Posts Tagged ‘Among School Children’

“Among School Children” by W. B. Yeats: a possible interpretation

In Mann’s The Magic Mountain, the character Settembrini at one point describes music as “politically suspect”. This is, I think, intended to be comic: Settembrini is, after all, a comic character. But he is not, by any means, purely a comic character, and neither is his opinion on music merely an absurdity. What I think he means by this is that music has the capacity to touch directly our feelings, our emotions, our passions, and, in the process, to bypass our intellect. And, in a political context, bypassing our rational faculties to touch our passions is clearly dangerous, or, at the very least, suspect.

This same argument could be applied to other arts as well, as they all have the capacity to stir our passions while bypassing our intellects. That is not to say that works of art cannot or should not be subjected to intellectual rigour, but I find it difficult to believe that any of us has ever carried out an analysis of a work before deciding whether it affects us. And when it comes to artforms less abstract than music – literature, say – then Settembrini’s stricture is perhaps not as absurdly comic as it may at first sight seem.

I couldn’t help thinking of Settembrini when reading this in a recent essay by Yeats scholar Cedric Watts:

So often, the splendour of the great poem is so dazzling that we slither over the problematic passage, perhaps offering a gloss that simplifies or makes congenial what is actually uncongenial and rebarbative.

This hit home rather uncomfortably for me, as I myself have been charged by a friend, perhaps not unjustly, of similarly congenialising (here in this post) Yeats’ poem “Lapis Lazuli”. It is a charge that I cannot dismiss, as, intoxicated as I am by Yeats’ vivid imagery, his striking turns of phrase, his irresistible verbal music, it becomes all too easy – certainly for me – to allow these wondrous works to bypass my critical faculties. The truth is, I think, that I find these poems so aesthetically satisfying, that I don’t want them to be uncongenial and rebarbative. Having bypassed my intellect, these poems have already stirred my passions; and so, when I try to bring my intellect into play, it is already biased, concerned as it is not to dampen the passions already stirred.

Professor Watts, in his essay, focuses on one of Yeats’ finest (and knottiest) poems, “Among School Children”. This poem, Watts says, is “is splendid and memorable, with cunning and subtle linkages between its parts, and a mastery of euphony in its use of alliteration, rhyme and assonance”. But there follows a significant “but”:

But … I remain convinced that the penultimate stanza, stanza VII, is simply wrong, and there’s no way round it. Commentators have done their best to rescue it, but I submit that their glosses are attempts to hide what is at fault here. Furthermore, I believe that other major poems of Yeats are similarly flawed.

There follows a summary of the poem (insofar, that is, as a summary of so complex a poem is possible), and then a rather damning critique of Stanza VII. I will not attempt to summarise here Prof Watts’ argument (especially since I have provided a link to it), and I certainly won’t attempt any kind of refutation: quite apart from the impropriety of a mere enthusiastic layman such as myself to take issue with an expert, a poem as difficult as this does not and cannot have one single correct interpretation. Of course, Professor Watts is himself at odds with other Yeatsian scholars in this matter, but it is prudent, I think, to consider carefully the arguments on all sides rather than bumptiously putting forward my own.

But … yes, I can do a few buts as well … but, having said all that, I would like, if I may, to present what has been, till now at least, my own view of the poem, and allow the reader to judge whether I have, in my enthusiasm for this work, glossed over matters that are uncongenial or rebarbative. But first, the poem itself:


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?

He first verse, after that striking opening line, is fairly straight-forward. As in “Sailing to Byzantium”, or in the opening lines of “The Tower” (both in the collection in which this poem appears), Yeats is painfully aware of his advancing years, of his ageing mortal frame; but, instead of the passionate anguish of those poems, we have here a somewhat self-mocking tone. He presents himself as a comic figure – “a sixty-year-old smiling public man”. The children stare at him in wonder, but only momentarily: he is not so interesting to warrant a longer stare. And Yeats walks through them “questioning” – asking them questions, as a sixty-year-old public man being shown around a school is expected to do, but also posing questions to himself, and, indeed, questioning himself. The rest of this poem – which actually ends with a set of questions – focuses on Yeats’ internal questionings.

The next verse seems to start on an entirely different track: “I dream of a Ledean body…” Leda, in mythology, was seduced (“raped” might be a more appropriate word to use here) by the god Zeus. From this act of sexual violence had come twin brothers, Castor and Pollux, and twin sisters, Helen and Clytemnestra. Clytemnestra will later murder her husband Agamemnon (thus playing her part in a wider cycle of violence); and the abduction of Helen, to which, depending on the telling, she may or may not have been a willing participant, will precipitate the catastrophic Trojan War. In essence, the story of Leda is the story of a violation of a young girl, the long term consequence of which is tragedy on a cataclysmic scale. The dream of a Ledean body is a dream of the darkest forebodings.

