Among School Children: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      (In 1926 Yeats visited the Waterford Convent School.) I am received by an old nun in a white hood. She showed me around the school and answered all my questions. The children were learning arithmetic and singing. They were learning to-read books and to cut and sew clothes and be neat in everything they did. They were also learning history. All this was being taught to them through modem methods of teaching. The children stared, at me—a sixty year old smiling public figure, with wonder.

Stanza II

      As I (poet) go through the school, the girl-students in the classrooms remind me of another Ledaean beauty—Maud Gonne with her well chiseled Leda-like classic features. I recall Maud Gonne, too, like the little girls standing before me, must have once been a little girl at school. This reminds me of a particular day when Maud Gonne had told me how, while at school, petty incidents of reproofs from the teacher caused great unhappiness to her and turned the entire day into a tragedy for her. I (the poet) had sympathized with her till our two souls had seemed to fuse and blend into one like the yolk and white of an egg.

Stanza III

      Thinking of that sad event which my beloved had once narrated to me I, (the poet) look from one girl to another, wondering whether my beloved Maud Gonne looked like anyone of them in her childhood, for even ‘daughters of the Swan’ i.e., a very beautiful woman like Helen to whom Maud Gonne is compared, may have something in common with ordinary plain-faced women. The color of the cheeks and hair of one of the girls recalls to me the images of my beloved. My imagination runs wild and I see her as if she were actually standing before me as a living child.

Stanza IV

      I (the poet) continue to dwell upon the image of my beloved. I am reminded of Maud Gonne when she was an old woman. Even though she had hollow cheeks and looked old and decrepit and seemed to have only the wind for drink and the shadows for food she looked beautiful like a piece of Renaissance art. Even in her old age, she looked presentable. And by a natural transition I (the poet) begin to think of my own old age. Though I was never very handsome (“never of Ledaean kind”) yet I too had my youth once and looked presentable. But now, I took more of a scarecrow. However, whatever I may feel within, I must make the best of a bad bargain and keep a smiling face. It is no use fretting over the loss of youth and beauty. One must keep smiling and take comfort from the fact that even if one has grown into a scarecrow, one is at least a comfortable kind of scarecrow.

Stanza V

      If mothers could see how ugly and decrepit their sons would look in their old age, none of them would care to take the trouble of bearing children. In such circumstances, sons would no longer be a source of joy or a sort of compensation to their mothers for the pain they undergo in bringing them into this world. The ‘honey of generation’ is the drug which makes the newly-born soul forget the recollections of its pre-natal freedom. Thus, if the process of life is to continue, mothers too must forget how their children will look in old age.

Stanza VI

      Plato explained the world as the shadow of God’s ideas. To him, life was just a shadow or reflection of the world of ideas. Aristotle was another great philosopher. He was Alexander’s tutor and he whipped him so as to make him learn, but Alexander learned little from him. Then there was the great philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras who proclaimed that he had golden thighs. He was a great musician as well as could listen to the ‘music of the spheres’ i.e., he could listen to the musical sound produced by the planets as they moved in their orbits. But all the profound wisdom of these great men proved to be of no avail to them. They could not stop old age from coming. Despite all their knowledge and wisdom, they became old and looked like scarecrows with the passage of time. Time is almightly. Hence, it useless to mourn over the loss of youth and beauty.

Stanza VII

      Both pious nuns and affectionate mothers worship illusions and mere phantoms. The images that saint worships are different from those which “animate a mother’s reveries.” The images in the churches which are lighted by the candle are made of marble or bronze but the images worshipped by mothers are those of living human beings. Both the images break the heart of their worshippers. Sons break the hearts of their mothers by growing aged and infirm but the stone images cause grief and pain to their worshippers because they never change. Thus, neither the living images nor the stony images give any permanent satisfaction to their worshippers.

Stanza VIII

      In this last stanza, I (the poet) compare life to a chestnut tree. 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. In the same way; the dancing movements of a human body cannot be separated from the dancer. The dancer and her dancing movements are inseparable. The body should not be tortured for the sake of the soul and pursuit of wisdom should not be at the cost of sleep. The soul and the body are not two opposed entities. Both should exist in harmony. This is explained by the image of the chestnut tree (the “great-rooted blossomer”) and the dancer and the dance.

Critical Comments

      Among School Children is one of Yeats’s greatest and most beautiful poems. These lines not only make it clear to us as to how much Yeats loved Maud Gonne but also tells us how much his loss of Maud Gonne kept haunting him throughout his life. Also the handling of rhyme in these lines is admirable.

      These lines express Yeats’s firm belief that there is a need for the proper fusion of labor and spontaneity in art. In the same way as a dancer and the dance are inseparable from each other so also the artist and his performance should be properly co-ordinated and the stress should more on spontaneity than labor. These lines also make an indirect reference to labor in the sense of the pangs of child birth.

