W William Butler Yeats

Among School Children by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats wrote this poem, ‘Among School Children,’ most probably in 1926 after his visit in that year to a progressive convent school at Waterfront, St. Otteran’s School.

The poem, ‘Among School Children,’ was inspired by his senate-sponsored visit to Waterfront Convent as a sixty-year-old Senator of the free Irish State in the capacity of the Inspector of schools. The poem begins in the first person (‘I’) most naturalistically in the standard pattern of a guided tour and reaches the philosophic heights. In the words of W.H. Hudson, “Yeats has a knack of raising occasional poetry to the level of profound poetry of universal appeal and significance. ‘Among School Children’ can be cited as an example.” This poem is considered to be one of the finest of Yeats’s compositions, which attempt at synthesizing “the sixty-year-old smiling public man,” the aged one-time lover, and the would-be philosopher into something as organic as a chestnut tree and as coherent as a dancer’s movements.

Among School Children By William Butler Yeats


Analysis of Among School Children

Stanza One


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.

The first stanza describes the poet’s visit to a progressive Convent School at Waterford for children between the ages of four to seven years. He visited the school in 1926 as a member of a government committee appointed to investigate the state of Irish education. It was in that capacity that Yeats paid a visit to this school run by the nuns on the Montessori Method of teaching.

The poet says that it was a long visit in which he went the whole length of the school, from one classroom to another classroom asking all sorts of questions. Going along with him was a kind old nun, in a white hooded dress and providing answers to his questions. In the school Yeats finds the children (all girls in the age group of 4 to 7 years) learning to solve arithmetical problems, to sing, to cut, and sew. The students are also made to read books and histories. They are required to be neat and clean in doing everything. The girls are told to do everything in the “best modern way”, which refers to the Montessori Method of teaching which has been recently introduced in this particular school. There is a surprise in the eyes of the girl students who are gazing with surprise in their eyes at a sixty-year-old smiling public man (officer).


Stanza Two


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.

In the second stanza of ‘Among School Children,’ the poet’s thoughts go back to Maud Gonne who was once graceful and beautiful like Leda who later became the mother of Helen for whom a ten-year War, Trojan War was fought, which is the theme of  Homer’s epic Iliad. But Maud Gonne, whom Yeats loved and wanted to marry, has grown old as the poet is a sixty-year-old man now. The poet reveals those youthful days when he and she used to have intimate talks. He remembered an incident of her student days which she told him once. She had been snubbed by a teacher and the snubbing had made her miserable: “trivial event that changed some childish day to tragedy.” On learning of this incident, the poet had deeply sympathized with her. Due to their mutual sympathies, their two natures had mingled together. It seemed that he and he had become united in a single body or, to change this mode of expression, they had become united, though retaining their separate identities like the yolk and white of an egg.


Stanza Three


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.

The above lines of the third stanza bring the poet back from his world of imagination and past memories to the classroom of the school where he was a visitor. Keeping still in his mind the fit of grief or anger which Maud Gonne felt at the snubbing by the teacher, the poet now looks upon the faces of children in the classroom one by one. He does so in order to find out if Maud Gonne might have looked like any of these girls at the same age. For his attempt at doing so, the poet advances the logic that even the superior ladies like Helen (or Maud) have much in common with the children of ordinary mortals like the paddlers. Helen was born of the union of Leda and the Swan (the swan being really Zeus in the guise of a swan bird). The poet is wonder-struck to imagine that one of the little girls standing before him in the classroom is no other than Maud Gonne as she much had been in her school days.


Stanza Four


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.

Stanza four portrays Maud Gonne though, in the earlier stanza, Maud Gonne was imagined by the poet as a little girl standing before him in the school just as she must have been in her school days.

