Saturday, April 25, 2009

Among School Children

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.

Thus begins one of the greatest among W. B. Yeats later poems and one of the best poems of the twentieth century. I still remember a University of Chicago First Friday lecture by Claudia Traudt several years ago when she recited and analyzed this poem. Before the end of the lecture the beauty of the poem (and her recitation) brought tears to my eyes.

I cannot begin to share all the ideas and resonances that are contained in this marvelous work of art. As with all great poetry you do not need to know all the layers of meaning, but they add to your enjoyment of it and the understanding permeates the feeling of the beauty. Just the beginning line, which situates you in a schoolroom, can suggest the literal schoolroom and the metaphorical schoolroom that is the world in which we live. Certainly Yeats was alive to both and his poetry inspires the continued learning for those who read and meditate upon its meaning.

After sharing six more stanzas of reflections on life and its meaning - the beauty of learning from dialogues of Plato to the spiritual reveries of religious thought - he closes with a final stanza of transcendent beauty:

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?

Here is a great poetic soul musing about the nature of creativity. The lines linger in one's memory and like all great art remind one of the greatness of humanity. (The whole poem may be found on-line here)

The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats. Scribner, 1956.

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