Yeats and the Rehabilitation of Time and the Ideal in “Among School Children”
In much of his poetry, W. B. Yeats seeks to reconcile himself with the forces of time at work upon him and particularly with the effect of time on the relation between reality and the ideal. He rails against himself, “the aged man,” “the tattered coat upon a stick” (“Sailing to Byzantium”) and situates the ideal within the past, looking bleakly out upon a future which can only hold greater age and a larger gap between his ideal and his reality. This fear of time and the dichotomy of age and youth, ideal and real are central to his “Among School Children,” in which a visit to a Montessori school sends his mind spinning outward to ponder questions of time, age, self, unity, and reality. Though he begins the poem convinced that he is a “scarecrow” (though at least a comfortable one), Yeats ultimately achieves a revelation of self through perfect symbol which allows him to embrace time and the ideals he initially shuns, rather than fear them, ending the poem in hope.
The poem introduces the contrast between age and youth with a simple and real encounter between the young students of the school and Yeats the “sixty-year-old smiling public man” (8), who realizes that he inspires wonder in them simply by the fact of his age. This tangible contrast sets the stage for an exploration of youth via memory and imagination as Yeats is flung backward into a memory of Maude Gonne telling him a tale of her school days and then into a vision of Maude as a young girl like the children around him “stand[ing] before me as a living child” (24). However in pondering youth, age can never be far behind for Yeats: the vision of the young Maude calls up “her present image … / Hollow of cheek” (25, 27)—a Maude worlds apart from the “Ledaean body” of stanza II, but one defined by an unappealing “mess of shadows” (28). The two cannot be reconciled—no more than Yeats can reconcile his current self with the “pretty plumage” (30) of his youth. These two contrasts go beyond the age versus youth problem of the school children and his senatorial self, though, introducing the further dimension of Yeats’ ideal versus his (and the) reality. Maude’s Ledaean body may never have existed, but as she ages, the reality gets further and further away from his ideal image—just as his reality inevitably grows further from his ideal with time.
Moving beyond concrete instances of the contrast, Yeats probes the question of whether a “youthful mother … / 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” (33, 37-39). Though the stanza frames it as a question, Yeats’ answer is implied within his language as the “shape” upon its mothers lap evolves from suggesting the formlessness of possibility at life’s opening to the dehumanizing powers of time and aging. “That shape / With sixty or more winters on its head” holds no more potential; its formlessness has become negative: symbolic of the son’s inability to attain the form, the shape of his mother’s vision for him. Beyond the fear of “the uncertainty of his setting form” (40) the mother might have as the son grows older, there is a greater fear that at the end of his days, when sixty winters have passed, the son might still be a nameless “shape,” formless and far from her ideal.
How, then, is this gap between the ideal and real, the young and the old to be reconciled? Not through philosophy: Yeats dispenses with them in one stanza, wherein Aristotle and Plato are awarded two brisk lines each and Pythagorus three, all delivered with an incongruous directness and brevity. They, too, are no more than “Old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird” (48), just as Yeats sees himself in his own age; the mocking brevity and speed of the rhythm and tone are fully realized in the last, deflating jab. Grand systems are of no use: the ideals of the philosophers and their ideas are as much at odds with their realities as the mother’s sixty year old son is with her vision of him or as Yeats’ ideal Ledaean Maude Gonne is with her present reality. Thus he aligns the philosopher with the mother and with himself, since they all three partake in idealization. Here he has found his culprit: it is not time that separates these dichotomies, but idealized image. “Both nuns and mothers” (and the poet-lover himself) “worship images” (49), placing their love in something which does not exist, but which they themselves have created. The nun loves her imaginary God, the mother worships her image of what her child might become, the lover loves the image of his beloved he has painted. Yeats lumps himself in with these other futile image-worshippers with a simple “too,” filling in a previous heartbreak (in its most straightforward sense). Even if this too were in any doubt, the sudden (and primary) inclusion of “passion” alongside “piety or affection” (belonging to the nun and the mother respectively) alerts the reader to the presence of another, more shadowy plaintiff: the lover. Yeats has come to understand his own idealization of Maude Gonne more fully by the proxies of the mother, the philosophers, and the nun.
