The Song of the Old Mother

Glossary

2 seed of the fire: literally, the last ember of the died-out fire, from which she will be able to relight it. Figuratively, however, the connotations concern sexuality and fertility (see the commentary).

4 stars … peep: i.e. right through to evening.

Commentary

This poem, in which Yeats writes dramatically in the voice of an old Irish peasant woman, provides an interesting and immediate contrast with the poems before and after it. Ben Jonson mourns his son’s death, and Margaret (in Wordsworth’s poem) is distressed at her missing son. Here, however, the old Mother’s thoughts are not so respectable: to some extent she envies the young their youth and vitality, the fact of their having the world of courting, marriage, and sex ahead of them. To some extent what she says also reflects her own continuing sexual feelings and longings, present even in old age. This subject-matter – how an old person feels about sex and sexual feelings – is very different from that in the other poems.

Yeats was a poet obsessed with ageing. Even though he was only in his thirties when he wrote this poem, he already anticipates the extreme concern of his later poetry with the processes of ageing and the struggle to maintain vitality in the face of the slowing of the body. Though this is a stylized poem, in quite elegantly controlled pentameter couplets, it is, as it were, the “song” of any easy misunderstanding between the generations: of young people who think that old people don’t have sexual feelings, or old people who find it hard not to envy the young their future lives. If we speak, however, of “a granny wanting to get some lazy teenagers out of bed in the morning” we can see immediately that the poem is using a wholly different, less colloquial register of language. This is a gracious, indeed, consciously aesthetic poem, Yeats in his late-nineteenth-century mode.

The “seed of the fire” in lines 2 and 10 is both literal and metaphorical. Seed is the tiny grains from which wheat or other plants grow (hence, metaphorically, the embers from which the fire can grow), but it also has the meaning “semen” (one of the origins of life). The low fire, in this sense, is an image of the old woman’s damped down sexuality. She is now, in one sense, beyond sex and having children; in another sense, she still has strong sexual feelings. She is contrasted in the poem with the young girls lying in bed dreaming of getting dressed up to go out, dreaming, in other words, of boyfriends and flirting and courtship: “the matching of ribbons for bosom and head” (6). “They sigh if the wind but lift a tress” means both their concern when their hair gets out of place, i.e. their extreme concern with appearance (as the old woman sees it), and also it hints at their awakening sexuality, their “sighing” or longing for the grown-up world of physical love. On the surface, the old woman seems to say just that the young girls still in bed are just “idle” and lazy, failing to do any useful work about the house. Really, though, in the very words with which she vividly creates their world, we can see that she was once young herself, and that she knows what it felt like to be full of physical longing. So, the poem faces very frankly the time in life when the “seed of the fire” (sexual passion) “gets feeble and cold” (10). It looks at that time with great honesty and directness, contrasting youth and age, and wondering about the mystery of ageing.

Suggestions for teaching and appreciation

Make some comparisons between Yeats’s old woman and Wordsworth’s, for example. Do you think they are both equally realistic?

Though Yeats’s old woman was created nearly a century after Wordsworth’s old woman Margaret, it is interesting to notice that Wordsworth’s poem seems the more realistic. Wordsworth goes through a whole complex range of emotions felt by the elderly Margaret as she contemplates her missing son. Yeats’s old woman, by contrast, is concerned really with only one thing: the matter of ageing. Her concern is directly Yeats’s own concern – we probably do not feel that there is much dramatic distance between Yeats and his creation. Wordsworth’s widow, on the other hand, seems a much more objective creation: Wordsworth has gone out of his way to really enter into her confused and painful feelings. Do you think his poem is more “objective” in this respect?

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