“Among school children” and Italian education reform, The

Authoritative image: “Among school children” and Italian education reform, The

Harper, Margaret Mills

Yeats’s poem “Among School Children” does not linger in the “long schoolroom” that provides its occasion. It moves off with seeming randomness into one topic after another, much as the “momentary wonder” of busy children interrupted in the midst of their daily activities by an official visitor might be replaced by other absorptions.’ Indeed, if the schoolroom were run on Montessori principles, as was St. Otteran’s, the school that Senator Yeats visited in February 1926, the children also would move from activity to activity as they chose. The rhythm of a Montessori classroom as each child takes down and manipulates geometric blocks, mathematical rods, or cardboard letters parallels the structural rhythm of “Among School Children” while the poet first dreams of a beloved and imagines her as a child, meditates on aging and the passage of time, veers to speculate on Plato, Aristotle, and Pythagoras, muses on the worship of images, and finally invokes those images to create a rhapsodic conclusion that seemingly confounds the poem’s apparently restless motion. Yet the schoolroom has not disappeared. The structural rhythm suggests discovery, that wisdom may be drawn forth (educere) from the raw materials of memory and desire, as well as the building up (in-struo) of image and idea to create a meaningful whole. The subject matter treats educational issues like the apparent contradictions of freedom and discipline. Individual images also suggest the school: the children’s staring eyes in the first stanza and the neat, “best modern way” of educating them adumbrate the “brightening glance,” unbruised body, and undespairing wisdom of the last lines.

Yeats’s late interest in education permeates the poem. As Elizabeth Cullingford has noticed, although “it is often assumed that by the last stanza of the poem Yeats has ‘transcended’ the local and particular historical incident out of which it arose,” the last stanza is in fact very close to Yeats’s concrete experiences that form its historical context, his work as a Senator involved in the debate over the School Attendance Bill and as a school inspector. Cullingford asserts that the “evocation of unalienated labor and joyful learning” in the last four lines of the poem “can be read both as an impossible Utopia and as a plea for a humane and decent system of primary education” (199). More generally, the concerns that drive “Among School Children,” its patterns of imagery, its rhetoric and syntax, and even the sway of the speaking subject, who can be found in “smiling public man,” youthful lover with “blent” nature and “pretty plumage,” “old scarecrow,” infant “shape” on a mother’s lap, and invoker of “self-born” mocking Presences, all speak of the poet, senator, and father who was developing and airing convictions about schooling during the 1920s.

These convictions were unstable at the core, and this essay will suggest that their fundamental instability as well as the depth of Yeats’s emotional attachment to them contribute powerfully to the distinctiveness of the poem. In order to understand Yeats’s attitudes, I will examine the conflicted politics of two of his main intellectual sources: the theories and practices of Maria Montessori and Giovanni Gentile. Their influence on Yeats was documented by Donald Torchiana over thirty years ago, but to unpack the political conflicts between them and to infer the emotional charges ofthe material that Torchiana identified is to read the poem in considerably different terms than he did, or others have.2 For one thing, Yeats’s passionate engagement with ideas and images is also a very material concern with the relation of human beings to the state and with the disjunctions between the development of individual children, including his own, and the creation and continuation of culture. With Italian theory in mind, the wrestling in the poem with the problems created by the power of time, ideas, and images over human life looks less as if it is won by the end. The ending of the poem has often been read as a triumphant resolution, in the first four lines, of Adam’s curse-the necessity for labor to make beauty-in spirituality, art, physical grace, or wisdom. The last quatrain then seems to overcome the contradictions of whole and part in the image of the living chestnut tree, motion and stillness in the image of the dancer. But the triumph also questions itself. The resolution announces its own flaws, in syntax that is notoriously difficult, in logic that chooses contiguous association rather than linear progression, and in a voice that depicts internal struggle as well as certain conviction. I see the presentation of these conflicts as the central statement of the poem, and in it I see the lofty ideals and the practical work as well as the underlying horrors of Fascist Italy.

