William Butler Yeats (1865–1939)
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 histories,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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;
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 was a politician when he wrote the poem, a senator in the Irish Free State. The inspiration for this poem was an official visit he made to a school in Waterford in 1926. ↵
- Maud Gonne, who was to Yeats the reincarnation of Helen of Troy, the “Ledaean body,” in that her mother was Leda. See notes to “Leda and the Swan.” ↵
- The reference is to Greek philosopher Plato’s Symposium, the parable being that the primitive human was spherical, like an egg, divided in the process of evolution. Love is the desire to form the sphere again. ↵
- Some 15th-century (“Quattrocento”) Italian painters painted women in the anorexic way Maud now appears to Yeats. ↵
- The neo-Platonic philosopher, Porphyry, believed that an ambrosia, honey-like drug was released at birth, and if the infant tasted it, he or she would forget about the bliss of prenatal happiness; but if he or she did not taste it, the infant would be condemned to a sad life because he or she would always search for the unattainable happiness of a previous life. ↵
- Froth; insubstantial matter, in contrast, in Plato’s view, to a real substantial ideal world, a “paradigm of things.” ↵
- Aristotle was “solider” in that he believed the physical world we experience is the real world, not the “spume” Plato believed it was. ↵
- Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BC), leader of the Greek confederation, student of Aristotle who strapped him, “played the taws,” when he needed discipline. ↵
- Greek philosopher, venerated by his followers who thought he had a golden thigh, the sign of a god. He believed that the beauty of music reflected a universal harmony. ↵
- Stem or trunk. ↵