Yeats: what would we cut or rewrite?
“Among School Children” is the poem by Yeats that ends with the “dancer”—“dance” question. Apart from stanza one, line five (maybe?), what would we rewrite or cut? All of stanza seven? The first half of stanza eight? Why does the first half of the last stanza seem so abstract? Here is the poem:
Among School Children
BY WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
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,
In the best modern way—the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
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.
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.
What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap
Honey of generation had betrayed,
And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape[,]
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?
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.
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 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?
What about the middle of stanza five; what is the “drug”? Does “ghastly” hide behind “ghostly”? I haven’t gone searching for answers online; what does Eratosphere think?
Har-UMPH! Eighty-four views so far, and no one thinks that Yeats might be a tad vague and need decoding, or is just too perfect (or too awful) to study. Where’s the puzzler in the back of the class with an acute observation? Everybody knows about the legend that Pythagoras had a golden thigh? That maybe this is a bounce off a remark in another poem about (I think, correct me if I’m wrong—no books here where I am right now, and the internet is cheating) Synge and the drama “The Playboy of the Western World”?
Yeats can be stupendous. But where are the sharp-tongued sharks? I personally think this poem could be clarified, revised, or cut. Especially LL 1–4 of the last stanza. If he is writing about giving birth, I wonder how real his perspective is; if not, he must be writing about writing and not stevedoring. Come on, piranhas! I have reservations, am I blowing steam?
The matter of Synge’s sinewy thigh:
ON THOSE THAT HATED "THE PLAYBOY OF THE WESTERN WORLD," 1907
ONCE, when midnight smote the air,
Eunuchs ran through Hell and met
On every crowded street to stare
Upon great Juan riding by:
Even like these to rail and sweat
Staring upon his sinewy thigh.
Unless there are silent bidders at this auction, the poem will be returned to the W. B. Yeats Trust.
Probably a final observation or two. Yeats was well aware of dance as an element of Hindu metaphysics or religion, and quite unhappy with what he had been given of Western European Christian metaphysics and religion. “Played the taws” is probably most easily read as a use of “taws” as the string-like whip employed to keep a rapidly spinning toy top whirling; if the top is heavy enough and the taws grippy enough with rubber or some glabrous surfacing, the top will not tumble but merely speed up when whipped expertly, though it might wander around on the floor. Yeats seems unsatisfied here with the attractive sensory surface of experience, and even with his occult “presences” that psychologically or actually (he was sure) visited him and helped him write poetry (he said). He uses imagery of regression to prebirth existence to describe his desire for Maud Gonne — a desire reawakened (he says) by witnessing the variety of resemblances to her among school children (not so remarkable), and pitches the poem to posterity by framing its setting as an interior monologue in a “long” schoolroom that would include me. Yeats has no resolution to his dazzlement beyond the ancient Athenian gripe about the world as “whirl”. Surface; sensory sexual “honey”; his self-generated or occult-generated “presences”: all perplex him (married as he was) as he meditates on his desire for, or infatuation with, a woman who could never live up to his fantasies. But still he thinks he loves her.
My sophomoric B+ paragraph on “Among School Children”.
I wouldn't touch anything. With Yeats you have to take him whole - pernes, gyres, towers, faeries, the whole shebang.
Okay, Gregory, it’s hero worship from A to Z for me too...almost. I can even sigh over the prosy self-pity in LL 1-4 of the last stanza: “This is how I write” — an apologia that verges on the later despair about the desertion of his “circus animals,” although one such as I thinks it can be seen as an irrelevant (or at least diffuse) diversion that takes the poem in a brand new direction to it’s terrific metaphysical conclusion. I could wish he had done better. (Like I wish Sibelius’s last symphony weren’t so dashed repetitive in its final movement.) I see it as a dry bridge of filler without much nourishment for Maud Gonne or anyone else. But that “drug” is a gumball. I have to tie it to the “honey” of what I presume is his retrospective view of the hum of love. That link holds, but it is forged by making the audience think too much. Unless he means something else completely.
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