When reading something, guessing about an author’s exact state of mind is sometimes tricky, but it’s still fun to play. Take for instance William Butler Yeats’s poem, “Among School Children.” The Yale literary critic Paul de Man once noted that there’s really no way to decide whether it’s best to read the last line of this poem figuratively (as a rhetorical question with an obvious answer) or literally (as a puzzle of the relation of a referent to its sign). Here’s Yeats’s famous line:
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
How we decide on its meaning would seem to govern the interpretation of the rest of the poem, but how do we decide what Yeats meant to communicate, exactly? Here are the lines immediately preceding Yeats’s last line (followed by the dancer/dance line again):
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?
Context doesn’t seem to help. We still don’t know what Yeats means to suggest by the question in his last line. Does he mean it to be answered by the reader with, “We can’t know the dancer from the dance: perceiver and object, essence and flow are one. How true and satisfying is Yeats’s poetic climax!” Or does Yeats mean his closing line to be an open and aporetic (confusing) question, with the reader responding in the following manner: “I’m puzzled. What is the relation of the referent (the dancer) to its sign (the dance)? What, for that matter, is the self? Show me the self apart from its signs! Am I ‘the leaf, the blossom or the bole’–or none of these? Who am I, really? And what is a tree? Is there such a thing as essence apart from action?”
To put it a bit crudely, does Yeats mean for us to leave his poem feeling Aristotelian catharsis (integrity; wholeness; resolution; purging, as if we’ve evacuated our bowels) or perplexity (a sense of being clogged-up with questions that seem to never reach resolution)?
In his essay “Semiology and Rhetoric” (1973), Paul DeMan puts it this way:
[T]wo entirely coherent but entirely incompatible readings can be made to hinge on one line, whose grammatical structure is devoid of ambiguity, but whose rhetorical mode turns the mood as well as the mode of the entire poem upside down. (1372)
So this is the puzzle: does Yeats mean to bring us in his last line to a cosmos, a chaos, or a bit of both? And our answer seems to weigh heavily upon our evaluation of Yeats as a poet (at least with regard to this particular poem). Has Yeats written an easy poem with a tidy conclusion, or something beguiling, obscure, hard?
I’d like to think Yeats meant to be hard here; it accords with my perception of him as a genius. But who can say? Perhaps Yeats just intuited what seemed to be a satisfying ending and had no clue the way readers might (over) read him. We can’t really know Yeats apart from our interpretation of the signs he sends, and that’s the problem. We are cast back upon our own resources–our own creative reading of him.
And so it raises a question: when we read Yeats in a difficult way; when we complexify him; are we dazzling ourselves or is the poet dazzling us? As our body sways to Yeats’s music and our reading brightens with each thing we notice (as Yeats swayed and brightened before his blossoming chestnut-tree), how have we decided what to highlight and make important? Who is in and who (and what) is out? Can we distinguish ourselves from Yeats’s poem? At so many levels, the poet’s last line seems to urge us on. But maybe it’s we ourselves who are urgent. How can we know the dancer from the dance?
- The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition 2010). Mann’s “Semiology and Rhetoric” begins on page 1365 of the text.
I wouldn’t know about chestnut trees, but there are huge eucalyptus trees in Australia, centuries old, that you can marvel at, mesmerised, for hours. They have a ‘presence’, a consciousness almost, that cannot be described by reference to their constituent parts. My take on Yeats’s lines is that he is musing on emergent properties.
It is already 2013 here. Wishing all the best for this year for you and your readers.
Thank you, and an interesting observation on emergent properties. Living in California, my wife and kids and I planted two eucalyptus trees in our backyard a few years back and they’ve started taking off this past year. Great trees.
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Listen to The Eagles’ “Saturday Night” for their interpretation… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-Nomx6Drqk