Critical Analysis


      Among School Children is one of Yeats most difficult poems. The main subject of the poem is the relationship or interpenetration of matter and spirit. Broadly speaking, it is a meditation on the riddle that has puzzled us all when we have thought of it, and to which various answers—theological, philosophical, and psychological have been proposed. We say the Jones dies and goes to Heaven; but which Jones goes there? The squalling infant Jones, the undergraduate Jones, the full-blooded middle-aged Jones as pere de famille, or the old shrunken Jones who actually dies? Obviously, they are all the same, in a sense; but in what sense are they all the same? The question is the major pre-occupation of the poem, and there is also the secondary theme, present as a strong undertone, which is expressed by the word ‘labor.’ Our identities—our souls, if you like—manifest themselves in our activities, in our work; the heads of the school children bowed over their reading books and histories, the hard speculations of the philosophers, the straining of the youthful mother in labor, and finally the blossoming and dancing, the work of beings in a state of perfection and rightness. To show how these themes are interwoven it is necessary first to cross the pons asinorum, to give, as bluntly as possible, the paraphrasable content of the poem (one does not speak, in this connection of its meaning).

Development of Thought

      The poet, at sixty, while visiting a school is reminded of the woman he loves. He recalls, how, late one night, she spoke of some incident of her own childhood.

.....tale that she told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy—

      This confidence gave the poet a precious sense of kinship with the woman. This train of thought sends his mind back to the schoolchildren. He realizes that his beloved too, must have looked something like this. And all at once, the pendulum swings back to ‘her present image’, which is something like a Quattrocento painting. He himself has to repress the dangerous and painful thought that in his youth, before he became old and ugly, he was handsome enough.

      This cluster of contrasts between youth and age leads on to the next step, which is the first generalized thought in the poem and which has no immediate bearing on the poet’s personal life. A man of sixty would hardly seem worth the trouble of bearing and bringing up, if appeared before his mother at the moment of child birth. This is what stanza fifth roughly means. The detail, however, is complicated. Giving birth to a child is unmistakable an ordeal for a mother; she would escape if she could; it was the ‘honey of generation’, the pleasant activity of conceiving the child, which let her in for this: it ‘betrayed’ her.

      In Stanza VI we return to the argument of the poem once again: the question has now been posed. Plato and Aristotle and Pythagoras have been mentioned but all these philosophers have been, in fact, given up with a sad shrug; they are nothing but a lot of scare-crows like the poet himself. This is profoundly Yeatsian he was interested in people’s experiments with ideas but at the same time he was profoundly anti-philosophic. He had taken these philosophers so long to work out their ideas that they had become scare-crows in the process. Time has taken away their physical vitality, and added after all nothing very valuable in exchange. Thus, in this poem, the important fact is that the philosophers, inspite of their learning could not prevent old age from coming.

      In Stanza VII there are two other emblematic figures, the nun and the mother, worshipping their own kind of images. A mother thinks of her son simultaneously as he was in the cradle, in early childhood in boyhood proper, and fuses these image with his ‘present image’ in manhood. The piety of a nun sees eternity and holiness in the stillness of marble or bronze statues. Both, the nun and mother are disappointed in these images they worship. Sons break the hearts of their mother by growing aged and infirm but the stone images cause grief and pain to their worshippers because they never change. Thus, neither the living images nor the stony images give permanent satisfaction to their worshippers.

      Finally, toward the end of the poem, the poet talks about labor. Labour, here is the condition of being; it is performing one’s function. Trees grow leaves and blossoms; men grow hair and nails, but with them it cannot stop there because activity is the expression of identity. But something has gone wrong for we can never achieve a perfect relationship between activity and nature; between ‘labor’ and 'blossoming’ or ‘dancing.’ Thus, the body has to be ‘bruised to pleasure soul.’ But in a perfect state, all these things would be attainable without paying such a crushing price for them. ‘Labour’ would be ‘blossoming’—simply unconscious growth—r ‘dancing’—a nature of stylized activity—in such a state. ‘Labour’, means of course, the act of birth as well as the various activities of work; the two are not, at this level, distinguishable. This, of course, would be the perfect state, but even then there is no guarantee that we should escape from the confused relationship of matter and spirit.


      The success of this poem is due to the suppleness and force of its language, and the dramatic coherence of its construction. Anyone who does not see, without prompting, the peculiarly Yeatsian excellence of language attained in this poem, will not see it with any amount of prompting. It is an affair of variation within a well-defined area. The area is the area of dignity and passion; the language can become familiar, with its ‘t’, ‘other’, ‘paddle?, ‘bottom’; it can name commonplace objects, with its ‘reading-book’, ‘yolk’, ‘scarecrow’; it can rise to heights of what is conventionally thought of as ‘poetic language.’

Critical Opinion

      Edmund Wilson, in Axel’s Castle says about his style. His words, no matter how prosaic, are always somehow luminous and noble, as if pale pebbles smoothed by the sea were to take on some mysterious value and became more precious than jewels or gold.

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