Among School Children by William Butler Yeats: Synthesis of Thematic Binaries
Analytical/Research Paper: “Among School Children”
Written in 1926 following a visit to a convent school Waterford, Ireland, “Among School Children” by William Butler Yeats, is a multilayered poem–a meditation by an aging man on life, love, and creativity. Didactic in certain areas, this poem possesses an overarching transcendence as Yeats considers universal themes such as human frailty, the inevitability of death, and moral implications from which no human person is exempt. In so doing, Yeats writes his poem in the form of an ottava rima, in which the whole work is written in eight lines and eight stanzas in regular rhythm and rhyme scheme. Usually this poem structure is employed for epics, but for Yeats, this poem is epic–an epic reflection on his attempt to consolidate the binary oppositions between such themes of life and death, youth and old age, beauty and suffering, and the past and the present. Through this analysis, we will consider each stanzas’ composition of points of view, analogies/metaphors, and symbolism by which he goes about synthesizing these thematic binaries.
The poem begins with a “sixty-year old smiling public man” (8), strolling through the classroom in Waterford, Ireland, a convent school that focused on interactive learning and the principles of free expressions where children learn by discovery rather than instruction (Saint Ignatius College of English). Hence, this classroom is perhaps more of a metaphor for the “schoolroom of life,” where real lessons come from life, not the lecture hall.
Yeats progresses to his second stanza where his thoughts stray to “a Ledaean body” (9), a Greek mythological illusion, which is perhaps an ambiguous reference to his unrequited lover, Maude Gonne, who he met at only 23 years old and to whom he proposed five times and who ended up marrying someone else. Yeats refers to that first fateful meeting as the day the troubling of his life began (Macmillan). His lost lover was something that deeply affected him for virtually the rest of his life, and this brokenness is manifested as the rhythm in the second stanza becomes fractured by enjambment.
In line seventeen, Yeats mentions “Plato’s parable,” which is concerned with the genesis, nature, and purpose of love. Plato explores this theory that God created man and woman by splitting an egg-like shape into two halves, sending man and woman into a constant search for their other halves for their whole lives. This Platonic concept of love is possibly how Yeats saw and desired the relationship between himself and Gonne to be, “the yoke and white of the one shell” (18).
The fifth stanza changes course by digressing from an aging man to the perspective of his own mother, who had him at the young age of 24. He uses this stanza to ponder the possibilities of what his mother would think of him now at this point in his life. That is, if his achievements thus far have been significant compensation for the pains of childbirth. “What youthful mother…/Would think of her son, did she but see that shape/…A compensation for the pang of his birth…/” (40, 44-46). At the end of the stanza, he leaves his question unanswered, and instead employs a metaphor of “sixty or more winters” (45), a desolate image of life being a concept of struggle and sacrifice.
Still searching for some answers, Yeats progresses onward to hone in on major philosophers, Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, who all had their own views on the essence and value of education–Plato as the idealist, Aristotle as the realist who tutored the legendary Alexander the Great, and Pythagoras as the mathematician and astronomer. Yeats comments on the reality that despite all of these great men from history who possessed a profound level of education, could not escape their own mortality. “They too are old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (53) as Yeats himself is, too.
The final stanza has many layers to it. It is in this last moment that Yeats makes his finals remarks, but this time recalibrates his thoughts to discuss his search for reconciliation and acceptance. He mentions in the beginning of the poem that he is intrigued by the great paradoxes of life. To Yeats, paradoxes are powerful tools in both life and literature because it is only when we set these paradoxes parallel to each other, that we realize the connection and the value of that connection between them. It is also here that Yeats finally reaches this reconciliation of opposites and this unity of being in the last lines of the piece. This is not to say that Yeats gives us any answers throughout the poem. Rather, the eight stanzas serve the purpose of raising even more questions. For instance, at the very end, Yeats crafts two potent metaphors we should all consider the value that being aware of the connection between things presents.
The first is the image of the chestnut tree that is composed of many parts, equalling the whole: the roots, the leaves, the blossoms, and the bole. Without any one of these parts, the chestnut tree would not be the chestnut tree standing before us.
Yeats then moves on the evocative and sensual image of dancing. Dancing is his metaphor for the unity between body and spirit, creator and creation, and art and the artist. In all, life is not about answering questions, but instead, it is about seeking answers. He proves this by presenting his own rhetorical questions, showing that one needs to ask the questions to blossom and thrive. For Yeats, to separate the blossom from the leaves is to deny and ultimately dismantle the unity of being.
Most of the Yeats’ early poetry in the 1890s used symbols from ordinary life from familiar traditions, especially those find in his Irish subjects. Moreover, it was also during this time period that he became quite interested in different poetic techniques. In 1890 he and English poet, Lionel Johnson, formed the Rhymer’s Club, a group of London poets who met to read and discuss their poems. The Rhymers placed a high value on craftsmanship and preferred “sophisticated aestheticism to nationalism” (Poetry Foundation). Yeats remained adamant to the Rhymer’s tenet that a poet should labor at “at rhythm and cadence, at form and style” (Poetry Foundation). For this reason, it can confirmed that “Among School Children” is a typical work for this poet. This work focuses on the everyday activity of schooling in an average neighborhood in his homeland of Ireland. His use of ottava rima, a specific structural approach to poetry writing, also showcases the typicalness of this particular poem.
The early twentieth century witnessed much push back against the formal structure and style that had previously dominated the poetic world. The modernist movement of the early 1900s was a method to remind the masses that poetry is meant to be elegant and beautiful. Poems thus became shorter and more concise, as less ornate and simpler styles of poem became preferred. Yeats, along with Robert Frost, and W. H. Auden were some other well-known modernist poets of the time.
“Among School Children” is a poem that represents the major complexities of life, entailing the inevitability of mortality, the dynamics of love and suffering, and the binaries of youth and old age. Yeats uses metaphors and allusions to portray his ideas, hopes, and curiosities throughout his poem, while remaining true to his values on how a poem should be constructed, and it is because of this fact, that this poem has become one of the most influential poems of the twentieth century, and why its writer has become a major player in the modernist movement of early 1900s England.
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