(Annotations tell me that Yeats was referring here to Maud Gonne, whom he had loved, but who had repeatedly rejected him. That may be so, but since this biographical aspect cannot be discerned from the text unless one has prior knowledge of the poet’s life, this seems to me extrinsic to the poem itself, and there’s no need, I think, to consider this in interpretation.)

Yeats’ moving from the children in the first stanza to Leda at the start of the second is abrupt, and invites us to find a connection between the two. In the legend itself, Leda’s age is unspecified: we may decide for ourselves whether she was a young woman or merely a child when she was violated by the god Zeus. But the Leda that appears in Yeats’ dreams, as lines 3-4 of this stanza tell us, is certainly a child. And here, the connections between the different threads of this poem become particularly knotty. Line 4 ends powerfully on the word “tragedy” – a word not unexpected when referring to the tale of Leda, or when referring to the wider consequences of her violation. But these lines themselves tell not of a violation or of a rape, but of a “harsh reproof, or trivial incident” – of something that is trivial to an adult, but takes on the proportions of tragedy to a child. Line 4 – “That changed some childish day to tragedy” seems to me particularly strong. So how are we to take this? Is this some gross violation that leads to cataclysm? Or is it but a trivial event that seems tragic only to a child? I personally opt for the former: the power of Line 4, ending so strikingly on the word “tragedy”, seems to me too great to refer merely to a “trivial event”. It is not, I think, that the child is imagining something trivial to be tragic, but, quite the contrary – it is something that really is tragic, but which the adult mind, possibly inured by repeated experience to human suffering, reduces to a “trivial event”.

And is that adult mind that reduces Leda’s trauma and violation to a trivial event Yeats’ own mind? I don’t see that it is. For, in the latter half of the stanza, Yeats states directly that his sympathy is entirely, and without qualification, with the child. I had to look up the reference to Plato’s parable (it refers, apparently, to a speech given to Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium), but Yeats describes the nature of the child and his own adult nature, different though they are, occupying the same sphere, like the white and the yolk of an egg.

(Even given my interpretation, we are left wondering why Yeats introduces Plato at this point: but let us keep this question for later.)

The third stanza complicates matters even further. He thinks of “that fit of grief or rage” – presumably Leda’s grief and rage – and now looks at the schoolchildren, and wonders if Leda, when she had been that age before her innocence had been violated, had been like the children he sees now. Two pictures are juxtaposed and contrasted: Leda after the god-inflicted atrocity, grief-stricken and enraged; and the children, as yet innocent of all that. But then, we get a sudden twist: considering the girls at the school, Yeats starts to think not of Leda, but of Leda’s daughters (“daughters of the swan”) – Helen and Clytemnestra, harbingers of doom. Yeats refers to them not as Leda’s daughters, but as the daughters of Zeus, “daughters of the swan”, and asserts that these two daughters, who were to bring doom upon the world, had inherited something of their father – “something of the paddler’s heritage” – though what that “something” is is as yet unclear. However, with that thought, Yeats’ “heart is driven wild”. Leda, who, violated, brings forth into the world these instruments of destruction, Yeats now imagines as she had once been: “She stands before me as a living child.”

It is impossible not to associate this poem with one that appears slightly earlier in the same collection – “Leda and the Swan”. In that sonnet, Yeats describes the union between Leda and the swan, strongly hinting (though not directly stating) that this was indeed a rape, a violation. And Yeats anticipates the destruction that will come in its wake:

The broken wall, the burning roof and tower,
And Agamemnon dead.

That is, the fall of Troy as a consequence of Helen, and the killing of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra.

And, this poem also ends with a questioning: the swan, Zeus himself is “indifferent”, but did Leda “put on his knowledge with his power”? What this means isn’t entirely clear, but I take it to mean: “Did Leda absorb something of both the knowledge and the power of her violator?” And, by implication (I think), did she use that knowledge and the power to wreak destruction?

While I do not think it is reasonable to interpret a poem in the light of the author’s biography, I do think it is reasonable to find cross-references between poems in a single collection. In “Among School Children”, childhood, once violated, even or especially by a god, becomes grief-stricken, enraged, and with the power possibly absorbed from the god (as “Leda and the Swan” suggests), wreaks its revenge on the world.