Children do not figure much in Yeats’s poetry. There are of course two prayertitled poems for his children, one from The Tower, at whose near center “Among School Children” appears, and a better one in the previous volume, but neither “A Prayer for My Daughter” nor “A Prayer for My Son” has much to do with the children to whom they are dedicated. There are few other poems about childhood, certainly in the late verse. Yet it is interesting to remember that Yeats had two young children during the years in which he wrote some of his most powerful verse, although he was from all accounts a rather distant father, preoccupied among other distractions with the ill health that increasingly occupied his old age. “Among School Children” is the poem of a sixty-year-old father of children who were seven and four years old when it was written in June 1926. In this regard, Stanza 5, with its evocation of a “youthful mother” and her child as a “shape / With sixty or more winters on its head” gathers emotional impact from the facts that a “youthful mother” had given birth to Yeats’s own children and father no less than child was undergoing a certain “uncertainty of his setting forth” into the labor of parenting.

Yeats spent considerable energy in the mid-twenties on issues involving education, in both theoretical and practical terms. According to Joseph Hone, Yeats’s acquaintance with Joseph O’Neill, the secretary to the Department of Education, led to trips to observe several schools (373-74). On the Senate floor Yeats made several impassioned pleas for sanitary, humane conditions, arguing for example for a national loan to insure clean, well-lit buildings, and for some methods of insuring that children be adequately fed and clothed (Senate Speeches 106f. At home, he was compiling information for and writing A Vision: it was finished, according to an entry recorded in a notebook, on 22 April 1925 (A Vision xlvii). After completing this exhausting task he began almost immediately a private course in philosophical reading at the insistence ofthe spirit communicators who, speaking through his mediumistic wife George, were co-authors of the esoteric System of that book.’

The philosopher Gentile, who was Minister of Education in Italy from 1922 to 1924, must have been a household word at the Yeatses’ during this period of political, parental, and visionary work. Hone recalls that Yeats had discovered Gentile in 1925 during a trip to Italy, whereupon the poet set his erudite wife to work translating bits and pieces and also located Bigongiari’s translation of La riforma dell educazione, a series of lectures to teachers in Trieste introduced by Gentile’s friend Benedetto Croce (Hone 368). Extended conversations must have taken place about Fascist theories of education, the appropriate educational system for the Free State, and the best schooling for Anne and Michaelconversations informed by W. B.’s entrancement with philosophical idealism as well as George’s intimacy with Italian literature and culture.

The theories of Montessori were in the air as well. By 1920 her method was widely discussed in Europe in general, and it was also popular in Ireland in particular.’ In fact, Montessori visited the three schools in Waterford that used her method (of which St. Otteran’s was one) during this decade (Kramer 298). By 1925, while the Yeatses were staying in Rome, the Riforma Gentile (1923) had transformed Italian schools, centralizing control and implementing Montessori practices to give a “richer and more creative orientation” for young children especially, according to a recent source (Postlethwaite 387). In fact, Montessori schools became standard in Fascist Italy until 1934, when on a single day her method disappeared from the country after she refused Mussolini’s order to allow boys to wear the uniforms of their Fascist youth organization to school and to give the salute in class (Kramer 327).

The influence of both education theorists, as well as Yeats’s personal involvement in the issues, can be heard in the Senate speeches about the School Attendance Bill. In March 1926 Yeats argued:

I am sure for a child to spend all day in school with a stupid, ill-trained man under an ill-planned system, is less good for that child than that the child should be running through the fields and learning nothing. I should like to draw the attention of the Government to one nation which has reformed its educational system in the most suggestive and profound way; that is Italy. It has not produced a system unique to Italy. It has simply gathered together the results of experiments all over the world. They are now teaching a system of education adapted to an agricultural nation like this or Italy, a system of education that will not turn out clerks only, but will turn out efficient men and women who can manage to do all the work of the nation. This system has been tried in Ireland. There are some schools carrying it out. The Italian Minister who adopted that policy was warned by everyone that it would not be possible to get this elaborate system carried out by partly educated people. It has been proved possible and of great benefit to the children. (Senate Speeches 110-1 1)

It is noteworthy here that Yeats is interested in children’s freedom as well as the national interest of turning out “efficient men and women.” His own erratic education as well as that of Maud Gonne (who spent several years with her sister “free to wander and play as we pleased” instead of being sent to school5) and of George (who once claimed to have been expelled from seven schools) probably resembled the image of a child “running through the fields” more than the spectre of days wasted in bad schools with stupid teachers. It should be noted that Yeats also endorses an educational system that drew from different theoretical positions and traditions: he cites as an argument in its favor the fact that the Italian system is syncretic.

