartbreak and frustrations of her commitment to revolutionary Irish political causes have taken their toll both on herself and others. By cutting her fulfillment short, she has cut all the rest of humankind short.

Nor will Yeats exclude...

(The entire section is 428 words.)