Among School Children

by William Butler Yeats

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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

William Butler Yeats’s “Among School Children” is written in eight eight-line stanzas that follow a precise rhyme scheme. Along with the straightforward title, stanza I establishes the immediate context of the action in deliberately prosaic language. The speaker is visiting a schoolroom, and “a kind old nun,” his guide for the day or perhaps the classroom teacher, is answering his matter-of-fact questions in a rapid, matter-of-fact way.

The tone and mood of the poem take a sharp turn in the couplet ending the first stanza, however; the speaker suddenly sees himself through the children’s eyes as they “In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man.” The speaker is almost certainly Yeats himself; as a member of the Irish Senate, Yeats, just turned sixty, did in fact visit schools as a part of his official duties.

Seeing himself through the children’s eyes inspires a reverie. He thinks of a child, a girl, whom he knew in his own childhood or youth. The facts are not quite clear, for the reader is told of a “childish day” but also of “youthful sympathy.” Nevertheless, the young female is generally identified as Maud Gonne, with whom the poet first became acquainted and fell in love when she was in her late teens and he was in his twenties.

The reverie ends, but his eyes light upon one of the children, who looks amazingly like Maud when she was that age: “She stands before me as a living child.” Seeing her as she looked then reminds him of what she looks like now, after the passage of nearly forty years. “Her present image” is of someone whom life has wasted and exhausted; she is “Hollow of cheek” as if she “drank the wind” and ate “a mess of shadows for [her] meat.”

Thoughts of her then and now lead to thoughts of himself then and now. The years have not been kind in his case either, and, back in the present in the schoolroom, he decides that it is best to keep up a brave front and “smile on all that smile.”

Yet he cannot shake the thought that human life appears to be a process of diminishment and gradual dispossession, if not outright defeat. He imagines what a mother—perhaps his own—would think, just having given birth, could she see that infant after he has lived through “sixty or more winters.” Would she, he wonders, think the result worth the pain of her labor and of all her coming anxieties over her helpless infant’s welfare?

In the final three stanzas, the personal note that has pervaded the poem is dropped as the speaker explores in rapid order the breadth and scope of all human thought and endeavor—from Plato to Aristotle and Pythagoras, from nuns to mothers to youthful lovers—seeking some solace for the tragic unraveling of dreams and hopes that human life seems to be. In a sudden burst of anger, the speaker excoriates all those images that people set before their mind’s eyes to goad themselves and others into succeeding only at failing, and he tries instead to see human life as it is truly lived.

The vision that emerges is one in which neither devotion to others (motherhood) nor devotion to God (the nun) nor devotion to fulfilling selfhood (Maud Gonne) can alone be enough, for “Labour is blossoming or dancing.” It is an ongoing process, not any final product. Therefore, one cannot isolate the individual from the passing moment by trying to imagine that at any one instant there is some greater or lesser being there; like the chestnut tree,...

(This entire section contains 630 words.)

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a human life is all one piece, so one should be wary of trying to “know the dancer from the dance.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380

Yeats’s is a poetry rich in complex webs of both personal and public symbols and allusions, and “Among School Children” is no exception. An example of this complexity can be found by examining the source of something as apparently superficial as the rhyme scheme. Ottava rima was introduced into English prosody by the early nineteenth century poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, who used it to great comic effect in poems such as his satiric masterpiece, Don Juan (1819-1824).

The Yeats poem is hardly satiric and is comic only by the broadest definition of the term, as one uses it when speaking of Dante’s The Divine Comedy (c. 1320). Like Dante, whose great poem begins with the otherwise unremarkable discovery that he has lost his way, Yeats uses a rather commonplace incident—a public official’s visit to a classroom while touring a school—to explore the larger meaning and purpose of human life in general.

Because of the complexity of Yeats’s technique, making such connections is not as farfetched as one might suspect. A symbol, like the allusion to outside texts and sources of information, can point in any number of directions, but it will always make a connection. The poet must connect private and public symbols and allusions in a careful order and to some greater thematic purpose.

Yeats’s use of the myth of Leda and the swan offers a fine example. In the ancient Greek myth, Zeus came as a swan to rape the mortal Leda; from that union came Helen of Troy. Yeats’s “Ledaean body,” however, is something more than a knowledge of the myth alone can betoken. In his poem “Leda and the Swan,” he sees in the myth a comment on the dangerous consequences of mixing divine elements with something as fragile as human nature. Furthermore, in other poems, Yeats identifies Maud Gonne with Helen of Troy as representatives of that beauty which is destructive.

That Leda also brings to mind childbearing and childrearing in a poem that focuses on children, childhood, labor, and birth suggests still further possibilities of meaning and illustrates that the apparent opacity of the poem is actually the result of combining a wide literary heritage with a compelling richness and interconnectedness of thought, feeling, and experience.