Education issues would have particular emotional impact for the Yeatses given the inevitable anxiety that they would have felt over the choice of schools for their own children. The most common schools in Ireland were the convent-run institutions, and in general, education in the Free State was rigidly overseen by the Catholic Church. The Central Association of Catholic Clerical School Managers had asserted ringingly in 1921 that “the only satisfactory system of education for Catholics is one wherein Catholic children are taught in Catholic schools by Catholic teachers under Catholic control” (qtd. in Foster 534). To the extent that Irish schools were Catholic schools, they were unacceptable to the Yeatses: W. B.’s pride in his Protestant heritage and his hatred of clerical power were increasingly obvious in the twenties, and George was if not religious then at least approving enough of religion to teach her children catechism on alternate Sundays. The Yeatses experimented rather widely with what educational methods and settings would be best for their children, sending them to eight different schools that I know of and trying a number of extra-curricular and home-based learning activities, from dancing classes to weekly essay-writing, to be graded by W. B. (Anne Yeats told me of this last scheme, which she believes had more to do with George’s attempt to have father and daughter get to know each other better than any belief in the importance of teaching Anne to write. Apparently Father graded the first essay, read the second, looked at the third, and received the fourth; then, by unspoken agreement and without telling Mother, the activity was dropped.) Eventually the children were sent to Switzerland, for reasons that had to do not only with intellectual development but also physical wellbeing. The unhealthful conditions that Yeats was decrying in the Senate were a very real threat.

“Among School Children” registers some of the paradoxes between idea and practice in the work of training children that were at the heart of the two national systems with which Yeats was involved. The ferment of philosophy and reform in Fascist Italy would have seemed to Yeats in the twenties a Byzantium-like working out ofthe ideal, in which thinkers like Vico, Croce, and Gentile overlaid modem theories on the bedrock of Plato and Neoplatonism. Theory was grounded in practice, Montessorean methods providing a primary (to use terminology from A Vision) counterpart to the antithetical impulse of idealism to move Italy rapidly from one of the least educated nations in Europe to one of the most progressive. The Italian solution was appealing politically (as a rural Catholic nation raising itself from internal fragmentation and external controlb), and Yeats saw in it great potential for his own nation, caught as Ireland was in a furious mix of nationalism and practical need, idea and form.

Torchiana has outlined some of the points made by Gentile and Montessori that are similar to and, especially in the case of Gentile, uncannily echo aspects of Yeats’s poem. The two theorists do have ideas in common, especially in their notions of the seemingly incompatible ideals of freedom and discipline. According to Gentile, education is characterized by an apparent “conflict of two contradictory affirmations, either one of which appears to be true and irrefutable”; that is,

(1) Education presupposes freedom in man and strives to increase it. (2) Education treats man by ignoring the freedom he may originally be endowed with, and acts in such a way as to strip him entirely of it. (Reform 40)

In practical terms, a classroom based on Gentile’s resolution of this “fundamental antinomy of education” (a Yeatsian phrase which is also the title of one of Gentile’s lectures) might look very similar to Montessori’s notion that genuinely spontaneous work is, paradoxically, self-disciplining (Gentile, Reform 40; Montessori, Method 86). For Gentile, the conflict is only apparent since a pupil’s “educability,” or ability to think, is his or her freedom; this educability is activated by a good teacher, so that the lessons imposed from without are in fact enlivened from within. In a Montessori classroom, an open space with materials and furniture that are reachable and moveable by any child creates an environment where, in Montessori’s words, “freedom is not only an external sign of liberty, but a means of education” (Method 84). In her view, children will spontaneously learn to situate themselves comfortably, move gracefully, and learn what they need to learn. Lessons are to be simple, objective, and brief, with no pushing on the part of the teacher. Children are not to be given the sense that they have made a mistake if a lesson is not learned; teaching is a combination of scientific method and the art to “stimulate life,-leaving it then free to develop” (Method 115). Both theorists presume that human beings naturally desire to learn. In neither classroom would there be rigid separation of subject matter (something that Yeats also opposed), and in both contexts the teacher would be genuinely respectful of and responsive to the individual child.

