The Scholars by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation

The poem, The Scholars, is an expression of disregard for the old scholars; it subverts the popular tradition of respecting and regarding the old people as wise, original, creative and practical. The speaker of the poem not only refuses to pay respect for the old 'scholars' but also expresses his disregard. In fact the disgust and disrespect towards them is a bit too much - it goes to the extent that most readers would criticize.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

The speaker of the poem is speaking in a manner that sounds like an angry and insulting description of the old scholars; it even sounds as if he is disputing with someone who has been telling him that the old scholars really have the merits of true learning and experience, creativity and imagination. He talks in a taunting manner against the old scholars and blames them for never writing an original poem, but plagiarizing (stealing) from the young men and lovers. He finds the old so-called scholars lazy and unoriginal, forgetful and silly, and commonplace. The speaker must be a young poet who regards himself as a creative and brilliant man who has the real experience and feeling of love out of which he writes. It is also understandable that he must have been criticized by older poets and scholars that his poetry is not matured; usually the lack of regard for the young and growing genius by the older men breeds this kind of anger in the young. The intention of the speaker can be understood if we recognize him as a young man who has perhaps been disillusioned of the old belief that old people are wise and creative. The poem is however an expression of an opinion taken to its extreme. Besides a few metaphoric expressions, the whole poem is an angry assault upon the age-old prestige and respect of 'old' scholars.

The poem begins with what we call a metonymy, or the use of a part to refer to the whole. "Bald heads" of the old scholars are the parts of them that are used to refer to their wholes. In the second phrase of the first line, we see that the bald heads are not heads themselves but real and complete persons. Now we realize that the speaker is bitterly criticizing forgetful old men. In the next line he says that the old and learned bald heads are 'respectable', and for the moment we get a feeling that he is regarding old, bald heads with respect. But, even without ending the sentence, he states in the following lines that the old, bald heads do not write their own poems. They edit and interpret, explain and make variations (annotate) the poems written by the young poets. The young poets, he says, actually feel the pains and sorrows of love; they toss on their beds and write their poems in the actually felt despair of love. But he thinks that the old men do not actually feel the impact of love. In fact, old men may express better but they feel it less. But the present young man poet is rather too harsh towards the old scholars and poets. In the second stanza, too, the same technique of invective (direct satire) continues. The speaker says that the old poets 'shuffle' or move about in their rooms, and they 'cough' in ink. They force out pieces of poetry without actually experiencing the feelings and ideas themselves. Going out and coming in frequently, they make the carpet wear out soon. Old men need to go too often to the toilet, and the speaker suggests a bitter commentary even on this natural necessity of the scholars who are old men! Besides, they also need to put on their shoes or sandals even on the carpet, because they are afraid of the cold. The speaker thinks that everyone has a certain common type of thoughts and not everything makes poetry; this suggests that the old poet write just about anything in their confidence that they are experiencing and that they are respected by everyone. In fact, it is not uncommon for old people to be under such an illusion. They can take for granted that they always speak and write sensible things, that they are wiser than any young man or boy, that they are never wrong! If "all know the man their neighbor knows" and if everyone knows what the old scholars know, what is the specialty of all their pride of 'old man's wisdom"? The speaker thinks the old men are no better than the young in anything, but it is perhaps a convention of false respect that makes the world respect the old men for no reason. The last two lines are different in the technique of expression. The speaker suddenly exclaims in wonder; he wonders what the old men would think if they knew the poverty of their thoughts and feelings, or rather the fact that their so-called wisdom, creativity and originality are nothing but their own illusions supported by the world's false respect. In the very last line, the speaker also expresses another wonder; he wants to know whether Catullus, the ancient Latin poet, also behaved in the same manner. But this question is also very likely a rhetorical one. He seems to mean that the famous love-poet Catullus was not such an absent-minded and stupid old man but a really original and creative man. The present old poets seem to be trying to write poems about love, sex modeled on the ideas and style of that first century Latin poet; but, as the rest of the poem suggests, the old men are not able to imitate the style and standard of the classical poet. They only imitate and plagiarize from the young poets of their time.

The poem is irritably disrespectful towards the old scholars whom we have all learnt to respect out of a conventional custom and habit thereof. We normally think that the old men are normally wiser, more imaginative, more considerate, more creative, and more correct about everything than us. But if we tell someone that the poem was written by a young poet, most readers will dismiss it as meaningless. This fallacy of false respect is almost universal, and it can sometimes turn out to be irritating.

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Sharma, K.N. "The Scholars by William Butler Yeats: Critical Appreciation." BachelorandMaster, 31 Aug 2014,