Uniting Body and Soul In Yeats’ “Among School Children”

In William Butler Yeats’ “Among School Children,” the speaker addresses his anxieties about aging. Manipulating traditional rhyme schemes, Yeats articulates the impermanence of youth to examine the need to unify the body and the soul. Although the poem is an Ottava Rima, Yeats incorporates enjambments to illustrate the continual state of meditative wonder throughout the work. Yeats also varies the complexity of each foot as it coincides with subject’s perceptions of youth.

The first two lines of the poem foreshadow the speaker’s discomfort with his diminished youth. As he walks “through the long schoolroom questioning” to which a “kind old nun in a white hood replies” (lines 1-2), the less fluid use of spondaic and pyrrhic feet by the aged couple juxtaposes the youthful nursery-rhyme structure that describes the children. In strictly iambic pentameter and end-stopped lines, the nun recites the traditional education of the children “to cipher and sing,/ To study reading-books and history,/ To cut and sew, be neat in everything” (lines 3-5). Line 6, however, interrupts the sing-song structure with an enjambment as the gaze shifts from the children to the speaker: “the children’s eyes/ In momentary wonder stare upon/ A sixty-year-old smiling public man” (lines 6-8). The caesuras that occur in lines 6 and 7 further emphasize the shift in perception and examination of youth. Becoming the object of a youthful gaze further heightens the speaker’s awareness of the impermanence of youth.

The speaker adopts the children’s youthful state of “wonder” as he reflects on his idealized image of Maude Gonne (lines 7 and 9). His return to a more simplistic use of iambic pentameter with only slight variations of spondaic and pyrrhic feet echoes the childhood qualities of lines 3-5 in his romanticized depiction of Maude Gonne. In his description of her, he alludes to characters Leda and Helen of Troy in Greek Mythology to fully capture the gloriousness of her essence. The speaker seeks to unite his aged-reflection and his “youthful sympathy” of love “into the yolk and white of the one shell’ (lines 14-16).

In the third stanza, the speaker returns his gaze to the school children to compare them to a youthful Maude Gonne. Remaining in a state of wonder, the speaker attempts to imagine a time before Maude Gonne had become so captivating “For even daughters of the swan can share/ Something of every paddler’s heritage” (lines 20-21). It is evident by the similar sing-song pattern that a youthful transformation occurs not only in his image of Maude Gonne but also in himself as he explains: “And thereupon my heart is driven wild:/ She stands before me as a living child” (lines 23-24).

As the youthful image of Maude Gonne fades and “her present image floats into the mind” (line 25), the speaker returns to his prior perceptions of an aged man. The speaker describes the appearance of aging by the “hollow of cheek” and the “mess of shadows” that are now Maude Gonne and his earlier days of “pretty plumage” (lines 27-30). Although the persona advises it is “Better to smile on all that smile, and show/ There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” (lines 31-32), the accelerated use of spondaic and pyrrhic feet reveals his anxiousness and discomfort with his aging image.

Discontent with the impermanence of beauty as a result of aging, the speaker turns to the nature of motherhood and creation. He speculates the value of beauty for the mother during memories of pre-birth and asks is the sight of an aged son “A compensation for the pang of his birth, or the uncertainty of his setting forth?” (lines 39-40).

The persona continues this line of questioning in the sixth stanza when he addresses the philosophical teachings of Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras. Using a childlike diction in words such as “spume,” “play,” “taws,” “fiddle-stick,” the speaker reduces three centuries of scholars and their theories of the physical world to “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (lines 41-48).

Consistent with his speculation in the fifth and sixth stanza, the speaker focuses on the images worshipped by nuns and mothers. He criticizes these images as false replicas that “animate a mother’s reveries” (line 51). Unwilling to depict the natural aging body “but keep a marble or a bronze repose” (line 52), the speaker concludes that these figures are “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” (line 56).

The tone of the poem makes a drastic change in the final stanza. The focus deters from the anxieties of the impermanence of beauty and youth to the interlocutory, inseparable components that create the essence of being. The last lines of the poem represent the speaker’s revelation: “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,/ How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (lines 63-64). Referencing his earlier allusion to Plato’s parable, the speaker seeks to blend the beauty, wisdom, and spirituality of the self “into the yolk and white of the one shell” (lines 56-60 and 16).

Upon examining the poem, the first seven stanzas suggest the speaker’s discontent with aging and fading beauty. Yeats allows his audience to peer into the consciousness of the speaker as he shifts between perceptions and levels of certainty. While these stanzas seem to desperately cling to an idealized youth, his final revelation seeks not only to find resolution in his aging but also to unify the body (physical) and the soul (emotional/mental).

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