Segment 1: Introduction to the Poem (3:15) ________________________________________ • Harvard student Zachary Shrier comments on Professor Vendler’s teaching. • “Among School Children” is an example of a philosophical poem – a poem that considers some of the questions, or readings of the world asked by philosophers. • The poem names three famous Greek philosophers from the beginning era of philosophy: Plato, Aristotle and Pythagoras. • Yeats’ first aim is not to be perfectly clear. The poem is not easy to decipher.
Rather, the poem contains the ruminations of a man who has read, thought, written and loved all of his life.
• “Among School Children” was written after visiting a Montessori school in Dublin. A sixty-year-old man, a famous poet and a winner of the Nobel Prize, Yeats was asked to visit such institutions to provide encouragement to students. Segment 2: Three Greek Philosophers (6:00) ________________________________________ • Yeats points to three different constructions of the world: • Platonic forms: where nature is only a transient phenomenon. Aristotle: the philosopher of the natural world, his experiments grounded in scientific objectivity.
• Pythagoras: the philosopher of aesthetics, famous for establishing musical ratios and the ideal form of the golden triangle. • These philosophers were preeminent in establishing the philosophy of thought, science and aesthetics. However, Yeats states that while their philosophical ideas might linger, even great luminaries grow old, become objects of ridicule and die. Describing them as old scarecrows, Yeats reflects upon their and his own impermanence. • Another area for Yeats’ contemplation is the arts.
Yeats was involved in all the arts: music, dance, theater, poetry, painting and sculpture.
He considered them as one art, all attempting to find the perfect Pythagorean aesthetic ratios. • The third area of Yeats’ reflection was his view of himself as a lover. Beset by love for one woman for many years, Yeats describes the intimate feeling when his beloved grants him a vision of the life that she led prior to their meeting. Segment 3: Yeats’ Philosophical Thoughts (6:08) ________________________________________ • According to Plato’s myth of creation, originally everyone was once half of a sphere.
The two halves of the sphere either consisted of a male half linked with another male half, a female half linked with a female half, or male/female or female/male divisions. • Upon birth, thought Plato, the sphere is split in two, and the divided parts were thrown into the world, thus explaining the phenomenon of human sexual attraction. • As he looks over the girls in the classroom, his mind wanders, and he wonders how his beloved looked at that youthful age. • The poem is also about labor, referring to Adam’s curse of having to earn his livelihood and Eve’s curse of having to endure the pain of childbirth.
He also despairs at the length of the learning process. Segment 4: Reading of Stanzas I through IV (9:23) ________________________________________ • The first four stations or stanzas of the poem begin with Roman numerals, informing the reader that the poem will appear in stages, seemingly starting anew after each stanza. • The poem, following octava rima form, has eight stanzas, with each stanza consisting of eight lines of verse. Each stanza contains a unit of six lines followed by a unit of two lines, giving the poem an ABABABCC form. I I walk through the long schoolroom questioning; A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing, To study reading-books and history, To cut and sew, be neat in everything In the best modern way – the children’s eyes In momentary wonder stare upon A sixty-year-old smiling public man. II 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 – Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent Into a sphere from youthful sympathy, Or else, to alter Plato’s parable, Into the yolk and white of the one shell. III And thinking of that fit of grief or rage I look upon one child or t’other there
And wonder if she stood so at that age – For even daughters of the swan can share Something of every paddler’s heritage – And had that colour upon cheek or hair, And thereupon my heart is driven wild: She stands before me as a living child. • He envisions his beloved as a type of Mary Magdalene. Yeats evokes a figure similar to Donatello’s 15th century emaciated, ravaged Magdalene. IV Her present image floats into the mind – Did Quattrocento finger fashion it Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind And took a mess of shadows for its meat? And I though never of Ledaean kind Had pretty plumage once – enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow. • Yeats returns from his dream to the classroom, smiling upon the students and choosing for himself the role of the smiling old scarecrow. • Yeats completes the diptych: once possessing pretty plumage, he is now a sixty-year-old scarecrow; she, once a living child, now is a time-ravaged woman. Segment 5: Reading of Stanzas V through VII (7:31) ________________________________________ • Yeats asks whether a mother would regret having her child if she could envision the child as a sixty-year-old scarecrow? In the fifth stanza, Yeats projects an image of a Madonna-like mother: fulfilled, young and fertile. He asks: what if she could look forward and see her son as a withered old man? Would the pain and worry of child bearing be worth the result? V What youthful mother, a shape upon her lap Honey of generation had betrayed, And that must sleep, shriek, struggle to escape As recollection or the drug decide, Would 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? VI Plato thought nature but a spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things; Solider Aristotle played the taws Upon the bottom of a king of kings; World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings What a star sang and careless Muses heard: Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird. VII Both nuns and mothers worship images, But those the candles light are not as those That animate a mother’s reveries, But keep a marble or a bronze repose. And yet they too break hearts – O Presences That passion, piety or affection knows, And that all heavenly glory symbolise – O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;
Segment 6: Reading of Stanza VIII (12:51) ________________________________________ VIII 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. O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance? • Yeats looks for a solution to the pain of unrequited passion. In this poems original ending, Yeats conjures the nostalgia of the spring of youth and reciprocated sexuality. Yeats looks towards nature for inspiration, admiring the grand chestnut tree, giving forth blossoms even after old age with a continual spring of vital energy: • However, Yeats acknowledges that mankind in old age is not looked upon with such veneration as is the old, stately tree. • In asking his final question as to the use of a long life, he looks to the dancer – a dancer who creates his or her own choreography to the constraints of the pace of musical accompaniment. • To Yeats, life is a series of fluid and self-invented steps, not governed by time but rather invented against time. Segment 7: Conclusion (1:46) _______________________________________ • The exciting nature of “Among School Children” stems from the poem’s growth from an apparent lack of position, to the ultimate question: What is life worth once someone has grown old? • It is a comprehensive poem, dealing with the great Greek philosophers, views on men and women, passion, piety and affection, and the organic and human worlds. • It compares the physical body to the imaginative soul: the bitterness and the exhaustion of the biological is contrasted to the constant brightening of the human imagination. • Ending commentary by Harvard student Jessica Kahan.