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March 4, 2005

W.B. Yeats and me

Last fall, I spent nearly a whole Saturday in the playground of my younger daughter’s school. It was the day of a block party, and she wanted to stay for hours. From time to time, I saw and talked to adults I knew, but mostly I just watched the scene. I kept thinking of Yeats’ “Among Schoolchildren.” I don’t know the poem by heart, unfortunately, but I remembered the structure and several of the lines. It struck me that I am a perfect opposite of Yeats, and not only because he was a genius of a writer and I am not.

The narrator of “Among School Children” is an old and very distinguished “public man”—presumably the Irish Senator and Nobel Laureate that Yeats himself was in 1928. He is paying an official visit to a modern, efficient school whose lessons in neatness perhaps stifle the more romantic spirits of the children. He recalls an unrequited love from his lost youth. He sees this beautiful and inspired young girl at a moment when she was being harshly reproved by an adult.

The children remind him of his love, “And thereupon my heart is driven wild: / She stands before me as a living child.” Perhaps his face shows his emotion, so he covers it up—“Better to smile on all that smile, and show / There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.” Meanwhile, as he walks between the twin rows of desks, he considers the contrast between his earthly, aging body and the idea his mother had of him in his infancy; and then reflects more generally on the gap between the real and the ideal. A lost and unrequited love is a hint of that perfect world that art and religion also strive for. Yet, says the narrator in the final stanza, it is best not to seek after an ineffable perfection, but rather to unite the real with the ideal—just as the poem “Among School Children” actually does. “O body swayed to music, O brightening glance / How can we know the dance from the dance?”

I am no “sixty-year-old smiling public man.” I am a 38-year-old citizen, anonymous except among my friends and colleagues. Yet I have always had the habit of imagining I'm some authoritative observer whose opinion might be of general interest. (Do we all think that way?) In this vein, standing on the playground last fall, I silently approved of the diverse population and the adults’ efforts to interact respectfully. One parent said that her neighborhood school was also a homeless shelter, which is why she had sent her child “out of bounds” to Cleveland Park. Her interlocutor, White and prosperous-looking, found common ground with her as a parent. I looked "upon one child or t'other there” and thought that our community exemplified “the best modern way.”

Unlike Yeats, I have no lost, unrequited love, no urge to transcend the corporeal or the mortal, no “dream of a Ledaean / body.” I’m quite satisfied with the actual love of my living family, the actual sight of a humane modern schoolyard with my kindergardener in it. Yet I’m bifurcated almost as Yeats was (as perhaps everyone is). He was old, famous, and influential, yearning for his passionate youth. I am a youngish bystander, fantasizing a more statesmanlike role. Few of us live fully in our own time like "bodies swayed to music."

And then a mob of little ones ran by, splitting into two streams to pass me, and I remembered just what it was like to face such helter-skelter packs on a playground when I was only three-feet tall. Turn and run with them? Stand aside? -- Is this fun? Is it scary? Where are we going?

And suddenly there was my own little girl in the crowd, flushed, unsure, a perfect vision of myself thirty years ago—or so I thought. From my perspective,

… 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 ...

but she could race on with them and I could only stop behind to watch.

Posted by peterlevine at 2:47 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

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