Saturday, 28 November 2009

Song of the Old Mother - W. B. Yeats

In his brief and compact ten-line poem, 'Song of the Old Mother', Yeats takes on the persona of an elderly woman who contrasts her harsh, unrelenting daily routine with that of carefree young people.

In the first four lines, the old mother tells us that she has to get up at sunrise and work until it gets dark. The word 'and' is used seven times in these initial four lines, emphasising the fact that the woman has a string of household chores to carry out, one after the other. The fact that she says 'I must scrub and bake and sweep' gives the impression that she has no choice in the matter, and probably does not enjoy these endless chores. In the fourth line the stars are personified: they 'blink and peep', perhaps to give the old woman a hint that her day's work is finally over.

Over the course of the next four lines, the old mother comments on the life of the young people around her, which is in stark contrast to her own. They have no work to do, but spend their lives in 'idleness'. They don't have to get up early like she does, staying in bed as long as they wish. All they have to worry about is whether the ribbons for their hair and their clothes match each other. It bothers these young girls if the wind merely blows a lock of hair (tress) out of place.

In the final two lines of the poem, the old mother returns to thoughts of how she has to spend her days: she repeats the word 'must', again leaving us in no doubt that her work is forced upon her. The very last line repeats the phrase 'seed of the fire' from line two, but here it appears to be used metaphorically. The fire is said to be growing weak and cold, but this in fact symbolises what is happening to the woman as her life nears its end.

There is no outpouring of emotion here, yet we can sense that the old mother feels a degree of injustice. Her own life is so hard whilst that of the young women, who surely have more energy than her, is so carefree.

Yeats uses rhyming couplets in this poem, which has a strong, regular rhythm. The repetitive routine of the old mother's day-to-day life is reflected in the regularity of the poem's rhyme and rhythm. It is a straightforward poem whose message, in the first person, comes over clearly with the use of contrast between the life of an old woman and that of the young girls she sees around her.

I rise in the dawn, and I kneel and blow

Till the seed of the fire flicker and glow;

And then I must scrub and bake and sweep

Till stars are beginning to blink and peep;

And the young lie long and dream in their bed

Of the matching of ribbons for bosom and head,

And their day goes over in idleness,

And they sigh if the wind lift but a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

William Butler Yeats


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