The theme of aging in Yeats’ poems Among School Children and Wild Swans at Coole
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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. 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 the joys and trepidations of birth, motherhood or even life itself be worth it?.
Through this action in particular Yeats is attempting to recapture youth through the idea of being born, of questioning not only the aesthetics of a child, but also what they would become and how they would age. Among School Children is certainly a poem rife with imagery of youth, it is still ultimately a poem about the process of aging and decay which reflects the artist’s ruminant and contemplative nature. In the final stanza of Among School Children Yeats ends his quest to unite his fragmented existence by concluding with idea that there is no way to separate the ‘dancer from the dance’.
He learns that it is impossible to divide life into each individual part and that instead we must view life with a ‘brightening glance’, seeing the beauty of life in its entirety, including the inevitable stage of decline. Through the deep examination of the universal questioning of the value of life, Yeats comes to terms with his own life and comes to a sense of contentment with his old age. The Wild Swans at Coole is a deeply personal piece which examines the cycle of life and transcendental truths of aging and mortality through nature.
Yeats puts a significant amount of effort into describing the landscape at Coole Park as it ultimately supplies him with the backdrop for the emotional and spiritual action of the piece. The time of year is ‘autumn’, the season of decay and the time of day is ‘twilight’, the hour of decline. The impact of the poignant imagery is furthered by its juxtaposition of the swans, symbol of a sense of departed youth and perpetuity against the persona’s inner turmoil, ‘I have looked upon these brilliant creatures, and now my heart is sore’.
His soreness is caused by the realisation of the change which he has subsequently undergone and as the swans rise, he has a moment of epiphany in which he realises the extent to which he has age. The weariness and pain felt by the persona, the result of the inevitable process of aging, is directly contrasted against the seemingly ever-renewing and free unwearied natural world which the swans are a part of. While the ‘wild swans’ have retained their passion, the persona has lost his.
The Wild Swans at Cool makes a powerful statement about how fleeting human life is when contrasted with nature’s transcending beauty and reflects Yeats’ inner turmoil as a result of his constant ruminations on the purpose of life and the inevitable process of aging and decline. For Yeats, aging was hardly a dignified process but was rather one of sadness, opportunity for regret, and of retrospection. Despite this rather grim analysis of life, his observations are not all tinged with anxiety and estrangement.
While the reader gets the impression that Yeats wishes he could travel back in time and correct his mistakes or live again in youth, there are few, if any, comments made in any of his poetry about such a wish. Even though he may feel unfulfilled, he is content to wonder about becoming the ‘scarecrow’ of old age and eventual death, but rarely, if ever, does he drift into long examinations of what he might have done differently.
While his love of Maud Gonne may not have been fulfilled and although he may have second thoughts about the poetry of his youth, he remains realistic in his acceptance of inevitable decline. Although this is hardly something to reflect upon with beauty, it is something that can be discussed with integrity, despite the tone of sadness. Yeats may never have felt completely satisfied with his life, but his vast collection of poetry gives attention to the inevitable dilemma of aging and decline and the innate questioning of life’s purpose.