The theme of aging in Yeats' poems Among School Children and Wild Swans at Coole

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Toni Gardyne


Yeats’ poetry communicates potent and universal ideas, which continue to make his poetry of relevance to today’s audience. His excellence in artistic expression enables him to intertwine his own ideas and philosophies and contextual issues, and as such we as responders are presented with the unique view points, philosophies and Yeats' self perceptions whilst simultaneously provided with an opportunity to broaden our understanding and perspectives on life, and explore  universal themes, which are still relevant in our society.  ‘Among School Children’ and’ Wild Swans at Coole’, deep examine the transcendental tensions between the purpose of life and the eventual decline of physical and spiritual aging through self reflection and retrospection.

Yeats' intense preoccupation with the processes aging is clearly evident. Among School Children reflects an intense concern with the process of growing old with its associated notions of decay and the looming threat of death on both a psychical and spiritual level. The imagery of an aged man as a 'scarecrow' is prominent throughout several of Yeats poems and it is certainly not coincidental that nearly all the examples of this image are connected to his thoughts on aging. As the reader, it is hard to escape the fact that the speaker is a man of advanced age and we are reminded of this in the first stanza when he imagines the children's perceptions of him as 'a sixty-year old smiling public man'. This description takes away from the bitterness and sadness of such an image. However, although he is smiling, this is his public face which hides the thoughts of anguish and regret that invade his perceptions of children. The hollow vacant smile depicted is the result of, in Yeats’ opinion, not having lived a life that in resulted in anything of significance. Due to his ongoing frustration with his inability to attain the woman he most desired, Maude Gonne, Yeats is suggesting that old age is one of the most frightening of life's dilemmas when accompanied with an unfulfilled life.

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For Yeats aging was both undignified and morbid process. In one the most poignant stanzas of Among School Children, stanza V, the speaker wonders about a mother observing her son. He wonders if a mother would think the eventual decay associated with aging would change things for her somehow if 'did she but see that shape with sixty or more winters on its head, a compensation for the pang of his birth'. In other words, if a mother was to see the eventual state of a child, who has lived and been young but is now a mere 'scarecrow' would ...

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