Let us take stock for a moment before we lose ourselves in further complexities. Yeats, now becoming old and aware of how absurd a figure he cuts, looks upon young schoolchildren, innocent still of the ways of the world; he then thinks then of the mythical Leda, who, violated by a god, had brought forth daughters who dealt destruction to the world; and he is perturbed by the thought that Leda, before the violation, had been just like the children he sees now: so perturbed, indeed, that he finds his “heart … driven wild”. Two pictures are presented and contrasted – innocence before the violation, and the destruction that ensues afterwards, as a consequence of that violation.

In the next stanza, we once again get the comparison between these two pictures, between childhood, so full of innocence and promise, and adulthood, when both have been betrayed. Having imagined Leda as a “living child”, the poet now pictures to himself “her present image”. Once again, we know from Yeats’ biography that it was Maud Gonne he had thought of as Leda – her involvement with what Yeats considered undesirable nationalistic politics being a symbol of, or even perhaps the cause of, her particular betrayal. But I try to resist interpretations of work that are related to the artist’s biography, unless, of course, that relationship is explicitly insisted upon in the text. Here, it isn’t. We do not, I think, need specifically to identify Leda as Maud Gonne to make sense of this poem: if anything, such identification encourages us to see as specific what should, I think, be seen as general. Yeats now imagines Leda, whoever she is, as a grown woman,

Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat

The promise of childhood is betrayed. And Yeats begins to picture himself as a young man: he, too, had “pretty plumage once”. But he stops himself before he gets too far in that direction: “Enough of that …” And we have a brief reminiscence of the opening stanza:

Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

And once again, he presents himself in a self-mocking tone. The scarecrow image we have seen before: in “Sailing to Byzantium”, the opening poem of the collection in which this poem appears, we had this:

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick…

But the tone there had been sad and reflective: here, the tone is comic, but the comic self-deflation does not hide the sadness.

The next stanza, the fifth, is among the saddest I have encountered, I think, in any poem. The whole stanza is one long sentence, and ends with a question mark: it is one of the many questionings in this poem. Having considered the comical figure he now cuts, aged sixty, Yeats asks himself what mother, with a newborn baby in her lap, would think her pains and her troubles would be repaid if she could but see that same child aged sixty?

Plato now reappears in the sixth stanza, alongside Aristotle and Pythagoras. Has there, I wonder, been a more eloquent and beautiful summary of Plato’s Theory of Forms than these lines?

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;

If Plato is the philosopher of ideals, Aristotle is the philosopher of the real, of the here-and-now and the down-to-earth: Yeats presents him here as chastising his pupil, later to become the world-conquering Alexander, by leathering his arse (and I suppose you can’t get more down-to-earth than that). And there’s Pythagoras as well, studying the aesthetics of music in mathematical terms. Back in the second stanza, Yeats, even when describing his deeply felt sympathy for a violated girl, had called upon an image from Plato to help express himself. That is because this is the world he inhabits: this is what comes naturally to him. But this world of classical learning no longer satisfies: Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras – these, too, are scarecrows like himself, “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”.

In “the Tower”, the title poem of the collection in which “Among School Children” appears, Yeats, after lamenting the “decrepit age that has been tied to me as to a dog’s tail”, tells himself sadly that , perhaps, he has no option but “to choose Plato and Plotinus for a friend”. Plato and Plotinus then, Plato, Artistotle and Pythagoras now: good friends, perhaps, but, scarecrows all, they do not answer his questionings.

It is now that we come to the seventh stanza, the one that Professor Watts takes issue with. Let me try, without, for the moment, reference to Professor Watts’ critique, to explain how I personally see this stanza.

Yeats continues with the image of mother and child, and compares it to a new image that of the nun worshipping an image. But he immediately concedes there are differences: the images worshipped by the nun “keep a marble or bronze repose”, that is, they are still and changeless: the child that the mother worships is a living thing, and, hence, subject to change, and, inevitably, ageing and decay. But the matter is more complex. “Both nuns and mothers worship images,” the stanza begin. Nuns, it is true, worship before sculptures or icons, which are images of eternal divinity; but what is it that nuns are actually worshipping? The images themselves, or the divinity that the images represent? And, moving to the other motif of this stanza, what precisely is the image the mother is worshipping? The child on her lap? If so, what is this child an image of?

These are difficult questions, but we mustn’t shirk the questioning. I think that, in trying to answer them, we must go back to thought that “nature [is] but a spume that plays upon a ghostly paradigm of things”. The solid reality of the child on the mother’s lap, the solid reality of the icons before which the nun’s worship, are “spumes”, behind which are the ideal forms, the “ghostly paradigm of things”. But there are differences: one of these two images is of flesh and blood, and is, hence, changeable; the other isn’t. This stark dichotomy seems to lead back again to the first poem in this collection, “Sailing to Byzantium”:

Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is

Once he has left his fleshly form, the poet had continued, he would not wish to return to flesh, which, by its nature, decays: rather, he would take a form “such as Grecian goldsmiths make of hammered gold and gold enamelling” – an artifice that lasts, rather than natural flesh that doesn’t. But of course, we do not get such a choice: here, in life, Yeats has no choice but to a scarecrow, an absurd smiling sixty-year-old man who is a betrayal of the ideal his mother had once seen in him. And it is this ideal that the mother worships, an ideal which is “but a spume that plays upon a ghostly paradigm”, an ideal of which the physical child on the mother’s lap is but an image.

