Introduction Section One Section Two
Section Three Section Four Conclusion
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?
With the odd number of feet in line 33 , Yeats alerts the reader to a fundamental shift in the poem, turning the emphasis from the personal to the universal. Envisioning a “youthful mother,” Yeats questions whether the mother would think the pains of childbirth were worth the degenerated stature of her sixty-year-old son. Although this is a universal vision, Yeats still relates it to himself, having the child be at least sixty. In this part, Yeats is asking the most fundamental of questions—what is the real value in life. After all, the child is said to have lived sixty winters, not sixty years. This gloomy winter image further suggests that life is but suffering, and to live is to suffer. The last line of the stanza addresses the mother’s uncertainty about the child’s future. She knows that someday he will have to come of age, realizing the many faults of the world.
Plato thought nature but a
spume that plays
Upon a ghostly paradigm of things;
Soldier 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.
Desiring to somehow avoid ageing and death, Yeats looks to the great men of the past for answers. He investigates Plato’s Cave Allegory, with its “ghostly paradigm of things,” minimizing the importance of his idea, showing how Plato thought life was a mere shadow of reality. Next, he shows the idiocy of Aristotle’s work with Alexander the Great, saying he was merely playing “upon the bottom of a king of kings.” Lastly he shows the ridiculousness of Pythagoras’s work, by saying he only “fingered upon a fiddle-stick or strings." Yeats discovers that these men were nothing more than “old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird.” This minimization of achievement makes Yeats realize that although these men are world-renowned, they too grew old and died. As a result, Yeats comes to the desperate realization that although man can produce lasting works, they themselves can never be lasting.