‘The Scholars’ by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

This poem from The Wild Swans at Coole means a great deal to me because it reminds us that poetry is an Art and a passion before it is anything else. In this piece, Yeats evokes the blinkered academic, furiously analysing – “edit[ing] and annotat[ing]” – the dry pages of tomes full of poetry that was “Rhymed out in love’s despair” by “Young men, tossing in their beds.” The Scholars is a spot-on, well-aimed jab at literary critics, but also a very pertinent comment on the nature of poetry.

I love the contrast between the bald heads – those “Old, learned, respectable bald heads” – and the young poets rhyming out “in love’s despair”. Notice how the scholars don’t seem to have bodies; they’re just heads. The “young men” are living their lives, and experiencing every moment of it intensely. Their writing is what Wordsworth described as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”. The way the scholars are described as annotating and editing suggests they manipulate the verse to fit their purpose (which critics often do).

“All shuffle… all cough in ink”, Yeats tells us. The shuffling certainly amplifies this idea of quiet living – blinkered living – and the coughing brings to my mind a person that almost ignores the needs of his body because he is so deeply buried in his books. “All think what other people think”; these scholars seem to be dictated to by tradition, and pressure about what is the ‘right’ literature to venerate.

When we come to the end of the piece, Yeats poses us a question: “Lord, what would they say/ Did their Catullus walk that way?” I like this very neat ending. If Catullus (a Roman poet, known for his love poems) had been as dry, as hermit-like, and as studious as Yeats’ scholars, what on earth would his poetry have been like? Without experience – without a life – without at least some kind of passion – a poet is nothing, because it is in moments of intense emotion that poems are ‘born’, even if they are completed and polished in a calmer state (or “in tranquility” to quote Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads again).

As you can probably tell from this blog, I kind of like literary criticism. I love to read about writers and their techniques; I love to take a poem and really get to grips with it and work out how and why it’s such a marvel because I love poetry. But The Scholars reminds us that the greatest literary theorist cannot necessarily write a poem, and the greatest poets need not by any means be academics. On the contrary; the poet is an artist. Yeats certainly was.

W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Lady Fancifull
    Feb 28, 2014 @ 20:34:20

    The ‘beauty’s ignorant ear’ however is a slap to the females who inspired the poems that the young men write – and am I being a little too modern in seeing a double meaning to the young men tossing in their beds. – the poems are ‘flattery’ for beauty’s ignorant ear – so given that ‘flattery’ is seen as being slightly insincere, I get the sense that the old men, the young flatterers , and the ignorant beauty are all a little under attack, if the OBJECT of ‘love’s despair’ were to be ‘ignorant’

    Reply

    • emilyardagh
      Feb 28, 2014 @ 20:49:31

      Interesting thoughts – thank you! I absolutely see what you mean about the ‘flattery’ to beauty’s ‘ignorant ear’. I had read this part as Yeats talking about poets writing about ideals – Beauty as an abstract (and therefore ignorant?) concept. I completely get your take on it though!

      Reply

  2. Tim Shey
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 15:54:59

    This is an excellent post and I liked the poem by Yeats.

    There is a passage in Thomas Wolfe’s “The Web and the Rock” where Wolf writes that he would rather paint the world’s most beautiful painting than own the world’s most beautiful painting. A young man has the passion to write beautiful poetry; an old man (“old, learned, respectable bald heads”) can only read about and analyze this passion from a distance.

    This reminds me of what A.W. Tozer once wrote: “They were prophets, not scribes, for the scribe tells us what he has read, and the prophet tells what he has seen.” I don’t care for theological aesthetes.

    I am grateful to have read this poem by Yeats because I tried to read Yeats years ago and I couldn’t get into his poetry. My favorite poets are T.S. Eliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins.

    “Scribes and Prophets”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2014/01/29/scribes-and-prophets/

    This is the most poetic prose that I have ever written that was published:

    “High Plains Drifter”
    http://hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com/2012/11/11/high-plains-drifter-short-story/

    Reply

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  7. mantalini
    Mar 01, 2014 @ 20:13:00

    Hi there,

    Great analysis and choice of poem. I would add that Yeats’s decision to yoke two Shakespearean sestets is also significant: there is no octave and thus no proposition; the poem introduces us into an already established state of resolution, such as the bald heads seek to impose upon lived experience expressed through poetry. That ‘think’ derives from ‘ink’ also associates the written word with cerebral rather than corporeal spheres. But poetry is written in ink too, and beauty’s ear is ignorant; the two repetitive actions of ‘tossing on their beds’ and ‘wear[ing] the carpet’ seem equally ineffectual, seem to signal that formalising language misses the mark on both counts, and that the initial failure of poetry to solicit love leads to latter, all-pervading stagnation. Yeats was, after all, himself very interested in traditional poetic forms.

    But still, the young Catullus mustn’t know this, he must believe in the power of words, or he would never write.

    Reply

  8. rhchatlien
    Mar 02, 2014 @ 23:02:59

    This poem was new to me, and I loved the contrast in it.

    Reply

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