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Summary and Analysis of Among School Children by W.

B Yeats
Among School Children by W.B Yeats is considered as one of the most
difficult poems. The subject of the poem revolves around the
interpretation of matter and spirit. It was composed by Yeats after
visiting a convent school in Waterford, Ireland in 1926. The poem
reflects on the theme of meditation of life, love and the creative process
and stands out for the poignancy and profundity that it holds.
Stanza 1:
Among School Children was written after the poets visit to a convent
school. This is how the poet describes his visit. The poet says that he
was received by a nun who wore a white hood. She was assigned the
task of showing the school to the poet and to answer his enquiries. The
poet saw that the children were learning arithmetic and singing. They
were also learning how to read books, how to cut and sew clothes and
be neat and clean in everything that they did. The children were also
learning history. The poet observed that all these were taught to the
children through modern techniques of teaching. The children stared
with wonder at the poet- who was then a sixty year smiling public
figure to them.
Stanza 2:
The poet then passes through the school and comes across the female
students who remind him of another Ledaean beauty, Maud Gonne with
her well chiseled Leda-like classic features. The poet stands there in
front of those little girls and recalls Maud Gonne that she must have
once been a little girl at school too. Yeats recalls an incident when Maud
Gonne told him about those petty incidents of reproofs imposed on her
by her teachers and how the teachers caused great unhappiness to her
and turned her entire into a tragedy. The poet had always sympathized
with her till their souls had blended into one like the yolk and white of
an egg.
Stanza 3:
The poet thinks of the sad event that his beloved Maud Gonne once told
him, he starts looking from one girl to another wondering if any of
them resembled Maud Gonne in her childhood. Maud Gonne was even
compared to daughters of Swan i.e., Helen who was a very beautiful
woman. The poet finds resemblance in one of the girls who have the
same color of cheeks and hair like his beloved had.
The poets imagination runs wild and he sees his beloved standing
before him as a living child.
Stanza 4:
The poet, W.B Yeats continues to dwell upon the image of his beloved,
Maud Gonne. He recalls her when she was an old woman. According to
the poet, when Maud Gonne was old, she had hollow cheeks and looked
old and decrepit but still she looked beautiful like a piece of some
Renaissance art. Then the poet thinks of his own old age. The poet says
that though he was not very handsome but he was presentable. But
now, he looks like a scarecrow. However, he believes in the idea that no
matter how he looks he should have a smiling face. There is no profit
cribbing over the loss of youth and beauty. He tells us that we must
keep smiling and love the way we are and even if we have turned into a
scarecrow, we should be comfortable being a scarecrow.
Stanza 5:
The poet then talks about the mothers who could see how ugly their
sons have turned in their old age. If they could see the ugliness off their
sons, they would not take the trouble of bearing children. Therefore, in
such situations, sons would no longer bring joy to their mothers for the
pain they have to bear during childbirth. The honey of generation is
the drug which makes the new born forgets the memories of pre-natal
freedom. Thus, the process of life will continue and mothers too must
forget how their child will look in their old age.
Stanza 6:
Here, the poet refers to some of the eminent philosophers theories.
Plato explained the world as the reflection of Gods ideas. Aristotle
whipped Alexander to make him learn but the latter learnt very little
from him. Then the poet brings up another great philosopher and
mathematician, Pythagoras who claimed that he had golden thighs. He
was a great musician and claimed that he could hear the musical sound
of the planets that moved around the orbits. What the poet wants to say
is that all these qualities of these philosophers were of no use to them.
They could stop old age from coming. Despite, being so knowledgeable
and wise, they became old with time and looked like scarecrows.
Hence, time is omnipotent. The poet concludes that it is useless to
mourn over the loss of youth and beauty.
Stanza 7:
The poet talks about holy nuns and mothers who worship illusions and
mere phantoms. The images that saints worship are different from the
images that are worshipped by mothers. The images in the churches
which are lighted by candles are made of marble ad bronze but the
images worshipped by mothers are of human figures. Both the images
cause grief to their worshippers. Sons break their mothers heart by
growing old and stones cause grief by never changing. Therefore,
neither the living nor the non-living gives any permanent satisfaction to
their worshippers.
Stanza 8:
In the last and final stanza of Among School Children, the poet
compares life to a chestnut tree. He says life is made up of opposites,
very much like the chestnut tree which has neither leaf, nor blossom,
nor trunk but a combination of all three. Similarly, the poet says that
dancing movements of a human body cannot be separated from the
dancer. The dancer and her dancing movements cannot be separated
from each other. The body should not be tortured for the sake of the
soul and vice versa. Both of them should exist in harmony.
The poet comprises of eight stanza each containing eight lines and
employs a rhyme scheme, ababaabcc, known as ottava rima.
Among School Children by W.B Yeats is well known for the
gracefulness and the flexibility of the language it holds. There is also a
dramatic coherence in its construction. The excellence of language of
the poem is peculiarly Yeatsian. No matter how prosaic his words are,
they are also luminous and noble.
Among School Children
The speaker paces around a classroom, looking at the schoolchildren.
The nun says that what they learn in school is to read and to sing. They
learn about history, sewing, and how to be neat in a modern way. The
children stare at the speaker, an old politician.
He dreams of a Leda-like body bent over a fire in a domestic scene. She
is telling a story of how a small interaction with a child turned its day to
tragedy. Together, over the story, they share a great deal. Looking at
the children, he wonders what she was like at their age. He sees her as a
child and is mad with love.
Her current, gaunt image comes to mind. She once was pretty, but she
is now comfortable and old. Did the speakers mother, when carrying
him, know that seeing this woman would be enough compensation for
her childs birth? Platothought nature to be imperfect; Aristotle
contemplated the nature of things, as did Pythagoras...but these are all
merely subjects for students to study.
Nuns and mothers adore images, but the mothers images are their
children. The speaker questions lifes very location, wondering what
part of a tree is the essence of the tree, what part of a dancer is a
dancer, and which is the dance itself.
The subject matter of schoolchildren contrasts greatly with that of the
earlier historical poems in this collection. Here is evidence of civil
society, of progress, and of modernity - none of which were possible
during the Anglo-Irish War or the Civil War. From this, and from the
implication that the speaker is a senator (as Yeats was after 1924), one
may deduce that this is a later poem, written from the standpoint of a
more peaceful Ireland.
The children are poignant for the speaker because they are associated
both with an obvious type of innocence and with the woman whom the
speaker loves. By comparing her child self and her current incarnation,
it is sharply evident to the speaker how she has aged. The imagined
conversation between the two, in which she seems to be a
schoolteacher rather than a revolutionary, is wishful thinking on his
part. Yeats musings on whether it was destined that he should fall in
love with this woman is related to Leda and the Swan in that it
presupposes a series of events that must come to pass. The final stanza
is a philosophical riddle concerning whether man acts or is acted upon,
and serves as a connection to Yeats' uncertainty as to whether he loves
or was destined to love.
Being among school children, Yeats confronts human frailty,
reflecting on the impact and worth of his life. Frightened by the
inevitability of death, Yeats initially chooses to wear a mask of
acceptance and reconciliation, while internally, he agonizes over the
most basic of questionsthe value of life itself. By comparing Maude
Gonnes current appearance to her appearance in youth, Yeats realizes
times toll on the physical being. After finally understanding the mortal
implications of humanity, Yeats searches for any possible way to
subvert his certain death. As Yeats discovers from his assessment of the
great ancient thinkers, there is no way to separate the dancer from the
dance. He learns that one cannot divide life into the leaf, the blossom,
or the bole, analyzing each individual part. Instead, one must view life
with a brightening glance, seeing the beauty in its entirety. Through
this intense examination, Yeats comes to terms with himself, realizing
the necessity of a peaceful, self-honest existence
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.
Amongst youth itself, Yeats can see his age clearly, able to
perceive himself as the sixty-year-old smiling public man" that he is.
From this moment, Yeats realizes the fleeting nature of life and begins
to question his legacy and accomplishments. He wants to know if his
education was similar to the children, who learn in the best modern
way. Understanding what knowledge is helpful in life, he walks
through the long schoolroom questioning whether the lessons they
are being taught are really relevant to life. They learn to cipher and to
sing, to study reading-books and history," but Yeats realizes that lifes
true lessons do not come from the classroom.

