When I first applied to the Weekender in the spring semester of my freshman year, I submitted a commentary I wrote on W.B. Yeats’ poem, “To a Child Dancing in the Wind” as a part of my application. At the time, the poem spoke to many anxieties I felt about growing up.
I have recently rediscovered my copy of Yeats’ collected poems. I felt compelled to respond to the poem again now, years later, without peeking at my previous attempt. I feel that my identity is constant, that I as I am today is the same me I have always been, and always will be. Yet the realization that a difference exists feels wrong, since the separation between the “then-me” and the “now-me” is my entire Berkeley experience: everybody I met in Berkeley; everywhere I have lived in, eaten, played and listened.
I read the poem, jotting down my initial emotions or thoughts next to each line, or group of lines, in italics, sometimes hopping back, sometimes forward — I then edited for clarity. This is not an attempt at a full, academic understanding of the poem.
Dance there upon the shore; In my head, there is a very clear and consistent visual to this line that comes up whenever I think about this poem: a freezing, Irish Beach, stark gray and emerald cliffs reflected on the equally emerald water, a child dancing in a white dress – twirling, twisting and laughing, finally falling for laughter
What need have you to care
For wind or water’s roar?
The waves become louder, there is a stark fear of the larger world, of having to understand what seems like horrid noise and cold — there is an intrigue here — When I was about ten or eleven, I wrote a poem about how I wanted to keep certain aspects of my childhood with me — “Shhh, I’m experiencing child-like wonder” — I think this passage, reading it at seventeen, confronted me with the reality that I almost needed to care— There was also the tension: what was the need to care and what was the desire to care?
And tumble out your hair
That the salt drops have wet; Carefree symbol of youth
Being young you have not known
The fool’s triumph, nor yet
Love lost as soon as won, — I feel like these go hand in hand — I feel like “love lost as soon as won” implies at least two: me who wins love, and another who loses it
I feel like over time, winning love for people and places, for what I do and what I want to do – then losing it, and oftentimes regaining it sometime later has been more constant
I get very caught up in routine and drudgery — my response to being overwhelmed is not to stop, but to stop adding on: cycle through the days until I hit a natural point of relief — this cycle can kill love for things I hold dear, and turn them into obligations — I always liked poetry, I should be reading it. I always liked reading, why are my books piling up? I always liked science, why can’t I learn this? I always loved this place, why can’t I now? — and then
it takes little to end the cycle — finding Celan’s Die Niemandsrose in Moe’s after a year of trying and realizing I’ve been looking in the wrong section, ATP synthase being taught, being able to do research in two fields I am excited about, which previously seemed impossible — Hey Mikkel do you want to go to MOMA with me and Alex? Can I just hang out in your room for a bit? Hell yeah i’d wanna go for a bike ride! It sounds like you’re having a cute day…
Nor the best laborer dead
And all the sheaves to bind. — Reading these lines I feel a sense of defeat and exhaustion: driving myself to do all the things I want to do, leaving me with less and less energy for each successive endeavor — What aspects of myself do I want to prioritize, who do I want to be? — How can I do everything at once, and does this mean committing to nothing? This is how drudgery starts.
What need have you to dread
The monstrous crying of wind?
In childhood innocence, there is no need to concern yourself with the complications that adulthood brings — However, it feels more accurate to say that there is no need to dread — Thinking back, I don’t really know if I am a different person, but I have become so much more self actualized,in a crazy way.
Has no one said those daring
Kind eyes should be more learned?
In a paper I read for a class, this notion was taken up in fieldwork done in a clinic run by med students. — First-year students were fully able to see the patients as people, ask questions and connect with them. — I think I am still very afraid of hardening as a person
Or warned you how despairing
The moths are when they are burned,
However, these lines also assuage that fear; learning that the moths despair when being burned is part of growing up, beginning to see animals as animals, other people as people — understanding an interconnectedness of action and effect and ripple effect. …
I could have warned you, but you are young,
So we speak a different tongue.
O you will take whatever’s offered
And dream that all the world’s a friend,
Suffer as your mother suffered,
Be as broken in the end.
I feel like these four lines are incredibly powerful still, but I think when I first read them, I was a lot more afraid of them than I am now — It’s “later” now and I don’t really feel broken — maybe pretty bent occasionally but nothing that won’t straighten out (or give character, I guess).
But I am old and you are young,
And I speak a barbarous tongue.
A Somewhat Unqualified and Personal Interpretation of W.B. Yeat’s “To a Child Dancing In the Wind”
Poems can resonate with you for different reasons. Oftentimes, it is the exceptional beauty of a stanza (She Walks in Beauty) or a phrase (“flowers have been known to heal/a common man’s despair” from The Ballad of Reading Gaol). However, sometimes the secret lies deeper than the beauty of one’s words. The poems that stick with me the most, that I try to commit to memory, are the ones that speak to my deep seated anxieties at the time I discover them.
I have always struggled with the thought of having to grow up. It is a self-directed “I shall miss you / When you have grown. “ (A Cradle Song, Yeats)
“To A Child Dancing in the Wind” addresses this anxiety very beautifully. The poem is written from the perspective of a man watching a child dancing “upon the shore” without a care “for wind or water’s roar”. As the child has not yet reached adulthood — having “not yet known the fool’s triumph” or “love lost as soon as won.” In its innocence, it has no need to fear “the monstrous crying of wind,” the future, or the goings-on of the world around it.
Initially, after reading this first stanza, I felt myself as an intermediary between the child and the narrator, which, at 16, I actually was. Now at 18, I still am.
In some ways, it is exciting to watch myself undergo this transformation — becoming more aware of my surroundings, deciding for myself to “tumble out” my salty wet hair. However, I also notice myself becoming more worried and anxious why would I tumble out my hair, if I did not care if I walked around with a wet mop all day?
I read the news regularly — my eyes have become more “learn’d”, but are they still the “daring, kind eyes” I had as a child? I doubt they should be, but how do I keep them from changing completely? Yeats says he “could have warned me” — maybe he even did, through the poem. But I believe he is right when he writes that as “(he) is old and (I am) young … we speak a different tongue.”
I will “take whatever’s offered, and dream that all the world’s a friend.” There is no other way of exploring the world in youth, but will I “suffer as (my) mother suffered” from these experiences? Maybe … But the bigger question lies in whether I will “be as broken in the end?” If I can glue myself back together, celebrate even “the fool’s triumph” and “love” whether it be lost or won, maybe I can keep my eyes “kind and daring” as they become more “learn’d,” and not speak quite as “barbarous (a) tongue.”