But this spume cannot live up to the ideal it represents. The child becomes, eventually, a scarecrow; and the icons and holy sculptures, whatever their beauty, whatever their claim to permanence, all fall short of the divinity they represent. In both cases, they break hearts. In the case of human life, god Zeus himself violates humanity, and thus prevents it living up to the ideal it had seemed to promise: the adult is a betrayal of what the child once had been. Look on this picture, and on this: in comparing the two pictures, all one can see is betrayal, disappointment, the breaking of hearts. As Yeats put it in a later poem, “Why Should not Old Men be Mad?”, should anyone look into the varied stories of life,

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.

These images – the child, the icon – or Presences, as Yeats calls them (with a capitalised P), may symbolise all heavenly glory, but they are “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”. I am not entirely sure how to interpret “self-born” here: I take it to mean that these are something that do not exist as absolutes in the external world, but, rather, have their source in the human mind itself – that is, their origin is our selves (hence, “self-born”). It is we who see them as images of something greater, and it is we whose hearts are, as a consequence, broken. But I may be wrong.

Now we come to the final stanza, where, even at this late stage, even in the midst of despair, Yeats suggests a possible victory that may be salvaged from this defeat. Is that labour inevitably lost that we expend upon our hopes, upon nurturing our ideals?

The final stanza opens with a set of assertions. That labour, far from being lost, Yeats asserts, is “blossoming or dancing” where “the body is not bruised to pleasure soul”; where “beauty is [not] born out of its own despair”; and where “blear-eyes wisdom [is not born] out of midnight oil”. When these conditions hold, it is no longer a case of labour won or labour lost: it is a case of labour “blossoming or dancing”, that is, of labour being a process that cannot be reduced to single states. And this blossoming, this dance, happens when the we do not neglect our physical life to enhance our spiritual; when we refuse to find aesthetic qualities in our defeat and despair; and when we similarly refuse to look for wisdom in the musty volumes of Plato, of Aristotle, or of Pythagoras. (Those attached to classical learning may wish to add the adverb “merely” to that final condition, but that is not what Yeats says.) We may look on this picture and on this, and declare our lives a failure, a defeat; but to compare still pictures one with the other, and even perhaps to find some sort of beauty in that tragedy of failure, is not where life is: it is, rather, in the process, in the arc, or, as Yeats puts it, in the “blossoming or dancing”.

In the last four lines of the poem, Yeats is again questioning, but these are no longer agonised questions: these questionings point towards a joyous reconciliation with what we are – neither the innocent child nor the absurd smiling sixty-year-old, but something far more intangible. The two questions with which the poem ends develop the two images just introduced – the blossoming, and the dancing. Is the chestnut tree, “great-rooted blossomer”, the leaf, the blossom, or the bole? Can the tree be defined, or characterised, by any single aspect of it? And finally, the dancing.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

Can the dancer be defined in any way other than by the dance? And can the dance be seen independently of the dancer? It is this unity, this unity of states, this unity of the image and that which it is the image of – the icon and the divinity, the child and the “ghostly paradigm” the child represents – that we may, if we look hard enough without giving in to despair, discover what and who we are.


Looking back over what I have written, I cannot help but feel that were I Professor Watts’ student, he would have given me poor marks for this long, rambling, and unfocussed essay. I can only plead that I am but a retired statistician, and, not having been taught English literature formally in class since I was sixteen, I do not know how to write about these things. But I have tried, as best I can, to explain what this poem means to me. Have I, in my enthusiasm, glossed over elements that are uncongenial, or even rebarbative? Perhaps. My view on this poem is hardly the final word, after all, even to myself.

Professor Watts’ view of the poem, a result of far more extensive study and expenditure of thought than I think I could manage, I will not attempt to summarise: that would be pointless given that his essay is freely available to read in its original form. I will need to read it a few times myself to see if I could modify my own interpretation so as to incorporate his; or whether, indeed, aspects of, or the entirety of, my interpretation needs now to be jettisoned. For, after all, understanding a poem, like living life itself, is not a matter of comparing one state with another: it is, rather, a process, a blossoming, a dance.