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William Butler Yeats

Among School Children

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1928

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Summary and Study Guide


“Among School Children,” by Irish poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, was originally published in his 1928 collection The Tower. The collection was his first release after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. This poem represents Yeats’ more modern, political phase of writing, a detour from his earlier traditionalist, mythologically inspired works. This poem was written after Yeats visited a girls’ convent school as part of his duties as Senator of the Irish Free State. He touches on the contrast between his advanced age and the young faces at the school, and the nature of time and his lifetime of experience.

Poet Biography

Yeats was an Irish writer and dramatist who lived in the late 19th to early 20th century. He was born in 1865 in South Dublin and became fascinated with Irish legends and folklore from an early age; these themes feature heavily in his early work. In 1867 the Yeats family moved from Dublin to England so that William’s father, John Yeats, could pursue his career as a painter. Many of the portraits that exist today of WB Yeats were done by him. There, William’s mother read her children myths and legends from the Irish canon. In 1880, the family returned to Dublin.

Yeats’ first known works began when he was seventeen years old. His first poetry collection was published in 1889 and shows strong influences from pre-Raphaelite poets like Edmund Spenser and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Much of his early years as a poet draw heavily from his lifelong interest in mysticism and the occult; in 1885, he co-founded the Dublin Hermetic Order and in 1890 he joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. He also became a member of a paranormal research organization as part of his studies.

In 1899, Yeats co-founded the Irish Literary Theatre (later the Abbey Theatre) along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn, and George Moore. In their first year they produced three plays, including Yeats’ own The Countess Kathleen (1892). He remained a board member and contributing playwright to the Abbey Theatre right until his death. In 1922, Yeats was appointed Senator of the Irish Free State, and in the following year he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he proudly used to position himself as a representative of his newly independent nation. Through this period, he became more active as a voice in contemporary politics, and these themes are present in the work he produced during this time.

His poetic style can be divided into three broad chapters: the first is lush and lyrical, strongly influenced by mythological sagas such as his poem “The Wanderings of Oisin” (1889), and by regional folklore, as seen in his famous “The Stolen Child” (1889). The second period of his work represented a movement to more contemporary, political subjects as Yeats sought to understand and express his feelings about the world around him through social irony. Lastly, in the later part of his life, Yeats’s work began to come back around to his love for mysticism and spirituality, but with a more mature view of the spiritual systems that he had developed for himself through his own experiences, rather than by studying the experiences of others. By the time he died in 1939, at the age of 73, his work had traveled an entire poetic tradition in form and style.

Poem Text


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 history,

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, William Butler. “Among School Children” (1928). Poetry Foundation.


The speaker walks through a classroom asking questions of the nuns who teach there. The children are learning mathematics, songs, reading, history, and domestic arts as befits their modern time. The children stop their studies for a moment to stare at the sixty-year-old politician who stands smiling at them.

The speaker pauses to remember a beautiful woman who, as she bent over the fire, told him a story from her childhood about some small reprimand or event that seemed enormous to her as a child. As the poet listened to her story, he felt as though he understood her completely—as if they formed two halves of a perfect whole, like the “yolk and white” (Line 16) of an egg. Thinking of her heart wrenching story, the speaker looks around the classroom and wonders if any of these children look like the woman did at their age, for even a woman as beautiful as a swan might share some similarities with other girls. The poet spies one girl with a similar coloring, and imagines it to be the woman he loves, as a child.

In the fourth stanza, he considers her as he looks now, old and gaunt, yet still as beautiful as a renaissance painting. The speaker reflects that though he was never a rare beauty like her, he was attractive enough in his day—but he shakes off his memories and focuses on the present that is in front of him. It is best to show the children that although he may be an old scarecrow now, he can still be friendly and comfortable with who he is. In the fifth stanza, his imagination takes off again, dreaming of a new mother with a child on her lap. The child is new to the world, and his memories of the life his soul lived before this one are quickly fading. The poet wonders how the mother would feel looking upon that child sixty years later—if what he became would be worth what it took to bring him into the world.

In the sixth stanza, he reflects on the teachings of three noted philosophers: Plato, who believed that what we see on the surface is only the beginning of reality; Aristotle, who whipped his pupil to make him learn; and Pythagoras, who was a master musician who claimed to hear the songs of the stars. Yet none of these great philosophies could withstand old age. In the next stanza, the poet compares the worship of nuns to the worship of mothers—the former, of idols of gods, and the latter of their human children. Both cause grief to the worshippers in their own way.

Finally, he reflects that hard work should not come at the expense of damaging the body or the soul, whether this be labor, beauty, or knowledge. He compares life to a chestnut tree, as it is not leaf, flower, or trunk, but all three existing harmoniously. Likewise, a person and their art should exist as one.