The first four stations or stanzas of the poem begin with Roman numerals,
informing the reader that the poem will appear in stages, seemingly starting anew
after each stanza.
The poem, following octava rima form, has eight stanzas, with each stanza consisting of eight lines of verse. Each stanza contains a unit of six lines followed by a unit of two lines, giving the poem an ABABABCC form.
I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and history,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way - the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.
I dream of a Ledaean body, bent
Above a sinking fire. A tale that she
Told of a harsh reproof, or trivial event
That changed some childish day to tragedy -
Told, and it seemed that our two natures blent
Into a sphere from youthful sympathy,
Or else, to alter Plato's parable,
Into the yolk and white of the one shell.
And thinking of that fit of grief or rage
I look upon one child or tother there
And wonder if she stood so at that age -
For even daughters of the swan can share
Something of every paddlers heritage -
And had that colour upon cheek or hair,
And thereupon my heart is driven wild:
She stands before me as a living child.
He envisions his beloved as a type of Mary Magdalene. Yeats evokes a figure similar to Donatellos 15th century emaciated, ravaged Magdalene.
Her present image floats into the mind -
Did Quattrocento finger fashion it
Hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind
And took a mess of shadows for its meat?
And I though never of Ledaean kind
Had pretty plumage once - enough of that,
Better to smile on all that smile, and show
There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.
Yeats returns from his dream to the classroom, smiling upon the students and choosing
for himself the role of the smiling old scarecrow.
Yeats completes the diptych: once possessing pretty plumage, he is now a sixty-year-old scarecrow; she, once a living child, now is a time-ravaged woman.