Among School Children

Continuing in a Yeats vein, I’ve always enjoyed his poem Among School Children. I look upon the poem as a commentary on growing older and, hopefully, wiser.

I

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.

II

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.

III

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.

IV

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.

V

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?

VI

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.

VII

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;

VIII

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?

– William Butler Yeats

Yeats’s “The Second Coming”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

For some unknown reason these words have been going through my head the last couple of weeks. The line is from the poem The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats. I remember some of the poem from required reading of it in English Literature during my university days.

Written in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War, the poem is also connected to the 1918–1919 Spanish flu pandemic. When read in the light of our current COVID-19 pandemic, it carries an eerie parallel.

In the weeks preceding Yeats’s writing of the poem, Yeats’s pregnant wife Georgie Hyde-Lees caught the Spanish flu virus and was very close to death. The highest death rates of the pandemic were among pregnant women—in some areas, they had up to a 70 percent death rate. While his wife was convalescing, he wrote this essential poem.

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.   
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out   
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert   
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,   
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,   
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it   
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.   
The darkness drops again; but now I know   
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,   
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,   
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

– William Butler Yeats

First they came…

Lately I have been reviewing, captioning and posting my travel shots and journal from our 2012 trip to Berlin, Germany. Looking over the pictures we took of the Holocaust memorials and remembering their impact at the time has put me in mind of the powerful First they came… piece of prose.

First they came… is the poetic form of a post-war confessional prose by the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984). It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy – including, by his own admission, Niemöller himself – following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group. Many variations and adaptations in the spirit of the original have been published in the English language. It deals with themes of persecution, guilt, repentance, and personal responsibility.


First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out—
Because I was a Protestant.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

– Martin Niemöller

Fog

The fog was rolling in a couple of days ago, and it put me in mind of the poem we learned in grade school – Fog. I seem to have retained this poem in my long term memory, I guess, due to its simplicity and imagery. I still love it all these years later:

Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Carl Sandburg, 1878-1967

Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crossed the bar.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Ulysses (excerpt)

This small excerpt is the last few lines of Tennyson’s Ulysses. It is significant to me because I included it in the eulogy I delivered at my Dad’s funeral. I feel this segment of the poem is all about looking back over a life of hard work and even though it’s now time to rest, we must keep going and keep seeking as the will remains strong.

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

– Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Jabberwocky

I’ve always enjoyed Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky and have studied it a couple of times during my education. For me, it conjures up images of monsters and an upside-down, inverted world, such as Alice finds when she passes through the looking glass:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!800px-Jabberwocky
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

– Lewis Carroll
from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There

The Road Not Taken

 

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost