“Among School Children” by William Butler Yeats is among the most famous English-language poems of the 20th century; critical consensus would certainly rank it in a top ten, and #3 seems about right to me. It is about many things in its 64 lines: age, youth, desire, ambition, art, education. It is also ambiguous (deliberately so). If the speaker doesn’t seem to know quite what he thinks of the many issues and ideas and emotions he brings up, it’s perhaps because it’s very hard for any of us to reach firm conclusions about them.
And frankly, it’s gorgeous. The lines melt with lyricism even as they offer a compressed look at complicated ideas.
World-famous golden-thighed Pythagoras
Fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings
What a star sang and careless Muses heard
You could say something like that in prose: “Pythagoras, who was semi-legendary, used music to convey the mathematical rhythms of the Universe which are the unconscious underpinnings of Art” … but said that way, it’s a textbook, or maybe a blog post. Said the way Yeats says it, it enters into the unforgettable.
I’ll blog this one glossary-style, as I have done for a few others in the Countdown.
- schoolroom questioning: Yeats served as a member of the Senate of the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928, when he was in his late 50s and early 60s. Part of the job involved inspection visits to schools, more ceremonial than investigative.
- a kind old nun: What is a Senator doing inspecting a Catholic school? Ireland, like many European countries, has a tradition of religious freedom without a guarantee of separation of church and state. Religious schools are therefore also state schools, as in many countries. Public subsidies for Catholic schools in America would freak out Protestants, atheists, and Catholics, but there is little objection in Ireland, not least because the Free State and its successor, the current Republic, have a largely Catholic population.
- a Ledaean body: the story of Leda and the swan was one of Yeats’s favorite items from Greek mythology. The god Zeus, in the form of a swan, raped the mortal woman Leda, and from their union came four notable characters: Castor, Pollux, Clytemnestra, and Helen. Yeats was fascinated by the story, and wrote the poem “Leda and the Swan” about it. My link above is to the famous image created by Leonardo da Vinci (it’s a copy of a lost Leonardo). In Leonardo’s conception, the swan seems to be Leda’s boyfriend; Yeats had a more brutal sense of the story.
- Plato’s parable: in the Symposium, Plato tells the story of how people long ago were going around perfectly happy till Zeus (again!) split them in half. Now our divided halves go through life looking for each other, explaining sexual love and sexual unhappiness if you don’t find the correct “other half.” It is altering Plato’s parable quite a lot to see this as man and woman being the yolk and white of an egg, but hey.
- Quattrocento: the 15th century, especially in Italian art, which includes many of the great old masters, including Leonardo himself. Quattrocento artists weren’t particularly given to drawing haggard middle-aged women, so “Quattrocento” here probably just means highly-skilled at draftsmanship.
- played the taws: Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great. “Taws” are something you don’t want played on your bottom, I would think.
- golden-thighed Pythagoras: You remember Pythagoras from high-school geometry. He was said to have a golden thigh. Literally, I mean, one of his thighs was made of gold. Kind of like a hip replacement, only a thigh replacement, and in gold. And you thought that President Obama’s health plan was going to be expensive!