However, there is also considerable hostility between the ideologies that underpin these two theories. Gentile, sometimes called “the philosopher of Fascism” and author of one of the projects most important to Mussolini (who called the Riforma Gentile “the most Fascist of all Fascist reforms” [Minio-Paluello vii]) is a thoroughgoing idealist; Yeats referred to him in one speech as “the most profound disciple of our own Berkeley” (Senate Speeches 173). In his aesthetic philosophy, Gentile not only proposes the primacy of thought but avers that thought itself, insofar as it becomes an object when it is considered beyond the act of thinking, or what Gentile calls “actual idealism,” is to be rejected:

Idealization is the negation of any reality which can be opposed to thought as independent of it and as the presumption of it. But more than this, it is the negation of thought itself as an activity, if that thought is conceived of as a reality existing apart from its developing process, as a substance independent of its actual manifestation. (Theory of Mind 18)

Gentile locates the real in the act and identifies human freedom and pleasure with the real so constructed: “The thinking is activity, and what is thought is a product of the activity, that is, a thing. The activity as such is causa sui and therefore it is freedom. The thing is a simple effect which has the principle of its own being outside it, and therefore is mechanism” (Theory of Mind 256). If such ideas were transferred into the daily work of a school, then, we might expect that Gentile would propose labor to be “blossoming or dancing” when process, not product, is emphasized.

In terms of education, Gentile’s theories proceed on just these lines. The phrase “active education” became the educational equivalent of “actual idealism,” and the reforms carried out in Gentile’s name attacked sterile, rote learning in favor of process-oriented activity. Art, history, religion, and philosophy, which are imaginative arts in Gentile’s way of thinking, are emphasized. Science, materialism, and disciplines that follow Aristotle in regarding the individual mind as separate from the reality it considers, are criticized. These constructions are abstractions from and reductions of the central reality of unified and living culture, abstractions which imprison people in an illusory world of multeity that requires human passivity in the face of its independent existence. “What good teachers do,” according to Gentile, “is affirm the liberty of their pupils by having them hear their own words in the words they learn, basically. The idea alone is real” (Reform 68). He speaks of”man, who believes himself an individual, but is in truth humanity considered momentarily in one of its fragments” (Reform 88).

Yeats was paraphrasing Gentile when he proposed to the Irish Literary Society (in November 1925) the necessity of making education local:

The tendency of the most modern education, that in Italy, let us say, is to begin geography with your native fields, arithmetic by counting the school chairs and measuring the walls, history with local monuments, religion with the local saints, and then to pass on from that to the nation itself. (Senate Speeches 17-7)

A progression of outward movements ends with the idea of the nation. For Gentile, a universal spirit of humanity “realizes historically its universality in the community of the family, of the city, of the district, and of the nation,” so that finally “it may be said that I, as a citizen, have indeed a will of my own; but that upon further investigation my will is found to coincide exactly with the will of the State, and I want anything only in so far as the State wants me to have it” (Reform 26, 29).

The ominous tone in this last statement is obvious. As Antonio Gramsci was quick to notice, such educational notions perpetuate and accentuate the power of certain institutions and classes by restricting knowledge of disciplines that require “a certain dogmatism” if they are to be mastered. In their place, another, unquestioned dogmatism is given prominence (in Italy, religious education, which was emphasized so much that, in Gramsci’s words, “the whole history of philosophy is now implicitly seen as a succession of ravings and delusions” [41]). A deemphasis upon “facts” reduces historical awareness; the assumption that learners are passive if they are not given creative opportunities paradoxically creates passivity in that students are assumed not to be able to discover the relevance of civilization to their own lives. Civilization itself will not advance, Gramsci fears:

In education one is dealing with children in whom one has to inculcate certain habits of diligence, precision, poise (even physical poise), ability to concentrate on specific subjects…. If one wishes to produce great scholars, one still has to start at this point and apply pressure throughout the educational system in order to succeed in creating those thousands or hundreds or even dozens of scholars of the highest quality which are necessary to every civilization. (37)

Especially when coupled with a tendency to allow students to specialize at increasingly earlier ages, Gramsci asserts, so-called “progressive” education in fact stifles freedom: “this new type of school appears and is advocated as being democratic, while in fact it is destined not merely to perpetuate social differences but to crystallise them in Chinese complexities.” If democracy means “that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this,” then “the type of school which is now developing as the school for the people does not tend even to keep up this illusion” (40-41). The irony of a Marxist apology for conservative education practices has not been lost on contemporary writers in the field-one scholar notes that Gramsci’s works “could appropriately serve as authoritative texts for the recent `back to basics’ movement in education” (Entwistle 3).’

