Among School Children: A Condemnation of Old Age?

June 2, 2022 by Essay Writer

In his poem “Among School Children,” W.B. Yeats describes his feelings upon entering a classroom full of young children as a sixty year old man. The beauty of the children that he encounters in the classroom leads him to question the value of the lives of old individuals like himself. As life appears to grow progressively worse with age, Yeats questions the desirability of living a long life. His visit to the classroom sparks for Yeats a contemplation of love, nature, men and women, philosophy, and finally the relationship between life and an aging body and imagination.In stanza one, Yeats depicts himself as a kind, sixty year old man in a school classroom, making polite inquiries to a nun, the teacher, about the education that the students are receiving. The nun, proud of her school and its modernity, informs Yeats that “The children learn to cipher and to sing, / To study reading books and history, / To cut and sew, be neat in everything…” (3-5). In the classroom, Yeats realizes that because he is many times the age of anyone else present aside from the nun, that he is an object of wonder for the kids. A famous and “public” man, his appearance is a special occasion, as the school likely did not have many visitors. The children quickly lose interest in him however, as they see only an old man who has come to smile at them.In stanza two, Yeats begins to let his mind wander back to the days when he was young and in love. He dreams of his beloved, now as old as he is. He says “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-…” (9-12). Describing her body as bent, he combines this image with that of a dying fire, implying that she relayed this story to him in her old age. The story, though trivial in nature, was meaningful due to the feelings which it aroused within them. While contemplating this past event they are taken back to their childhood, connecting as they sympathize with her childish plight. They come together in this shared feeling until they are like twins, blended “Into the yolk and white of the one shell” (16). In stanza three, Yeats becomes grieved because he realizes that at one point, he and his beloved were young and beautiful like the children who now surround him. He wonders if his beloved looked like the young girls in the class when she was there age, and if she shared the mannerisms which they now possess. He says “For even daughters of the swan can share / Something of every paddler’s heritage-“(20-21). He is saying that all children share many characteristics, and that just as the beautiful and graceful swan shares several physical traits with other paddling birds, his beloved, when a child, possessed many of the same traits as these children. “She stands before me as a living child” (24), he writes, his heart is driven wild by the thought of his beloved at that age.Yeats is then brought back to the present as an image of her as she appears now floats into his mind. He compares her to quattrocento artistic works, saying that she is “Hollow of cheek as though [she] drank the wing / And took a mass of shadows for [her] meat” (27-28). He then realizes that he, although a hollow-cheeked mass of shadows now, was a beautiful youth at one time too. Though not Ledaean like her, he also had “pretty plumage” once. He then decides that he has dwelt long enough on past appearances, and that now, rather than let his frustration with old age become visible, he should simply return the innocent smiles of the children surrounding him. It is here that he first compares himself to a scarecrow, and he states that it is best for him to show that “There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow” (32). He decides that he should be a smiling old man, hiding from view the frustration he feels inside.In stanza five, Yeats conjures an image of a Madonna figure, a young mother with a child upon her lap. He speculates as to the way that this mother would react were she able to perceive the future of her young, sleeping, shrieking, and struggling child. “Would [she] 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” (37-40)? He wonders if the young mother would consider it worthwhile for her to experience childbirth and motherhood if she knew that sixty years later the beautiful baby would be an old, ugly scarecrow as he is now. Knowing the anticlimactic ending in store for her baby, perhaps the mother would conclude that raising him was not worth the bother. She may not find the scarecrow result sufficient compensation for the pang of childbirth or the uncertainty involved in sending a child into the world.In stanza six Yeats mentions three great philosophers, each of whom formulated classic theories before, inevitably, becoming old themselves. Yeats says that no matter what one accomplishes during one’s lifetime, the ending is always the same. “What a star sang and careless Muses heard: / Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (47-48). If people are always destined to end their lives as ugly old scarecrows, Yeats wonders what reasons there are for living into old age. Although the theories of these philosophers have been remembered for many generations, Yeats believes that perhaps it would have been best if these men had died before reaching old age. Their lives through middle age were justified, but perhaps if they had died at age fifty, they could have been spared the misery of becoming just three more old scarecrows.In stanza seven Yeats compares mothers and nuns, saying that both create objects of worship to which they dedicate their whole hearts. However, rather than worshipping God in a church lit by candles, a mother worships her child. She places all her hope in the child and dreams of the beautiful, successful person that her child will one day become. As the child ages and eventually becomes an old scarecrow, this “altar” starts to crumble and the mother’s heart is broken. Yeats implies with his poem that the nun’s heart breaks as well, perhaps because she concludes that her connection with God is not quite as strong or as fulfilling as she had originally dreamt it would be: “And yet they too break hearts-O Presences / That passion, piety or affection knows, / And that all heavenly glory symbolize- / O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise” (53-56). As the mothers and nuns realize this inevitable loss, they feel foolish for instilling all of their hopes within these failed realizations.Yeats begins the final stanza contemplating what life would be like if work was effortless: “Labour is blossoming or dancing where / The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, / Nor beauty born out of its own despair, / Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil” (59-60). He says that labour should be painless and should not bruise the body, but it should bring pleasure to the soul. He also says, however, that beauty is born out of despair. This rings true in the world of art, as often the greatest artistic masterpieces are works of emotion conceived in fits of despair. Yeats says that this form of creation, as well as the pursuit of knowledge that leaves one “blear-eyed” from sleep deprivation, should not define the concept of labour. These lines refer to Yeats and other artists, and to philosophers like the three mentioned in stanza six. Yeats and these three philosophers find in their old age that they have put forth a great deal of hard labour pursuing their various enterprises. In the end, however, each is mocked by the image that they have created. The artist is mocked by his artistic creations, each an image of his continuing despair, and the philosophers are mocked by the ruination that their search for wisdom has unleashed upon their bodies. The second half of this final stanza uses the image of a chestnut tree to represent unity and the fact that life is a continuing and unified experience rather than one divided into youth and old age. “O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole” (62-63)? The chestnut tree is none of these, but is a combination of all three parts, none of which exist without the other two. Also, a chestnut tree is not belittled in its old age. It lives as it has its entire life, continuing to fulfill its purpose of providing beautiful blossoms and bringing color to the world. Yeats says in the final two lines that people must live their lives in a manner as unified as the tree, recognizing that life is a like a dance. Although the dance of life is performed to the accompaniment of age, it is a continuous set of steps that spans from birth to the end of one’s life. Living within the constraints of time but not governing one’s life according to them, Yeats says that one must see each day as a new opportunity to continue one’s dance of life, choreographing new steps for themselves along the way. Imagination should be the driving force in old age, and as an old chestnut tree never loses its ability to blossom, old people never lose their ability to imagine, and thus to come up with new steps to the dance that is their lives.Yeats’ poem “Among School Children” is driven by his contemplation of old age and its meaning. Although he ponders the question deeply, he does not reach a conclusion. While in the first stanzas Yeats seems to have concluded that the lives of elderly are not worth living, he ends more optimistically. Rather than dwell on the loss of youthful beauty and exuberance, Yeats states one should perceive the end of one’s life as the last steps of a long dance that still may be infused with imagination and novelty. Yeats realizes that although this is not a solution to the decline in abilities attributed to old age, one’s state of mind will make the decline – which after all is the culmination of a long, productive life – more tolerable. Work CitedYeats, W. B. “Among School Children.” The Tower. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004. 55-60.SourceVendler, Helen. “WB Yeats: Among School Children.” Harvard University. 20 Apr. 2007

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