Jonathan Culler on the Apostrophic Turns in Yeats’s “Among School Children”

16 09 2015


“Among School Children,” by William Butler Yeats

On “apostrophe”

And some really good thinking about the use of apostrophe at the key turn(s) in this poem from Jonathan Culler’s “Apostrophe” (Diacritics 7.4 (Winter, 1977)):

The tension between the narrative and the apostrophic can be seen as the generative force behind a whole series of lyrics.  One might identify, for example, as instances of the triumph of the apostrophic, poems which, in a very common move, substitute a fictional, non-temporal opposition for a temporal one, substitute a temporality of discourse for a referential temporality.  In lyrics of this kind a temporal problem is posed: something once present has been lost or attenuated; this loss can be narrated but the temporal sequence is irreversible, like time itself.  Apostrophes displace this irreversible structure by removing the opposition between presence and absence from empirical time and locating it in discursive time.  The temporal movement from A to B, internalized by apostrophe, becomes a reversible alternation between A’ and B’: a play of presence and absence governed not by time but by poetic power.

The clearest example of this structure is of course the elegy which replaces an irreversible temporal disjunction, the move from life to death, with a dialectical alternation between attitudes of mourning and consolation, evocations of absence and presence….  [Culler briefly discusses the apostrophes in Shelley’s “Adonais.”]

A poem of  a very different sort, Yeats’s “Among School Children,” can be shown to follow a similar pattern.  Reiterated contrasts between age and youth form a structure from which the poem suddenly turns in the penultimate stanza with an apostrophe:

…O Presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise–
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise.

The transcendental presences evoked here, the images which are objects of strong feelings that generate them, make the transient projects of human life seem paltry indeed.  However, a second apostrophe calls forth against these images another set of presences which seem to be both empirical and transcendental and which are presented as possible examples of organic unity:

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?

The opposition is no longer an irreversible temporal move from youth to age but an a-temporal juxtaposition of two sorts of images, evoked as presences by apostrophes.  The question of whether we can indeed choose between these alternatives and precisely what such a choice would entail is extremely difficult, but the poem has, through its apostrophic turn, made this the central issue.