Montessori, a passionate advocate of an approach she terms scientific, occupies something of a middle space in these educational politics. Unlike Gentile, she is a devoted materialist, trained in physical anthropology and medicine (she was the first woman in Italy to receive an M.D.) and by and large respected by the scientific community, beginning with such younger contemporaries as the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, for example. Montessori is also an almost mystical believer in the innate goodness of both children and the external world. She stresses children’s connections with the world around them and the need for children to be actively at liberty to explore the world, but unlike Gentile she conceives the world as inalterably external to the individual. “Child life is not an abstraction,” she contests; “it is the life of individual children. There exists only one real biological manifestation: the living individual; and toward single individuals, one by one observed, education must direct itself” (Method 104). Her main interest is in allowing children to conduct their own empirical experimentation; she has little patience for imaginative play, which she sees (along with misbehavior) as symptomatic of psychological ill-health. This commitment to the individual child manifested itself in a communalistic Christian context, in school “homes” that were cooperatively owned like the first Casa dei Bambini, which she opened in the San Lorenzo slum section of Rome in 1907. The.Casa was designed not only out of her commitment to the poor and disenfranchised but was intended to serve as an outpost for changing the structure of the family home into a socialistic model that would allow equality and respect for each member of it, women and children in particular. Montessori comes close to deifying the young mind by the end of her life, identifying the child with the energy of creation itself, a life force that is ultimately identical to love and God (Absorbent Mind 287-96).9 Thus, despite a social praxis that resembled communist action, Montessori does not share Gramsci’s materialist assumptions about human nature. If Gramsci’s belief in progress derives from Marx, to oversimplify for the purpose of this discussion, and Gentile’s from Hegel, Montessori might be described as a spiritualized devotee of Darwin: there is “one eternal font, life itself” and an evolutionary deity at the heart of the educational act:

Life is a superb goddess, always advancing, overthrowing the obstacles which environment places in the way of her triumph. This is the basic or fundamental truth,-whether it be a question of species or individuals, there persists always the forward march of those victorious ones in whom this mysterious life-force is strong and vital. (Method 106)

In Fascist Italy and for Yeats in this period, such an appropriation of survival of the fittest into cultural and educational terms was appealing and useful. Both Gentile and especially Montessori have continued to be used by educators. A pasticcio of ideologies competes for attention in twentieth-century Italy, in the field of education as in society generally. Montessori schools have been widely influential upon contemporary education there as have remnants of the Riforma Gentile, despite political implications that might be expected, in the post-War years, to limit their usefulness. A study of the cities of Bologna and the nearby town of Reggio Emilia, for example, shows that in the 1970s, under communist-led government, public education featured a blend of left-leaning preschools and rightist national schools whose structure and educational philosophy derived from Gentile; in some cases elementary-age students learned under one system in the morning and another in the afternoon (Muller). Recent educational trends that downplay theoretical certainty in favor of mixed approaches probably account for part of this trend, but another factor may be a phenomenon that is reminiscent of Yeats’s educational poem: whether one begins with the “living individual” or “actual idealism” it is possible to end with an enlivened environment in which

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.

Of course, accepting contradictory ideas and forcing them together in poetry is common to Yeats, the poet of masks, drama, “terrible beauty,” and vacillation who had announced ten years before “Among School Children” was written his often-cited opinion that “we make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry” (Mythologies 331). Such a quarrel has long been recognized in “Among School Children.” In 1964, for example, Thomas Parkinson, assuming that “what [Yeats] took to be the true poetic” resides in the transformation of the last stanza, found the oscillation of the rest of the poem a weakness, for the “exaltation posited by the poem’s conclusion can be called into question” by the “texture of the whole”:

Even in so great a poem as “Among School Children,” with its sophisticated surface of benign retrospect, the interplay of naturalistic and symbol ic tone, the complaint against old age, the sudden unforgettable apostrophe to the chestnut tree-we can still ask why the moment of enraptured apprehension of reality should be so brief, whether it does genuinely transcend the limits so fully and even affectionately treated in the bulk of the poem. The poem flirts with the danger of casting doubt on its own resolutions, largely because it exhibits in its dramaturgy a multiple poetics. (51)

It is not surprising that disturbances analyzed in terms of “poetics” in the 1960s should more recently be examined in terms of political resonances.” Michael North has pointed to “politics as a disruptive force in the formal organization of [the] works” of modernist writers generally: “The relationship of the individual to the community,” North argues, “of literature to practical action, of the individual parts of a work of art to its overall structure-these are problems the poets tried to solve simultaneously . . . , so that practical conflicts and theoretical difficulties emerge as formal problems in the poetry” (vii).

