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...
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...self and others from the same condemnation. All fail in their choices and actions to face squarely the one insurmountable reality: Flesh ages, spirits flag, and human dreams wither. He thus accuses himself of having given up or given in ('"'I … had pretty plumage once'"' but now am '"'a comfortable kind of old scarecrow'"') and accuses nuns and mothers, as much as the Helens and Mauds of the world, of betraying the innocent, childlike spirit that fosters dreams and compels human choices.
People unwittingly create false images of what it is to be human, thereby creating false hopes and expectations. Yeats suggests that since there is no choice but to move forward, one should imagine the fullness of each moment as having an inextricable harmony with all others. Life is like a dance that does exist independent of a dancer but has no shape or form without the dancers.
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