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.
Envisioning what these innocent children will someday have to
realize, Yeats imagines the rape of Leda by Zeus, turning a childish day
to tragedy. Ledas body bent/ Above a sinking fire is symbolic of her
diminishing youthful spirit; Leda loses the gayness and purity of her
youth through one trivial event." Also, Yeats strategically uses line 11
of the poem for the first alteration in meter. This six feet line deviates
from the typical five feet of each preceding line. This change parallels
Ledas, and the childrens, transition from innocence to
knowledge. Although an extreme example, Yeats knows that later in
life, these children, with the same Leda-like innocence, will have to be
stripped of their purity. From this rape of Leda, Helen of Troy is born,
thought to be the most beautiful woman on earth. She serves as a
comparison to Maude Gonne, Yeatss youthful first love. He imagines
the two of them, like Platos parable, with no sex differentiations, being
together as 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.
After envisioning the two of them together, youthful again, Yeats
searches through the children, wondering if he can see a little of Gonne
in any child. He said, Wonder if she stood so at that age. He then
describes Gonnes swan-like beauty, saying, even the daughters of the
swan can share something of every paddlers heritage. Slipping deeper
into his imagination, Yeats passionately portrays Gonne, until she
stands before me as a living child. The image of Gonnes youthful
purity hypnotizes Yeats, evident in the song-like rhyme scheme of the
stanza (abababcc). Yeatss only way to match this youthful beauty is to
express it as poetic beauty. Tragically, Yeats knows that this perfection
will eventually be corrupted, causing Yeats to have a fit of grief or
rage (17)