The worship of ideals, though, is not simply condemned. It can’t be, for it is the “enterprise” of man to desire perfection and, though these “Presences” (53), by which Yeats means these ideal images, might be “self-born” mockers, their origin within us and treacherous mockery do not diminish the fact that they “all heavenly glory symbolise” (55). Yeats, in the final line of Stanza VII, wants to turn on his idealistic visions and denounce their treachery, but he cannot fully do so. Unlike all the other stanzas, Stanza VII does not end definitively, with a period, but with an indecisive, open-ended semi-colon. Yeats is leaving an opening for the rehabilitation of his ideals. He mocks himself as he parodies his own apostrophe to the “Presences” with “O self-born mockers” in this last line, but he cannot do so definitively, without the possibility for addendum or retraction. Furthermore, he believes in the necessity or at least inextricability from the human of the desire for the idealized image, for good or ill. These impossible ideals by which we fall nevertheless bring us closer to the glory of Heaven than we would have been had we not had them. Thus Yeats is in the complicated position of simultaneously wanting to banish the worship of ideals for the practical sake of himself and mankind and to retain it for its ability to grant a brush with heaven’s glory and a glimpse of deeper happiness.
That Yeats has not given up on ideal images yet, despite Stanza VII’s last line, is immediately clear in the in the first half of Stanza VIII, where Yeats paints an Edenic vision of a world “where / the body is not bruised to pleasure the soul,” where beauty is not “born out of its own despair,” where ideal and real are one. This prelapsarian vision recalls the birth of the child in Stanza V, who must leave behind the bliss and harmony of his pre-birth existence to be born, betrayed by his mother who bears him into a world from which he “must … struggle to escape” (35) from the moment he enters it. Yeats recognizes, through this image of the child’s birth, the harsh reality of the world and the accompanying reality that we have no choice about whether or not to enter it. And yet he persists, despite his earlier condemnations and dismissals of ideals, in describing a world where the labour of “passion, piety or affection” (in the Stanza VII the aids of the self-born mockers) “is blossoming or dancing” (57), both actions which call up beauty, organic spontaneity, and effortlessness. However, Yeats is no longer stuck in the clouds of idealism. Having formed this vision, he comes back down to earth exactly half way through the stanza in order to try and integrate this specific ideal with his specific reality. His first attempt is the natural emanation of the verb “blossoming”: the image of a flowering chestnut tree, rooted deep in the earth, which cannot be said to be either “leaf, the blossom or the bole” (62), but is rather a tree, an organic, inextricable unity of parts. In this two-line rhetorical question, Yeats has taken advantage of the link he left open via the semi-colon and once again revised his apostrophe from Stanza VII, no longer addressing the mockers or the “Presences,” but the tree, potential symbol of synthesis and resolution.
However, Yeats is not satisfied with his image of the chestnut, nor the solution his rhetorical question implies. In the image of the chestnut tree, there is no accommodation for the human. The tree has no will, no passion. In it there can be no labor of passion, piety, or affection, good or bad. The tree simply is. A lovely image, perhaps, but not a satisfying one to a poet seeking some resolution which might actually bring solace. The tree does nothing to rehabilitate the dissonant images of the earlier stanzas. Its unity is too perfect, too self-enclosed. What can the symbol of a tree reveal to a mother whose son grows up to become something other than her ideal vision, or to a nun whose God betrays her, or to a lover whose love’s reality does not match his image, or simply to a man who one day wakes up and finds himself old? Yeats’ comfortable scarecrow gains nothing from the chestnut tree and so Yeats, once again, revises himself, the trail of his thought growing longer.
It is the final image of the dancer successfully symbolizes the union Yeats seeks. Turning from the entirely natural and organic unity of nature to a dancer whose body and “brightening glance” are separately addressed, emphasizing the parts which contribute to the whole of the effect of dancer and dance, Yeats finds his marriage of ideal and real in the self as expressed over time. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” (64)—of course we cannot, since the dance is dependent upon the dancer. Without dancer, there is no dance; without dance the dancer is no dancer. The dance is simply the expression of the dancer moving in time: a unity of time and person, which blends person and product until they are one and the same. That the image of the dancer is progressive (“brightening”), rather than static, as that of the tree, impresses upon us the fact of forward motion. We ourselves are constantly evolving and moving; we are not tethered by great roots, simply acted upon by time.
