May 3, 2012

Ransom, Day Two, and Yeats' "When You Are Old"

  When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats : The Poetry Foundation

Looking back at visitor comments on my last post about “Blue Girls,” it appears there’ll be no Fan Club for John Crowe Ransom forming here. Still, AH and I actually like the poem, and the criticism from others is not vitriolic, as I thought it might be. Here again is the poem:

Blue Girls

Twirling your blue skirts, traveling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practise your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our powers shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a lady with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

John Crowe Ransom
PA, Stickup, and Jean, maybe it’s not just a predictable protest about aging and the passing of youthful beauty, but also a warning:  have something in your life beyond physical beauty, which will “fail," even in the most charitable of situations. That’s where the girls might have done well to believe and not just courteously, obediently listen to “old and contrary” teachers, who might get them started on ways to fill the void left by feminine beauty and vitality.

What if a teacher convinced a teen to pursue art or art history and not “just” a modeling career for artists?  I feel uncomfortable in suggesting the poem is, in a peculiar way, about career counseling, yet why else advocate that kids believe their teachers? 

The twist might be that believing in science or literature or history or general intellectual curiosity might become some kind of adequate or even wonderful replacement for beauty, or self-esteem based entirely on a physical package. Given such pursuits, a girl, or anyone, can be more than a bluebird “chattering on the air.” 

It’s surely easy to rip on teachers, who have so many words and offer them much too freely. Even teachers rip on teachers, their old ones and their current colleagues. But, listen here, Blue Girls (and Hunk-Boys), when the time comes, what will you do to fill the void where your beauty, vitality and identity once were?  “Go to Trade School” sounds like a weird answer, but it’s actually just a variation on the old adage, “Follow your bliss.” First, find your bliss, then follow it. What are your alternatives?

It’s ironic that a poem on the cusp of sexism is also a potential antidote to sexism. I hear Ransom saying, “Don’t be an Air Head.”  However sad it is that the exquisite bloom of youth must fade—and it is sad; let's not underestimate it—there’s another urgent cry on the poet's “loud lips” too; it says, WAKE UP. Go down to the Meaningful Store and fill ‘er up with something that lasts.
For comparison, here’s Yeats on a similar subject. It’s early Yeats, which is academy-speak for sentimental, not-yet-adequate Yeats. I guess that’s why so many people include “When You Are Old” on their list of favorites. Where does any poem get its power? Now there’s a question to keep you up late. 
When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats : The Poetry Foundation


Pasadena Adjacent said...


You put me in the wrong camp. I started out with "Kill the father resurrect the grandfather" (father being a stand-in for instructor). An attempt to relate it to my own experience and that of the broader art world which validates youth as the next best investment. That I didn't see this as "just" a sexist reading or a feminist stance. That I saw something deeper. And I didn't say I disliked the poem either.

Ken Mac said...

Thanks for visiting ! DUMBO means Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass. DUMBO is the section of Brooklyn directly below the bridge, an old industrial hood..

Anonymous said...

Dear Camp Counselor,
There's been a mistake. PA is in the wrong tent, she belongs with the cool girls. It's highly possibly that when she arrives at her new tent, she'll find she is way cooler than the cool girls. But they paid more, so that's as it should be.

Banjo52 said...

PA, ooops. Sorry. I did see your point on youth as commodity in the art world--not sure it transfers to literature, but it might.

To AOWWL (AnyOneWhoWillListen)-- what if youth is not only more beautiful, but also more interesting than those of us over, say, 23? Well, then, how about 34, which was, I think, the age of the characters in Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises. Ishmael too? What's gonna happen in Nick's life, or Daisy's, or Jake Barnes' or Ishmael's that's half as INTERESTING or life-altering as what's happened in those books?

I'm probably just trying to stir the pot, but now that the genie's out of the bottle, I do wonder.

Ken, names can be fun. I like that. Should I want live in DUMBO or is all commercial?

AH, that's wickedly good--er, provocative. Hope PA responds.

Jean Spitzer said...

You are young, you don't pay attention in class, you are pretty, therefore all you are is pretty --not sound reasoning.

Banjo52 said...

Jean, maybe, and yet a surprising percentage of my best students (both genders) were the most attractive AND the most athletic AND the most popular. Also, I've read in several places, and heard even more in conversations among teachers (i.e., anecdotally), that that's not uncommon, and in fact might be the norm. It's like the tallest people TENDING to rise highest on the economic scale. It's unfair; it's a fact. What do we value--skill and character? or LOOKING "presidential"? Apparently, the answers are disquieting. Or even more uncomfortable, maybe it's not cultural; maybe it's a matter of IQ and skill, and a certain group gets all the assets. Mind you, that's in terms of broad tendencies; there will be scads of exceptions--thank Zeus for small favors.

RuneE said...

In viewing visual art one often has to step back a little see the whole picture. You lose some to details but main gain some comprehension. I have a feeling that one might do the same here.

Then you don't see sexism, but humanity. The age-old story of the grandeur and folly of youth, and the relentless workings of time. And that one should forget neither.

Just to be contrary, I have "When I'm 64 running in my head" :-)

Banjo52 said...

Rune, that works for me. And I liked that song plenty when I was 25.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

getting it cheap is part of the esthetic

Pasadena Adjacent said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pasadena Adjacent said...

the following quote has been making it's way through the web. I think you'll like it

"Those Who Can Teach TEACH - Those Who CANNOT pass laws about teaching

Banjo52 said...

PA, THANKS! I just found this. What a beauty.

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