The practical conflicts and theoretical difficulties that surface in “Among School Children” may be viewed as a dialectic between two constructions that may be defined as sources of authority or anti-authority for human choices in the face of time, society, and solitude. On one side of the equation we find the figures of an elder statesman; a “kind old nun”; a schoolmaster or other figure administering “a harsh reproof” or perhaps causing some “trivial event / That changed some childish day to tragedy”; a mother; three Greek philosophers; and the “images” worshipped by nuns and mothers. On the other side are the children at the school whose “eyes / In momentary wonder stare upon” the “sixty-year-old smiling public man”; the “Ledaean body” of Helen of Troy and, behind her, a young Maud Gonne; the “living child” that is this memory/myth’s present representative in the poem; and perhaps the undefined “shape” upon the lap of the youthful mother in stanza 5.

The poem can be read in ways that emphasize one or the other sides of this dialectic. One kind of approach emphasizes the Neoplatonic elements, praising the present image of the beloved in stanza 4 in the sense that it is an image that might be used by “Quattrocento finger” so unearthly is its arresting beauty even in age, extolling the philosophers in stanza 6 despite the mocking tone in which they are described, or finding the images of dancer and tree to be embodiments of truth that cannot be matched by the poor mortal philosophers or the poor “modern” students in the first stanza. In such readings the poem mourns the passage of time and loss of eternity endured by the “shape . . . Honey of generation had betrayed” in stanza 5 and endorses the worship of images in stanza 7, although those images are unsympathetic to mortal concerns, “mockers of man’s enterprise.” In such an analysis, the final apostrophes might be seen as re-establishing a transcendent world of form of which the poet has despaired in the earlier stanzas. Such a reading has the weight of a lot of Yeats’s opinions on its side of the scales. This is the Yeats of Byzantium, of Theosophy, of eulogizing the fallen world of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, and of the Thirteenth Cone of A Vision. It is also the Yeats of the original “note” for “Among School Children,” from a notebook begun at Oxford on April 7, 1921: “Topic for poem. School children, and the thought that life will waste them, perhaps that no possible life can fulfill their own dreams or even their teacher’s hope. Bring in the old thought that life prepares for what never happens” (Bradford 4).

Other readings might notice the dynamism of the “wild” memory of the “Ledaean body” as a “living child” and note that the speaker may be advocating life rather than art, well-cared-for human bodies, not transcendence or nostalgia. Such an approach might find the depiction of the hollow-cheeked beloved in stanza 4 critical of the harsh life that ruined her beauty needlessly and might note that the philosophers of stanza 6 are presented in “solider” terms than one might expect. The word “modern” in the first stanza might also be interpreted as lacking the negative connotations that the word often has in Yeats, countering the weight of traditional order with an assertion of simpler neatness; similarly, the slightly self-deprecating tone of the “smiling public man” would thus be the appropriate stance for a poet who mocks his own idealism with his knowledge that the benefits of wisdom pale before the glory of the body. We might think of this kind of reading as siding with a Yeats who may have sailed toward Byzantium but never actually arrived, the Yeats kicked out of the Theosophical Society for taking spiritual ideas too much into the realm of the material in wanting to practice magic, the creator of Crazy Jane and Ribh and the rage of those poetic personae against disembodied wisdom or divinity, the lifelong friend of the activist Gonne, and the man who both fought against legislation prohibiting divorce and worked for the School Attendance Bill.