The very next moment in the fourth stanza the poet thinks of Maud Gonne as she must be now, in her old age. As the poet visualizes the aged Maud Gonne now, he thinks of her hollow cheeks. Now she appears so thin that he thinks that she probably lives on the food of winds and shadows. Her appearance in her old age reminds him of the portrait of an old woman by some fifteenth-century Italian painter who had painted her old-age portrait with hollow cheeks. Then the poet refers to himself and says that he never possessed the beauty of Leda, but there certainly was a time when he was young and considered handsome. But now, his good looks and youth are no more. However, there is no reason why he should not smile at all those who meet him with a smile. He says he may have the looks of a scarecrow, but he must pretend to be comfortable and cheerful.


Stanza Five


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?

In the earlier stanza of ‘Among School Children,’ the poet has shown how Maud Gonne and he himself looked in the old age. She has been visualized as an old woman with hollow cheeks looking like a painting of a hollow-cheeked woman painted by a fifteenth-century Italian painter. He may have been looking like a scarecrow, wearing loose and worn-out clothes but smiling.

But in this stanza, the poet goes back to the child from an old lady. In the beginning, the poet gives a picture of a little child behaving in its natural childish manner, sleeping, shrieking, or struggling to escape. The poet then proceeds to paint the picture of the same creature as he would be in his old age with sixty or more winters on his head. There is a terrible contrast between the sweet angelic child and the old scarecrow. If a young mother were to visualize her little child as he would be at the age of sixty or more, she would begin to wonder whether it was worthwhile for her to have undergone all the pain of giving birth to him or all the uncertainty of that birth. Thus here the poet dwells upon the curse of old age and the ugly transformation that it brings about to the appearance of a human body. The contrast between the child and the old man has been beautifully done. The child is supposed to have descended from the kingdom of souls after drinking the draught of oblivion. The same child at sixty or more would look like a scarecrow.


Stanza Six


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.

In the above lines of stanza six, the poet emphasizes the destructive ravages of time. The poet has already dealt with the loss of a woman’s beauty that in old has been imagined with hollow cheeks. He also has dwelt upon a little child growing in course of time, into an aged man, a transition which would fill any mother’s heart with dismay and despair.

Here the poet proceeds to speak of some great philosophers of the world. He begins with Plato’s view of nature with reference to his theory of ghostly forms. Then he talks about Aristotle’s Cosmology. A king of kings is Aristotle’s Prime Mover or God, the taws or marbles would be the concentric spheres, which constituted the world and to which the Prime Mover was believed to give impetus or movements. The reference is playful and ironic and also exact in saying that the taws or celestial spheres were placed against the bottom of the Prime Mover since he has turned away from all Nature and wholly engaged in eternal thought about Himself. The poet then proceeds to refer to philosopher Pythagoras who believed in the music of the spheres. Briefly put, Plato located reality in unnatural ghostly forms; Aristotle located it in Nature, and Pythagoras discovered it in art. But what is the net result in each case? In his old age, each one of these philosophers became a scarecrow. Thus this stanza emphasizes the destructive ravages of time.


Stanza Seven


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;

The seventh stanza of ‘Among School Children’ establishes a similarity between nuns and mothers, as both break hearts. Nuns worship the images of saints, the Virgin Mary and Christ. Mothers worship their children. The images in a church are marble or bronze images that wear an expression of peace and tranquility. The images worshipped by mothers are those of living human beings subject to all the excitements and agitations of life. But the images made of marble or bronze also break the hearts of their worshippers. Sons break the hearts of their mothers by growing aged and weak. In this case, it is the change from childhood to old age that breaks hearts. But the stone images break hearts or cause grief and pain to their worshippers because of a lack of change. The stone images have, after all, no life in them, and the expressions of their faces are fixed and unchanging. Here the poet addresses the images of all kinds of lovers, pious nuns, and affectionate mothers to say that all these images represent divine glory. These presences (or images) are regarded by the poet as self-created mockers of human sentiment.


Stanza Eight


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?

