‘The Scholars’ (1919)
William Butler Yeats
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.
All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?
‘The Scholars’ in its core is nothing more than a sophisticated taunt aimed at literary critics of Yeats’ time. The peculiar aspect of this poem is in its focus, which is not the uselessness of critique in general or a concrete person, whose comment hurt the author’s pride, but the irony surrounding the job of a critic.
Yeats depicts the overall discrepancy between the inflated self-importance of a critic and his miniscule personal achievements. While seeing themselves as the ultimate authorities in the world of literature, the god-like figures endowed with the power of either approving or destroying a poet, these scholars are, according to the author, rather miserable and bleak mediocrities in the real world. Creating an exaggerated image of them, (‘old bald heads’; ‘wear the carpet with their shoes’), Yeats calls them out for being superficial and hypocritical by contrasting their uneventful lives and the negative opinion they have regarding young poets who are at the very least experiencing something real.
In my personal opinion, calling this poem anything more grandiose than a simple tirade on critics (more than that, I am positive that those ‘old bald heads’, a synecdoche for a collective image of many people at once, are based on real people whose names are not mentioned since it would be a mauvais ton) would be an unnecessary mistake. I believe, Yeats himself would have never wanted the poem to be taken too seriously, since doing so is stepping over a dangerous line of calling critique pointless and implying that analysing and criticising is a right that no one has. ‘The Scholars’ is a lighthearted and elegant jibe on critics, but never a statement that being a critic is only possible when your life is full of wonders. All in all, I enjoyed the poem for what it was. That said, I am always going to disagree with someone who finds profound implications in it.