Nor is it surprising that Italy, which Yeats loved, should be a source for such conflict, whether or not the country that warmed the bones of the “comfortable kind of old scarecrow” is explicitly present. Montessori’s spiritualized materialism and Gentile’s politicized aesthetics form part of the quarrel that lies beneath the poem. The two highest rhetorical moments, when the poet is “driven wild” as an image of his beloved “stands before me as a living child” at the end of stanza 3 and in the penultimate stanza with its syntactically convoluted apostrophe to “Presences / That passion, piety, or affection knows,” imply a unity forced between two versions of a developing human being. On the one hand, people may be regarded as “living children” in their minute particularity, a conception to which belongs the grief of knowing that “daughters of the swan” will each become “Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind” or that the shape of an infant on its mother’s lap will be a “shape / With sixty or more winters on its head.” For a Montessori teacher or for a writer among whose last words were “Man can embody truth but he cannot know it” (Letters 922), great care must be taken to provide an environment in which the individual may flourish; the educator steps back in awe of the life force at work in the child, and the poet celebrates dance as an art form beyond the control of words and thought.

On the other hand, human beings may be seen as embodiments of the “one Idea, which is Thought” (Gentile, Reform 103), timeless in that they are “image,” whether “present image” of an old woman or “dream of a Ledaean body.” This conception, writes Gentile, demands an attitude of that unyielding tenacity of the mind which is the surest sign of sound spiritual character; that steadfast firmness by which man, once in possession of a clearly irrefutable, truly fundamental truth, rigorously excludes from his soul all the allurements of prejudice, all convictions formerly entertained, even though extremely plausible, if they contradict his Truth. (Reform 113)

Such convictions would be expressed in the ringing sentence just as the former orientation might prompt a tone of acceptance or humility (“Better to smile on all that smile”) or perhaps a rhetorical question or two. Yeats’s politics in the twenties, his interest in educational theory, and his poetry can be read as conservative idealism that scorns materialism while remaining naive about its own ideological presuppositions. If so, the intellectual naivete is not matched by poetry that fails to display its tensions openly. Yeats’s ringing tones and repeated questions form one stand that quarrels with itself. Despite his famous poetic search for unity and fierce denunciations of disunity in contemporary culture and art, the later Yeats also writes of “masterful images” that “Grew in pure mind” but come from a “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (Poems 347) or that “man’s life is thought” so he therefore “cannot cease / Ravening. . . that he may come / Into the desolation of reality”(Poems 289). In a poem, this unresolved tension creates, among other things, the power of a final line that is no less ambiguous than it is often authoritatively quoted. Does “Among School Children” finally ask how we can tell the difference between the dancer and the dance, a question proper to idealism, such as Gentile might be prompted to propose? Or does it wonder how we can possibly know the dancer by watching the dance, the abstract product, without attending to the person performing it, which is the kind of question that Montessori would put forward? ………….


‘ The poem appears on pages 215-17 of Yeats’s Poems; hereafter it will not be cited by page number.

2 Torchiana 130-37; see also Hone (368-74) for biographical detail and Jeffares (25055) for specific allusions in the poem to Montessori and Gentile. For one of the best single readings of the poem see Kermode, especially chapters 4 and 5, “The Dancer” and “The Tree” (49-103).

3 For further information about the occult experiments that led to A Vision see Harper. 4 Edward P. Culverwell, a professor at Trinity College, published The Montessori Principles and Practices in 1913, a book that “stimulated a good deal of interest in Montessori’s ideas in Ireland” according to Rita Kramer, Montessori’s biographer. Culverwell’s thesis is that “Montessori’s ideas would prove right because they were consistent with the biological principles of child development and because their emphasis on liberty was consistent with the political direction in which society was moving through history” (Kramer 237). Such a thesis might have had considerable local implication for Ireland, which in 1913 had been undergoing labor crises culminating in the Dubin Lock-Out, political turning points such as the rejection of a Home Rule Bill in Ulster (1912), and ominous military turmoil, especially in the mustering of private volunteer armies following the Ulster decision (see Foster 46171).

‘ Gonne 17. See Gonne’s account of her early years, before her father took the advice of a “lady” who told him “that his daughters were being allowed to run wild like little savages and, -which was quite true,-were quite shockingly ignorant” (19). 6 Regarding the issue of external control, it is interesting to remember that Gentile’s Riforma dell `educazione was originally a series of lectures to teachers in a city that had just been transferred back to Italian control. The burden of his message to Triestine teachers is to establish a nation by means of good teaching, not just to teach well. Indeed, in a conclusion that rings with high rhetoric, he reasserts the connection of spirituality, identity, and the State: “The patriotic character of the event which was the immediate cause of this work induced me to show that the common spirit which brought us together was not a mere political sentiment, of which we should rid ourselves in crossing the threshold of the school. For we could not but bring into the classroom our own humanity” which is by virtue of “this historical development of our universal personality” Italian: “we could not possibly be ourselves were we not all at the same time Italian educators” (Reform 246-47). See Senate Speeches 173.

