Among School Children

In reviewing the concluding volume of the authoritative biography of William Butler Yeats, my college teacher Jeffrey Hart holds open the possibility that Yeats is the greatest poet in English since Shakespeare. Professor Hart observes: “This would mean — going chronologically — that he was better than Donne, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, and T. S. Eliot.”

One of Yeats’s great poems is “Among School Children.” I was prompted to take a look at the poem yesterday in thinking about Jackson Browne’s song “For a Dancer,” in honor of Browne’s turning 60. Coincidentally, Yeats describes himself in the poem as “a sixty-year-old smiling public man.” Not coincidentally, the poem in part addresses the subject of aging.

Like so much of modern poetry, “Among School Children” is a difficult poem that requires explication. For the necessary explication, we can call on Harvard Professor Helen Vendler, who teaches poetry and is an expert on Yeats. She recently published Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form, which is something of her life’s work.

Professor Vendler devotes an enlightening lecture to “Among School Children” that is accessible online here. (You have to choose a video player from a menu in order to pull up the lecture.) It is well worth listening to if you have any interest in Yeats or the poem. I am grateful for Professor Vendler’s explication of the poem, but I would rank poetry that requires this much explication below otherwise great poetry that does not.

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