Her present image floats into the mind--
Did Quattrocentro 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.
Understanding that his portrayal is not reality today, her
present image floats into the mind. Still, in her growing age, he sees
Gonne as if Quattrocento finger fashion it, comparing her cheeks to
the wind. The wind image takes on a double meaning. The brevity of
the wind also symbolizes the brevity of life. Yeats realizes that he, like
Gonne, is ageing, saying he had a pretty plumage once. Wanting to
hide his sudden realization of mortality, Yeats assumes a pleasant
demeanor, able to smile on all that smile. This faade is a metaphoric
mask of an old scarecrow," allowing Yeats to conceal his true, frantic

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?
With the odd number of feet in line 33 , Yeats alerts the reader to
a fundamental shift in the poem, turning the emphasis from the
personal to the universal. Envisioning a youthful mother, Yeats
questions whether the mother would think the pains of childbirth were
worth the degenerated stature of her sixty-year-old son. Although this
is a universal vision, Yeats still relates it to himself, having the child be
at least sixty. In this part, Yeats is asking the most fundamental of
questionswhat is the real value in life. After all, the child is said to
have lived sixty winters, not sixty years. This gloomy winter image
further suggests that life is but suffering, and to live is to suffer. The
last line of the stanza addresses the mothers uncertainty about the
childs future. She knows that someday he will have to come of age,
realizing the many faults of the world.

Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Soldier 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.
Desiring to somehow avoid ageing and death, Yeats looks to the
great men of the past for answers. He investigates Platos Cave
Allegory, with its ghostly paradigm of things, minimizing the
importance of his idea, showing how Plato thought life was a mere
shadow of reality. Next, he shows the idiocy of Aristotles work with
Alexander the Great, saying he was merely playing upon the bottom of
a king of kings. Lastly he shows the ridiculousness of Pythagorass
work, by saying he only fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings." Yeats
discovers that these men were nothing more than old clothes upon old
sticks to scare a bird. This minimization of achievement makes Yeats
realize that although these men are world-renowned, they too grew old
and died. As a result, Yeats comes to the desperate realization that
although man can produce lasting works, they themselves can never be

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 symbolize--
O self-born mockers of man's enterprise;
This section deals largely with the issue of love and expectation.
There are two distinct different types of lovea motherly love, an
earthly, and a religious love, like the nuns love. In their respective
ways, these two figures have an object of worship. But, like the nuns
eventual disappointment with God and the mothers eventual
disappointment with her child, overly high expectations bring nothing
but discontent. Yeats is saying that everyone who worships any type of
perfection, either earthly, or heavenly, will become self-born mockers
of mans 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?
In the final stanza, Yeats recognizes that although people are the
sum of their separate deeds, life is an amalgamation of actions. Instead
of viewing life in parts, like the leaf, the blossom, or the bole, Yeats
argues for one, united view of life. Like ones inability to separate the
dancer from the dance (64), one cannot separate life from death.
These two parts are not independent. Instead, they are one in the same.
No one has life, without death. So, one should not view them
independently, choosing to takes all areas of life in one wide swath.

