O Chestnut Tree

Chestnut trees coming into blossom in Highbury Fields
The chestnut trees blossoming in London as I arrived  back from Sweden reminded me of Yeats’s poem, ‘Among Schoolchildren’, which you’ll find in  its entirety here.  I’m not ever at ease with W.B. Yeats, but in the past I have read this poem on a number of occasions and felt I got somewhere with it.  I don’t count on that happening now, having just looked it over and felt – did I ever read this before?!
Anyhow, today time is short and  I just want to look at the last two stanzas. In the preceding stanzas Yeats has seen himself as ‘a sixty year old smiling public man’, and felt distressed and disoriented by that. He’s thought of a woman he loves and – as he is inspecting a school, has imagined her as a child. Is she dead? Then he thinks how odd that he – once a baby, his mother struggled so to give birth to him – should be such an old man. Finally, in the stanza I’m going to start with, he makes this connection between what is worshipped by mothers and what by nuns:
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;
So, those loved by mothers do not keep ‘a marble or a bronze repose’, they change, they get old. But even those images which do keep the marble or bronze stillness, ‘they too break hearts.’ These things he addresses as ‘ O Presences’ and finds them to be ‘self-born mockers of man’s enterprise’. These presences being self-born seem to have a certain power or independence – they generate themselves –  and they mock humanity. Why? because they don’t change? Don’t get old, don’t die?
The stanza ends on that semi colon and a new attempt begins:
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?
I’ll read the  first four lines first. What kind of thing is Yeats writing? Is this a definition of a type of ‘labour’? Not all labour could be called ‘blossoming’ or ‘dancing’. This seems a very good type of labour. (I’m thinking in passing of the ‘labour’ mothers go through to give birth to children, which seems to connect to the stanzas above, but I’m not sure. I don’t know how this connects to the previous stanza. Is this a type of definition?
‘Labour is …’? or does it mean ‘there is a particular type of  human activity, which I call labour which arises from…’
I don’t know and I read on, leaving my reading sketchy, provisional.
There follow three conditions which define this blossoming or dancing. It happens where (i) ‘the body is not bruised to pleasure soul. What does that mean, I ask myself? is it about some sort of ascetic body-punishment  – you might  wear your knees out with kneeling and praying ‘to pleasure soul’. Ok if so, – let’s not do that.  The blossoming also does not happen where (ii) ‘beauty (is) born out of its own despair. What does that mean?
I start to get a little agitated – often happens – when reading Yeats because I like understanding things straightforwardly and he doesn’t  let that happen. How could beauty be born out of its own despair? I tell myself, Try harder, Jane! Don’t get irritated.
Is this about  the sense of loss –  time passes, I’m sixty, everything human including human beauty  must despair. But is the facing that loss a kind of beauty?  Ach! I’m clutching at straws.
He gives the third example. Blossoming or dancing does not come (iii) when we try to generate ‘blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil’. Ok, this one is easier – and I see it.  you can be trying too hard, in the wrong way. ‘Blear’ and ‘wisdom’ don’t sit happily together.
Now suddenly Yeats seems to look up and see the tree, the visual manifestation of the thing he is reaching after;
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?
Thinking of the  word ‘great’ here, which is partly simply about the size of these lovely things, (but also  their magnificence) Love that he word butts right up against ‘rooted’ – deep, earthy, practical. You don’t get that ‘great’ without the ‘rooted’. But then ‘blossomer’!
I love reading this poem (despite not understanding most of it) partly because of these three words.  The blossom is strong and overwhelmingly present. But these are forest trees, not garden plants – when the chestnuts are blossoming the great size of the trees seems to make the them fulsomeness of the blossom almost overwhelming: the tree becomes its action: ‘blossomer’. The line seems to make me look up and down and up again. Yeats makes me really look: ‘Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?’ all of these named parts of make up the tree though we are seeing them separately.
Suddenly the  image shifts and we are back in human world again. ‘O body swayed to music, O brightening glance.’  This is about what comes through a person, and perhaps about love, and I am partly seeing the person, partly the tree – and very quickly comes his final thought/question: ‘how can we know the dancer from the dance.’
This a poem about how our  physical self expresses  spirit, and perhaps about what physical actually is.  The strange inside and outside-ness of  being ‘ a sixty year old smiling public man’ but also being the young man who fell in love with the  ‘brightening glance’ woman? The great tree laden with blossom, it or the woman dancing, root, bole, leaf, blossom; all of it.
Don’t feel I’ve got to the end of the thought here, but time’s up. Now go out and find a chestnut tree.
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?

4 thoughts on “O Chestnut Tree

  1. Jamie April 16, 2017 / 12:06 pm

    Thanks Jane, really enjoyed going back to this poem. Don’t think I’ve ever tried to understand any of Yeats but his is some of the first adult poetry I ever read and that last line, ‘how can we know the dancer from the dance?’, stuck in my memory from childhood – I must’ve only been about 9 or 10 when I brought a battered copy of Yeats’ poems that the library was selling – I didn’t understand a word of it but I loved the sound and not understanding excited me. Re-reading it now I still don’t understand and I have to keep stopping to look things up but I remember that childish excitement – and that feels like something blossoming or dancing – something coming to life…earlier in stanza 6 he talks about different philosophers interpretations of what nature is, of how the world is made and he finishes the stanza calling these things ‘old clothes upon old sticks to scare a bird’ – these ideas/images are decoys -they scare away something from seed-new life… what the hell is this all about? – in stanza 4 he compares himself to ‘a comfortable kind of old scarecrow’ or at least that is how he sees himself presented to the children.? – (how can we know all this is alive in him just by looking at him?) … what is going on? something to do with being alive I guess…I’m content to enjoy the feeling of childish excitement.

    • drjanedavis April 18, 2017 / 12:53 pm

      Thanks, Jamie, yes I agree – the feeling of excitement is the main thing I want to keep hold of here. Don’t want to get distracted by too much rational thinking!

  2. Alban O' Brien April 16, 2017 / 12:49 pm

    I love your honest engagement with this poem. I think we all feel frustrated sometimes trying to tease out the meaning of poetry and wanting the cognition match the pleasure we feel in the rhythm of the words. Thanks for doing this for us though and reassuring us that we are not the only ones who sometimes finds Yeats difficult.

    • drjanedavis April 18, 2017 / 12:56 pm

      Thank you for commenting ! I do want ‘cognition’ as you call it and I do want the pleasure match, which is why I sometimes find Yeats ( and others frustrating). I don’t mind things being difficult, but I don’t like to feel they are being deliberately hidden from me!
      I really want, in some of these posts, to show readers that it is right to be stumped by difficulty – it’s part of what reading poetry is made of…
      I’m grateful to you for reading.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s