Among School Children

by William Butler Yeats

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

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 himself and others from the same condemnation. All fail in their choices and actions to face squarely the one insurmountable reality: Flesh ages, spirits flag, and human dreams wither. He thus accuses himself of having given up or given in (“Ihad pretty plumage once” but now am “a comfortable kind of old scarecrow”) and accuses nuns and mothers, as much as the Helens and Mauds of the world, of betraying the innocent, childlike spirit that fosters dreams and compels human choices.

People unwittingly create false images of what it is to be human, thereby creating false hopes and expectations. Yeats suggests that since there is no choice but to move forward, one should imagine the fullness of each moment as having an inextricable harmony with all others. Life is like a dance that does exist independent of a dancer but has no shape or form without the dancers.

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