In this concluding stanza, the poet says that labor turns meaningful when the opposites are fused into an organity. The opposites are the changing images such as young girls and young boys and the unchanging images are such as the stone statues. Both, ‘change’ and ‘lack of change’ mock and torment humanity. ‘Blossoming’ (flowering) and ‘dancing’ can be seen only in terms of the total organism. The chestnut tree is neither the leaf, nor the blossom, nor the trunk; it is the combination of all these. The essence of the chestnut, the “great-rooted blossomer’, is not to be found in any single part of it, its essence is to be found in the trees as a whole. Similarly, we cannot separate the dancing movements of a human body from the dancer. The dancer and her dancing movements are not separable.


Personal Comments

‘Among School Children’ is a highly allusive poem that links it to his other Helen, Leda, Swan, and paddler poems. It echoes “honey of generation” from Porphyry’s essay on ‘The Love of Nymphs.’ It reflects Pythagoras’s golden thighs from Plutarch’s life of Numa Pompillius. The poem shows Yeats’s scrupulous care for construction. It also shows Yeats as a scholar familiar with art, history, and philosophy. “Yet there are images which survive the questioning of life of the time, the nun’s images, the mothers; these can also be the images of art, that “keep a marble or a bronze repose.” These images can, however, seem to the poet mere images in contrast to real live beauty; he needs to elevate them further, or they will never satisfy and hence the image of the dancer which is ‘self-born’, out of mortality, created by the imagination, as is the image of the tree (here standing for the beauty  of life itself).” “These images are created by an isolated poet, and this poem is in part recording of the past, the tragic irony of the poet’s conception of a state of perfection outside life, of being rather than become, out of nature into the timeless changelessness of art, this state accentuated by an accentuating tragedy of our being born but to die, our being paradoxically dying generation.”


About William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats was born on June 13, 1865, at Sandymount near Dublin in Ireland. Though Yeats’s real interest lay in poetry, he wrote play after play with fantastic and incoherent plots, e.g. The Islands of Statutes, The Seeker, Mosado, etc. Fed up with this fad of playwriting, he explored theosophy, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, and Rosicrucianism. He was influenced by Mohini Chatterjee, a theosophist. He also wrote a few poems in an Indian setting. Yeats wanted to evolve a system to believe and for this, he turned to spiritualism, magic, and occultism. Occultism in Yeats’ poetry has been discussed and enumerated by the famous Hindi poet Dr. Harivanshrai Bachachan in his Oxford University D. Phil. Dissertation, Occultism in Yeats.

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Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
  • Dáithi macGabhann says:

    In stanza VII Yeats wrote

    “Both nuns and mothers worship images”

    This is a common and sometimes pejorative statement made about Catholics by Protestants. Anyone who knows anything about Catholic worship will tell you that Catholics do NOT worship images. They regard the image as being an image that brings to mind the person or occasion represented by the image. If a Catholic kneels and prays before an image of St Francis (for instance) he, or she) is asking St Francis to intercede with God on behalf of the supplicant. I mention this fact because Mr Kumar has accepted Yeats’ statement at face value.

    I am a native of Waterford, Ireland and I spoke, once, with a woman who was a student in the school at that time. She remembered Yeats’ visit well. The schoolgirls in this Montessori school were asked to be part of the formal welcome to the famous poet and Senator. The girls were lined up on both sides of the avenue leading from the front gate to the school. Here are her comments to me about the occasion. “Some of us didn’t want any hand, act or part of it (the formal welcome). Some of the girls were Republicans who detested the Cumann na nGael government (and even regarded that government as being illegal). Yeat’s had a position under the government and was also a Senator. In addition (and this was nearly worse) he was a Protestant and a heretic. As Yeats (A sixty-year-old smiling public man) passed through the two rows of girls one had the temerity to turn her back on him.” My informant continued “Why should we welcome this ould heretic to our Catholic school?”

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      This is an amazing story and really insightful. It also helps inform the analysis so thank you for that. It isn’t always possible to have contextuall on that level of complexity. It’s one of those things where “when you know, you know.” I guess.

  • Amazing, just loved the way poem has been explained in detail. Thank you !

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