Responding to ‘Among School Children’, by W.B. Yeats

Here is a small piece on a painting I did in response the poem ‘Among School Children’ by W.B. Yeats. It is part of an exhibition of 115 invited artists by Hamilton Gallery, Sligo to coincide with Yeats Day celebrations this June 13th.

Among School Children, by W.B. Yeats

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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;

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?

My inspiration came from a vision and sensation I had of floating dance in a nostalgic wonder of life and time, from the extract,

‘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?’ by W.B. Yeats

I painted 4 different works in response to the poem until I was happy with what I came up with so chose this. From the words in the last verse, I got the sense of the flashing of time and what was or could have been, looking back on a long life lived. The faded rings in my painting are in response to time and nostalgia, they recall the rings of a tree and how they tell it’s age or of a passage of time.

I wanted to bring a certain delicacy and sense of soft movement to the work. The paint is layered above loose under drawings and marks in pencil and charcoal. The pastel colours of pink and yellow among the bright whites lean toward the delicacy and innocence of young children as they blossom and grow. The reds are in response to memory of love and what never came to be with Yeat’s unrequited love for Maud Gonne. The blacks and monotones are leaning toward ‘death nearing’ and are also expressions of light and dark abstracted.

I hope I have not gone too deep into my ideas, thoughts and visuals provoked in the making of this work. I truly enjoyed painting and translating my visual imagery, of the wonderful words of W.B. Yeats, ‘Among School Children’.

The exhibition will be hung in the gallery from June 13th for the full summer season and available online at Hamilton Gallery, Sligo. Here below is mine.

These are the other 3 unselected paintings were I was looking at different parts of the Yeats poem.

Published by Derval Freeman

Graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design 1996 Fine art painter and photographer

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