The reentry of time into the problematic is the necessary fact of the success of this final symbol. It is in the dance of the dancer that Yeats is able to rehabilitate the middle, which had been left out by the binary contrasts of the earlier stanzas. Age and youth are not a dichotomy, but steps in a progression. Reality and ideal, too, are not without a connecting middle, and may exist in relation through time. In the image of the dancer, Yeats finds what his earlier contrasts had omitted and hence he finds his solution: we are the dance. We are the middle, the fluid connections, a progression. We are our lives lived in time as the dancer is the dance dancing in time: neither can exist without the other. Time becomes an essential fact which works in tandem to create self, rather than a hated force working its evil ways upon youth to convert it to age.
The dancer, though, is not simply important for what it is, but also for what it is not. It is not, as we have seen, the static, entirely organic chestnut tree, but it is also not the earliest image of unity in the poem: that of “two natures blent / Into a sphere from youthful sympathy” (13-14). Of all the attempts at reconciling two separate and antithetical categories in the poem, this is perhaps the only one which makes superficial “sense” to us. We expect a unity of two opposites to involve blending, perhaps mutual yielding, and so the image of two natures blended into one within an enclosed sphere seems only natural. And yet, this unity is not dwelt upon—not even to be rejected, for that is only done by the forward motion of the poem and the knowledge of Yeats’ failures with Maude Gonne. The dancer is a singular being, a singular self. The parts being reconciled are not two concrete categories (as in the momentary union of Maude and Yeats) which would require the blending that we naturally expect, but rather a concrete body with an abstract expression: the dancer with the dance. Yeats has achieved a symbol for the finding of meaning in oneself through oneself, not for any kind of meaning-making through relation to another person or thing, whether by passion, piety, or affection. The dancer is not related to the dance because they are one and the same, inextricable.
The dancer and the dance are the paradox of an inextricable unity nevertheless composed of distinct parts—unlike the components of the chestnut. It is in this that Yeats succeeds not only in finding a symbol for the self as unity and the self in time, but which can preserve the ideal images so dear to him. The symbol of the dancer, unlike that of the static chestnut, is a fundamentally creative one. The image is not merely progressive in time, but generative, for the dance does not exist without being made to exist by the dancer. Here we have the joining of the imaginary world with the real one for the dancer can make real the envisioned image in the dance. Yeats, in separating the dancer into the “body swayed to music” and the “brightening glance,” points to the synthesis of the concrete and abstract in the body’s performance of the mind’s eye’s “brightening glance” of vision for the dance. The dance is spontaneity with a will and a conscious behind it, which can generate and make real an image.
Thus the last stanza argues not only for a self as understood as a unity through time, but also for a bringing of the ideal image into reality, rather than a worship of it at arm’s length. The last stanza achieves this argument structurally as well, as it divides its eight lines evenly between its ideal vision and earthly attempt to problem solve. The equal coexistence of these two within one stanza suggests again what the dancer symbolizes: that the ideal and the real can coexist and that the ideal can be brought into reality. Furthermore, the last couplet’s resolution to rehabilitate time and ideal image gains weight and hope from its evolution in the general scheme. All along, the poem has followed in each of its eight stanzas the same ottava rima scheme: abababcc. However, while the rhymes are consistent, it is only in the last stanza that the final couplet is allowed to achieve its full potential. In every other stanza, it has either been connected to the lines preceding it or has been broken up, but in the final one, the couplet is set apart from the rest of the stanza syntactically and expresses a complete and independent thought: it, in itself, is a unity, the apotheosis of Yeats’ thought progression and the poem’s structure.
Thus, in “Among the School Children,” Yeats has succeeded not only in advancing his own thought on aging and the gap between the ideal and real, but has also furthered one of his longstanding symbols. The dancer is not new to him in his work, though this dancer is. This is not one of the faery dancers from early poems like “The Countess Cathleen in Paradise” or “The Host of the Air,” nor is it the dancing figure of Iseult in the wind, nor even the dancer who forms the balance between the Sphinx and the Buddha in “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.” The dancer of “Among School Children” is genderless and universal, applicable to all beings struggling with themselves, others, ideals, and time. This dancer is not “by … her dance … seen” but simply is dance and body at once, inseparable. For the dancer to dance is the ultimate act, the only goal, and in this unity of purpose, this synthesis of thought and action, creation and performance, ideal and real, the dancer achieves an apotheosis both poetical and philosophical, allowing an unusually clear glimpse into Yeats’ system.
Finneran, Richard J. The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Scribner: New York. 1996.