While in the presence of youth, Yeats realizes the fleeting
nature of life, accepting human frailty and the inevitability of aging.
After wearing the false mask of acceptance for so long, Yeats finally
allows himself to confront mortality. He realizes that no matter who the
man, and irrespective of his deeds, death is an inevitable part of life.
But, while looking back in the past, one should not view life in extreme
parts. Instead of looking at actions as examples of failure or victory, one
should see life in moderation, observing it in its entirety.
Among School Children
Notes by Oriel Steel
Ottava Rima 8 Stanzas with 8 lines, regular rhythm, regular rhyme
scheme of abababcc. A Roman numeral heads each stanza. The
form Ottava Rima was traditionally used for heroic or epic poetry; it is
likely no co-incidence that this form is chosen for this particular poem
of epic reflection.
Stanza 1:
The start of the poem is presented realistically with Senator Yeats
carrying out one of his public duties by visiting a convent school (in
Waterford). This event did indeed happen in real life. The atmosphere
seems relaxed and agreeable and the children seem undisturbed by
their important visitor. The tone is humane and acceptant.
Important quotes: sixty-year-old smiling public man reference to
Sailing to Byzantium with the description, and ambiguous reaction to,
age. The public man is referring to his status as an Irish Senator,
although as a well-known poet, his views and poetic verses were also
appropriated by others (especially for political means). This poem
(alongside Sailing to Byzantium) is ironically one of Yeats most private
poems it is a poem of self-reflection, rather than of overt political
Stanza 2:
Yeats is portrayed as not wholly concentrating on the schoolroom but
instead his thoughts are elsewhere and in comparison with the I walk
of stanza one, it is replaced by I dream. The poetry now becomes more
urgent as the rhythm is broken at the line endings (enjambment). A
Ledean body relates to the child being dreamed of which is Maud
Gonne the Ledean theme (Leda/Helen/Swan) is often used as a
metaphor for Maud throughout Yeats canon (see blog page on Yeats
women). This stanza evokes a scene of youthful sympathy. The two
images of Maud and Yeats unity are offered, first the sphere
(attributed to Platos writings) and then the earthly image of the yolk
and white of an egg. These two images start off the emerging argument
of the poem, which is concerned with Platonic and alternative ways of
seeing reality.
Stanza 3:
Yeats is shown as looking at the girls in the school-room and wondering
whether Maud stood so at that age. The memory of her drives his
heart so wild that she appears to stand before me as a living child.
The rhyming couplet makes this an auhoritive statement the poets
imagination is triumphant over time and circumstance.
Stanza 4:
Yeats compares her present image with the imagined sight of the
beautiful, young Maud which seems to float into mind; the verb float
which is used gives the situation a spectral quality the present is less
powerful than the past. Yet the present is the reality, however
grotesque and disturbing Maud is described. Yeats references her to
the 14h century painting of the Italian Quattrocento, which suggests a
hollow-cheeked ethereal beauty far from youthful vitality. Yeats implies
that he was once handsome but abandons the fruitful idea by using a
cutting caesura to emphasize wishful thought. He says that its better to
smile on all that smile at him, the ageing man, and to show that he can
bear the process of ageing without complaint. The scarecrow imagery is
reminiscent of Sailing to Byzantium where he describes old age as a
tattered coat upon a stick. However here Yeats is trying to avoid
Stanza 5:
Here Yeats shows how bitterness is hard to avoid and he looks at the
ageing man from a different perspective, that of the mother. Yeats
questions whether the sufferings of women in childbirth are
compensated for by such a shape with sixty or more winters on its
head? He presents an argument to the effect that all things spoil over
time. It raises slight theological questions If Jesus had not been
crucified, would his teachings have been corrupted by bitterness and
Stanza 6:
In this stanza Yeats mentions three famous philosophers, who might be
expected to answer the difficult, ongoing questions so far raised about
human identity and worth:
1) Plato the idealist, dismissive of nature
2) Soldier Aristotle, more of a materialist, but remembered here as
the tutor of Alexander the Great, whom he punished with the taws (a
Scottish word for a schoolmasters leather strap)
3) Pythagoras the mathematician and astronomer who believed in
the music of spheres music unable to rouse the interest of the
careless muses.
The stanza ends with the same scarecrow imagery repeated throughout
the poem, old clothes upon old sticks which dismisses all the three
philosophers as no more than scarecrows since their ideas have failed
to save them from the humiliations of the ageing body. Again, this
makes a subtle nod to the value (or questions the value) of Christian
Stanza 7:
The transition to stanza 7 is abrupt by immediately questioning why
we are in the world of nuns and mothers?. Yeats suggests that mothers
are able to survive the sufferings of labour because they are sustained
by an image of the child which they can worship just as a nun is
sustained by contemplating the repose of a statue. And yet they too
break hearts implies that all worship of this kind is an attempt to go
beyond the human; after the broken heart, there may be peace.
However this vision is repudiated in the ecstatic vision to which the
poem now moves with rhythmical power achieved by the enjambment
going onto stanza 8. The representations of this heavenly glory known
to passion, piety or affection interpreted as the emotions of lover,
nun and mother in their perfection mock mans enterprise (the pun on
enterprise is either just simply to live or in order to live takes courage).
Stanza 8:
The final stanza begins with a declaration about a state of perfect being
in which labour is transferred into blossoming or dancing. The labour
being Adams curse, but also that of Mothers, in both cases involving
effort and suffering due to the Fall in the creation of Adam and Eve.
Blossoming and dancing are two evocative images of vital beauty. Here,
all the usual antinomies of human existence are actually resolved:
1) The body is not sacrificed to the soul
2) Beauty is not created by despair
3) Wisdom is not won by arduous toil.
This is an idyllic state but the imagery of nature makes it an earthly
paradise. The stanza ends with two rhetorical questions:
1) The chestnut-tree is a whole living creature, the blossom is
inconceivable without the great roots.
2) The dancer in the dance is an indissoluble unity. Once the dance
is over, the figure that emerges is no longer the dancer, only an
ordinary human body.
Conclusion and Criticism:
The ending is overall ambiguous. The critic Frank Kermode suggested
in Romantic Image in 1957 that the poem ends with a satisfying and
convincing assertion of value no static image will now serve, there
must be movement, the different sort of life that a dancer has by
comparison with the most perfect object of art. The American critic
Yvor Winters remarked adversely the harsh truth that the body is
always bruised to pleasure soul; wisdom is always born out of midnight
oil or something comparable which seems to deny Yeats right to use
his imagination to create images of perfection which are ones of the few
pleasures that literature and art can give. F.R Leavis sees the climax of
the poem as coming with a perfect cogency of musical logic.
In comparison to Sailing to Byzantium where Yeats looks for an ideal
out of nature, Among School Children finds its solution to the
dichotomy between the children and the ageing man of its first stanza
in the contemplation of an ecstatic natural harmony. Yeats dreams of a
Ledean body and this can be related to Leda and the Swan which
suggests that beauty leads to destruction due to the rape of Leda
forming the end destruction of Troy. In both poems, Maud Gonne is the
Ledean body because she is beautiful to Yeats and her obsessive work
and devotion to the politics of the IRB/A leads to her disintegrating as
a person due to the destructive and wholly-absorbing nature of her
Segment 1: Introduction to the Poem (3:15)