It is important to remember Gramsci’s harsh childhood and the great difficulty he had in gaining for himself a decent education. It must have seemed cruel for him to read of reforms that did away with the kind of education he fought tirelessly to acquire. One senses as well his frustration at being helpless, from prison, to insure that his children were being educated well. 9 In reading Montessori’s works, one needs to note that many of the later books that list her as author, particularly a number of books published in India, were ghost written by others from her lectures or seminars. She did become increasingly mystical in her later years, but she was also edited heavily by followers who were themselves mystically inclined.

10 See in this context works by Cullingford, Lloyd, Howes, and Kiberd, among others, as well as the collection edited by Allison.


Allison, Jonathan, ed. Yeats’s Political Identities: Selected Essays. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.

Bradford, Curtis B. Yeats at Work. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois UP, 1965. Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. Gender and History in Yeats’s Love Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

Yeats, Ireland and Fascism. New York: New York UP, 1981. Entwhistle, Harold. Antonio Gramsci: Conservative Schooling for Radical Politics. London:

Routledge, 1979.

Foster, R. F. Modern Ireland: 1600-1972. London: Viking, 1988. Gentile, Giovanni. Riforma dell educazione (1920). The Reform of Education. Trans. Dino Bigongiari. New York: Harcourt, 1922.

_. Teoria generale dello spirito come atto puro (1916). Theory of Mind as Pure Act. Trans. H. Hildon Carr. London: Macmillan, 1922.

Gonne, Maud. A Servant of the Queen: Reminiscences. London: Victor Gollancz, 1974. Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Ed. and trans. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers, 1971. Harper, George Mills. The Making of Yeats A Vision: A Study of the Automatic Script. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1987.

Hone, Joseph. WI B. Yeats, 1865-1939. London: Macmillan, 1962. Howes, Marjorie. Yeats s Nations: Gender, Class, and Irishness. Cambridge: Cambridge UP,


Jaggi, Max, Roger Muller, and Sil Schmid. Red Bologna. London: Writers and Readers, 1977. Jeffares, A. Norman. A New Commentary on the Poems of W B. Yeats. London: Macmillan,


Kermode, Frank. Romantic Image. London: Routledge, 1957. Kiberd, Declan. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. London: Jonathan

Cape; Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Kramer, Rita. Maria Montessori: A Biography. New York: Putnam, 1976. Lloyd, David. Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment. Dublin:

Lilliput; Durham: Duke UP, 1993.

Minio-Paluello, L. Education in Fascist Italy. London: Oxford, 1946.

Montessori, Maria. The Absorbent Mind. Trans. Claude A. Claremont. New York: Holt, 1967.

The Montessori Method. Trans. Anne E. George. New York: Schocken, 1964. MOller, Roger. “Education: A School that Has Still to be Invented.” Jaggi et al. 11-32. North, Michael. The Political Aesthetic of Yeats. Eliot, and Pound Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Parkinson, Thomas. W B. Yeats: The Later Poetry (1964). In W B. Years, Self Critic and The Later Poetry: Two Volumes in One. Berkeley: U of California P, 1971. Postlethwaite, T. Neville, ed. The Encyclopedia of Comparative Education and National Systems of Education. Oxford: Pergamon, 1988.

Torchiana, Donald T. “Among School Children and the Education of the Irish Spirit.” In Excited Reverie: A Centenary Tribute to William Butler Years, 1865-1939. Ed. A. Norman Jeffares and K. G. W. Cross. London: Macmillan, 1965. 123-50. Yeats, William Butler. A Critical Edition of Yeats “A Vision” (1925J. Ed. George Mills Harper and Walter Kelly Hood. London: Macmillan, 1978. . Letters. Ed. Allan Wade. New York: Macmillan, 1955. Mythologies. London: Macmillan, 1959. Poems. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. New York: Macmillan, 1983. . Senate Speeches. Ed. Donald R. Pearce. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1960.

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