Yeats – Among School Children (1928)

From The Tower (1928). Eight ottava rima stanzas (numbered), with lots of metrical and rhyming variation. The poet-speaker walks through a school room and imagines what it will mean for these children to grow up and lose their innocence. The myth of Leda offers a way for reading the sudden loss of innocence and consequent aging (“I dream of a Ledean body, bent / Above a sinking fire”) that the children must undergo. Overlaid on these strange children is Yeats’ personal history with Maude Gonne (“She stands before me as a living child”), an occasion for reflecting on how far he has come from his youthful romances, etc. The image of the scarecrow repeats twice (“Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird”) recalling Sailing to Byzantium, but also a direct reference to the inadequacy of Plato and Aristotle as means to explaining our relationship to the world, and to meaning. The final stanza makes an argument for trying to see life whole, rather than in parts:

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul,
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor bleary-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer form the dance?

Invocation of the tree naturalizes the rhythm of mankind’s life cycle, but it is a Yeatsian question, after all, so the negativity of the second question should be highlighted. The brightening glance seems strangely detached from the poetic gaze…Who does the body belong to? Is Yeats a part of this dance? Is he the dancer? These questions of involvement and knowledge are all in direct conversation with “Leda and the Swan.” Must think about them historically and spatially–that is, we have a spatial form here (dance), but it is making an argument about temporality. Cf. Joseph Frank, Widening Gyre. 

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