Harvard student Zachary Shrier comments on Professor Vendler's
"Among School Children" is an example of a philosophical poem a
poem that considers some of the questions, or readings of the world
asked by philosophers.
The poem names three famous Greek philosophers from the
beginning era of philosophy: Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras.
Yeats first aim is not to be perfectly clear. The poem is not easy to
decipher. Rather, the poem contains the ruminations of a man who has
read, thought, written and loved all of his life.
"Among School Children" was written after visiting a Montessori
school in Dublin. A sixty-year-old man, a famous poet and a winner of
the Nobel Prize, Yeats was asked to visit such institutions to provide
encouragement to students.
Segment 2: Three Greek Philosophers (6:00)

Yeats points to three different constructions of the world:
Platonic forms: where nature is only a transient phenomenon.
Aristotle: the philosopher of the natural world, his experiments
grounded in scientific objectivity.
Pythagoras: the philosopher of aesthetics, famous for establishing
musical ratios and the ideal form of the golden triangle.
These philosophers were preeminent in establishing the philosophy
of thought, science and aesthetics. However, Yeats states that while
their philosophical ideas might linger, even great luminaries grow old,
become objects of ridicule and die. Describing them as old scarecrows,
Yeats reflects upon their and his own impermanence.
Another area for Yeats contemplation is the arts. Yeats was involved
in all the arts: music, dance, theater, poetry, painting and sculpture. He
considered them as one art, all attempting to find the perfect
Pythagorean aesthetic ratios.
The third area of Yeats reflection was his view of himself as a lover.
Beset by love for one woman for many years, Yeats describes the
intimate feeling when his beloved grants him a vision of the life that she
led prior to their meeting.
Segment 3: Yeats Philosophical Thoughts (6:08)

According to Platos myth of creation, originally everyone was once
half of a sphere. The two halves of the sphere either consisted of a male
half linked with another male half, a female half linked with a female
half, or male/female or female/male divisions.
Upon birth, thought Plato, the sphere is split in two, and the divided
parts were thrown into the world, thus explaining the phenomenon of
human sexual attraction.
As he looks over the girls in the classroom, his mind wanders, and he
wonders how his beloved looked at that youthful age.
The poem is also about labor, referring to Adams curse of having to
earn his livelihood and Eves curse of having to endure the pain of
childbirth. He also despairs at the length of the learning process.

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