Notes by Oriel Steel
Ottava Rima – 8 Stanzas with 8 lines, regular rhythm, regular rhyme scheme of abababcc. A Roman numeral heads each stanza. The form Ottava Rima was traditionally used for heroic or epic poetry; it is likely no co-incidence that this form is chosen for this particular poem of ‘epic reflection’.
The start of the poem is presented realistically with Senator Yeats carrying out one of his public duties by visiting a convent school (in Waterford). This event did indeed happen in real life. The atmosphere seems relaxed and agreeable and the children seem undisturbed by their important visitor. The tone is humane and acceptant.
Important quotes: ‘sixty-year-old smiling public man’ – reference to Sailing to Byzantium with the description, and ambiguous reaction to, age. The ‘public’ man is referring to his status as an Irish Senator, although as a well-known poet, his views and poetic verses were also appropriated by others (especially for political means). This poem (alongside Sailing to Byzantium) is ironically one of Yeats’ most private poems – it is a poem of self-reflection, rather than of overt political metaphor.
Yeats is portrayed as not wholly concentrating on the schoolroom but instead his thoughts are elsewhere and in comparison with the ‘I walk’ of stanza one, it is replaced by ‘I dream’. The poetry now becomes more urgent as the rhythm is broken at the line endings (enjambment). ‘A Ledean body’ relates to the child being dreamed of which is Maud Gonne – the ‘Ledean’ theme (Leda/Helen/Swan) is often used as a metaphor for Maud throughout Yeats’ canon (see blog page on Yeats’ women). This stanza evokes a scene of ‘youthful sympathy’. The two images of Maud and Yeats’ unity are offered, first the ‘sphere’ (attributed to Plato’s writings) and then the earthly image of ‘the yolk and white of an egg’. These two images start off the emerging argument of the poem, which is concerned with Platonic and alternative ways of seeing reality.
Yeats is shown as looking at the girls in the school-room and wondering whether Maud ‘stood so at that age’. The memory of her drives his heart so ‘wild’ that she appears to ‘stand before me as a living child’. The rhyming couplet makes this an auhoritive statement – the poet’s imagination is triumphant over time and circumstance.
Yeats compares ‘her present image’ with the imagined sight of the beautiful, young Maud which seems to ‘float into mind’; the verb float which is used gives the situation a spectral quality – the present is less powerful than the past. Yet the present is the reality, however grotesque and disturbing Maud is described. Yeats references her to the 14h century painting of the Italian ‘Quattrocento’, which suggests a hollow-cheeked ethereal beauty far from youthful vitality. Yeats implies that he was once handsome but abandons the fruitful idea by using a cutting caesura to emphasize wishful thought. He says that its ‘better to smile on all that smile’ at him, the ageing man, and to show that he can bear the process of ageing without complaint. The scarecrow imagery is reminiscent of ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ where he describes old age as ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’. However here Yeats is trying to avoid bitterness.
Here Yeats shows how bitterness is hard to avoid and he looks at the ageing man from a different perspective, that of the mother. Yeats questions whether the sufferings of women in childbirth are compensated for by such a ‘shape with sixty or more winters on its head?’ He presents an argument to the effect that ‘all things spoil over time’. It raises slight theological questions – If Jesus had not been crucified, would his teachings have been corrupted by bitterness and age?
In this stanza Yeats mentions three famous philosophers, who might be expected to answer the difficult, ongoing questions so far raised about human identity and worth:
1) ‘Plato’ the idealist, dismissive of nature
2) ‘Soldier Aristotle’, more of a materialist, but remembered here as the tutor of Alexander the Great, whom he punished with ‘the taws’ (a Scottish word for a schoolmaster’s leather strap)
3) ‘Pythagoras’ the mathematician and astronomer who believed in the music of spheres – music unable to rouse the interest of the ‘careless muses’.
The stanza ends with the same scarecrow imagery repeated throughout the poem, ‘old clothes upon old sticks’ which dismisses all the three philosophers as no more than scarecrows since their ideas have failed to save them from the humiliations of the ageing body. Again, this makes a subtle nod to the value (or questions the value) of Christian belief.
The transition to stanza 7 is abrupt by immediately questioning why we are in the world of ‘nuns and mothers?’. Yeats suggests that mothers are able to survive the sufferings of labour because they are sustained by an image of the child which they can worship just as a nun is sustained by contemplating the ‘repose’ of a statue. ‘And yet they too break hearts’ implies that all worship of this kind is an attempt to go beyond the human; after the broken heart, there may be peace. However this vision is repudiated in the ecstatic vision to which the poem now moves with rhythmical power achieved by the enjambment going onto stanza 8. The representations of this ‘heavenly glory’ known to ‘passion, piety or affection’ – interpreted as the emotions of lover, nun and mother in their perfection mock ‘man’s enterprise’ (the pun on enterprise is either just simply to live or in order to live takes courage).
The final stanza begins with a declaration about a state of perfect being in which ‘labour’ is transferred into ‘blossoming or dancing’. The labour being Adams curse, but also that of Mothers, in both cases involving effort and suffering due to the Fall in the creation of Adam and Eve. Blossoming and dancing are two evocative images of vital beauty. Here, all the usual antinomies of human existence are actually resolved:
1) The body is not sacrificed to the soul
2) Beauty is not created by despair
3) Wisdom is not won by arduous toil.
This is an idyllic state but the imagery of nature makes it an earthly paradise. The stanza ends with two rhetorical questions:
1) ‘The chestnut-tree’ is a whole living creature, the ‘blossom’ is inconceivable without the great roots.
2) ‘The dancer’ in the dance is an indissoluble unity. Once the ‘dance’ is over, the figure that emerges is no longer ‘the dancer’, only an ordinary human body.
Conclusion and Criticism:
The ending is overall ambiguous. The critic Frank Kermode suggested in ‘Romantic Image’ in 1957 that the poem ends with a satisfying and convincing assertion of value – “no static image will now serve, there must be movement, the different sort of life that a dancer has by comparison with the most perfect object of art’. The American critic Yvor Winters remarked adversely the harsh truth that ‘the body is always bruised to pleasure soul; wisdom is always born out of midnight oil or something comparable’ which seems to deny Yeat’s right to use his imagination to create images of perfection which are ones of the few pleasures that literature and art can give. F.R Leavis sees the climax of the poem as coming with ‘a perfect cogency of musical logic’.
In comparison to ‘Sailing to Byzantium’ where Yeats looks for an ideal out of nature, ‘Among School Children’ finds its solution to the dichotomy between the children and the ageing man of its first stanza in the contemplation of an ecstatic natural harmony. Yeats dreams of a ‘Ledean body’ and this can be related to ‘Leda and the Swan’ which suggests that beauty leads to destruction due to the rape of Leda forming the end destruction of Troy. In both poems, Maud Gonne is the ‘Ledean body’ because she is beautiful to Yeats and her obsessive work and devotion to the politics of the IRB/A leads to her ‘disintegrating’ as a person due to the destructive and wholly-absorbing nature of her politics.