Among School Children by William Butler Yeats
First Published 1927; collected in The Tower, 1928
Type of Poem Meditation
William Butler Yeats' "'Among School Children'' is written in eight eight-line stanzas that follow a precise rhyme scheme. Along with the straightforward title, stanza I establishes the immediate context of the action in deliberately prosaic language. The speaker is visiting a schoolroom, and "'a kind old nun,'' his guide for the day or perhaps the classroom teacher, is answering his matter-of-fact questions in a rapid, matter-of-fact way.
The tone and mood of the poem take a sharp turn in the couplet ending the first stanza, however; the speaker suddenly sees himself through the children"'"s eyes as they '"'In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man.'"' The speaker is almost certainly Yeats himself; as a member of the Irish Senate, Yeats, just turned sixty, did in fact visit schools as a part of his official duties.
Seeing himself through the children"'"s eyes inspires a reverie. He thinks of a child, a girl, whom he knew in his own childhood or youth. The facts are not quite clear, for the reader is told of a '"'childish day'"' but also of '"'youthful sympathy.'"' Nevertheless, the young female is generally identified as Maud Gonne, with whom the poet first became acquainted and fell in love when she was in her late teens and he was in his twenties.
The reverie ends, but his eyes light upon one of the children, who looks amazingly like Maud when she was that age: '"'She stands before me as a living child.'"' Seeing her as she looked then reminds him of what she looks like now, after the passage of nearly forty years. '"'Her present image'"' is of someone whom life has wasted and exhausted; she is '"'Hollow of cheek'"' as if she '"'drank the wind'"' and ate '"'a mess of shadows for [her] meat.'"'
Thoughts of her then and now lead to thoughts of himself then and now. The years have not been kind in his case either, and, back in the present in the schoolroom, he decides that it is best to keep up a brave front and '"'smile on all that smile.'"'
Yet he cannot shake the thought that human life appears to be a process of diminishment and gradual dispossession, if not outright defeat. He imagines what a mother—perhaps his own—would think, just having given birth, could she see that infant after he has lived through '"'sixty or more winters.'"' Would she, he wonders, think the result worth the pain of her labor and of all her coming anxieties over her helpless infant"'"s welfare?
In the final three stanzas, the personal note that has pervaded the poem is dropped as the speaker explores in rapid order the breadth and scope of all human thought and endeavor—from Plato to Aristotle and Pythagoras, from nuns to mothers to youthful lovers—seeking some solace for the tragic unraveling of dreams and hopes that human life seems to be. In a sudden burst of anger, the speaker...