Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Among School Children - poetry on a Tuesday

Imagine that you're a sixty year-old Irish poet walking through a school in County Waterford back in 1926, because you happen to also be a member of a committee addressing schools. As you walk through, you'd carry with you your sixty years of life experience and education, including your training in the classics, such as the theories of Aristotle, Plato and Pythagoras. You'd also bring with you your recollection of school days, and might wonder if any of the girls in class resemble the woman you consider your soul-mate, believing as you do in a Platonic reality where every soul is split in two and housed in separate bodies, but which, when reunited, creates a sublime single entity. You might ponder the state of education. What the school (and teacher) looks like. Comparing your sixty year-old self to the young children there, you might think about how you were once a child, and that might make you think of your mother: was your life worth the pain of your birth? You might wonder whether there is meaning to life, after all, as you stand there at age sixty, looking at the exuberance of youth surrounding you.

And if you it truly were you, you'd be William Butler Yeats. And you would then go on to write a gorgeous poem about it. Of course, you'd use your own personal mythological associations, like references to Leda (once impregnated by Zeus, who took the form of a swan) as a stand-in for the woman you love. And in the end, you'd have an answer, contained in the following poem:

Among School Children
by William Butler Yeats

The poem consists of eight stanzas, each containing eight lines, each written in iambic pentameter and with an end-rhyme scheme (per stanza) of ABABABCC, which is known as ottava rima.


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 histories,
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.

This first stanza is the set-up: where he is, what starts him musing.


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.

Yeats is thinking of Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary whom he loved for years, most of which was unrequited. (She was, from Yeats's perspective, his muse, and to borrow from a song title, a beautiful disaster.) He recalls her telling him some story of a childhood tragedy (real or imagined), and how he knew her to be his soulmate ("two natures blent/into a sphere from youthful sympathy/. . .the yolk and white of the one shell"). He spies a young girl who reminds him of Gonne by virtue of skin tone or hair color, and successfully evokes an image of Gonne as a 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.

Yeats pictures Gonne as she is now, an old woman. "Quattrocento" is a reference to the Renaissance painters of the 1400s. He compares Gonne to a gaunt statue who has subsisted on air and shadows, and then compares himself to an 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?

If you've been tapping out the lines of this poem, you might notice that this one skews a bit by adding an extra syllable here or there. To stay strictly iambic, the first line should be "What youthful mother, shape upon her lap", but Yeats opted to select sense over form and added an article to indicate that he's referring to some thing on her lap (in this case, a child, which was formed by the "honey of generation" — I'll bet they don't teach that term in health class — and his use of the word "betrayed" there is, I think, really strong. Who's betrayed? The woman? The child? It seems to me that he sees the bearing of children as an oppression, and that it's the mother who's been betrayed into bearing the child, but I think it could be open to discussion. Further line skewage (is that a word?) is the result of him inserting masculing articles in to be clear that he's speaking of a specific sixty year old, and not in general terms.

Moving on with this stanza, and skipping all the stuff about the kid, what it asks is "What young mother, if she could see her son at age sixty, would think that she'd been well-compensated for the pains of his birth and her concern for him as a child?"


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.

Yeats looks to Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras for answers and concludes that although their teachings continue to exist, they were nothing but old scarecrows themselves. Anyone else hearing Eliot's lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" in their head right about now? ("I grow old . . . I grow old . . . /I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.")


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;

Nuns worship marble and bronze images; mothers worship their children. Both have their hearts broken in the end: mothers by their children, and others by art, which mocks man by remaining changeless throughout time.


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?

The last two lines of this poem are the most-often quoted part: "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/How can we know the dancer from the dance?"

The "dance" to which Yeats refers is defined earlier in the final stanza. It occurs when there's a sort of unity between body and spirit where neither is dominant. Use of the word "Labour" at the start of the stanza refers all the way back to the start of the poem and the work of the school children, but he's saying that work that is worthwhile transcends separation into parts (self or soul - a reference to at least another of his poems, "A Dialogue Between Self and Soul").

The final question about the dancer and the dance is, as you might guess, rhetorical. Because of this (and without meaning to be confusing), this question and the one preceding it are, in fact, the answers to questions posed by the poem. Just as a chestnut tree cannot be separated into parts (leaf, blossom or bole), the creator and its creation (chestnut tree and flower/leaf/bole, human dancer and dance) cannot be completely separated. You may not be what you eat, but I read him as meaning that you are part of whatever it is that you create - dance, art, writing.

Yeats's conclusion is Ars Longa, Vita Brevis, commonly rendered into English as "life is short, but art is long."

So: What have you created today?

My answer? This blog post. And another 12 failed lines for the final 6 lines of the sonnet I spoke of when talking about poetry and ninjas last week.

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