Song of the old mother
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Song of the Old Mother. By W. B. Yeats. Each title of the poem contains a link to BBC Bitesize video reading of it. Themes: Age and youth The passage of time Life linked to nature Are there any others?. Key Terms: First Person Rhyming Couplets Contrast (juxtaposition) Repetition

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Song of the Old Mother

By W. B. Yeats

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Each title of the poem contains a link to BBC Bitesize video reading of it


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Themes:

Age and youth

The passage of time

Life linked to nature

Are there any others?

Key Terms:

First Person

Rhyming Couplets

Contrast (juxtaposition)

Repetition

Assonance

Alliteration

Metaphor

Song of the Old Mother

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William Butler Yeats

  • William Butler Yeats was born in Ireland in 1865.

  • His father and brother were famous painters, but Yeats concentrated on literature, poetry in particular

  • He was interested in History and Irish culture

  • He was also fascinated by the lower/working classes and “the old Mother” is certainly from this social sphere

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an old woman complaining of the idleness of the young

She gets up at dawn to light the fire, wash, prepare food and sweep up.

Who for? Her family or her employers?

Whose children are the young girls?

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

The thoughts of an old woman comparing her day of work to that of the idle young girls she sees

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The poem is in the first person, making it the personal and private (and therefore honest?) thoughts of the speaker.

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

The young sleep in and relax through their day thinking about unimportant things such as ribbons and their hair.

The ease of their lives is in contrast to (juxtaposes) the difficulty of the old woman’s life

She spends all day working from when the fire is built to when it dies. This implies the constant repetitive nature of the mother’s life. The repetition of the ‘seeds’ metaphor stresses the circular nature of her day

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Most lines are ten syllables long private (and therefore honest?) thoughts of the speaker.

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

The poem is almost a square; roughly ten by ten.

It has been suggested that this may represent the rigidity and regularity of her day

Ten lines

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Simple rhyme scheme reflects childish nursery rhymes. Could this be ironic as it is childhood that the mother is both criticising and jealous of?

Rhyming couplets: AA,BB,CC,DD,EE

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

A

A

B

B

C

C

D

D

E

E

The poem starts and ends with a half-rhyme (‘blow’ and ‘cold’) once again stressing the circular, regular nature of her daily life

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Language is simple, mostly mono-syllabic which links to the simple life of the mother and the simplicity of the tasks she must undertake

Repeated structure again emphasises the repetitive nature of the work

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

Line 2 and 10 mirror one another. What does this emphasise?

Stress pattern emphasises the physical, difficult nature of the work

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‘seed’ may refer to children; where are the mother’s children? Grown up? Are they the idle young girls?

The alliteration of the ‘l’ sounds stresses the laziness in which the girls spend their days

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

The fire is a metaphor for life. The mother’s life starts in the morning with the building of the fire.

The fire becomes ‘feeble and cold’ in much the same way as the mother is becoming feeble and old

Soft rhyme emphases the ease of the days for the young girls

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Stars may link to fire, burning in the sky and governing the mother’s day

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

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What is the tone/mood of the poem? How should it be read? mother’s day

The Song of the Old Mother

'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 but lift a tress:

While I must work because I am old,

And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.'

Bitterly, as if the old woman is angry that her life has been so hard compared to the lives of the young women?

Wishing, regretful, as if the old woman wishes she could be like the young women?

Sadly and resignedly, as if the old woman regrets that her life has been like this but knows she never had the option of changing it?

How would it be read if the girls are her children?

How if they’re not?

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Comparison mother’s day

  • Catrin Clarke

  • Both poems use the voice of the Mother, but...

  • Yeats has imagined a fictional person, while in Catrin it is Clarke's own voice describing a real relationship with her child.

  • Both poems deal with feelings of conflict between the generations, which in Catrin is seen as normal and joyous: "From the heart's pool that old rope .. trailing love and conflict".

  • The Clarke poem is much freer in form than The Song.

  • Does this difference suggest anything about how the two poems see motherhood?

  • Digging Heaney

  • Both poems are written in the 1st person, but ...

  • Heaney writes about his own father, while Yeats writes about an imaginary Mother.

  • Like Yeats, Heaney emphasises the hard working life of that generation: his father is digging, straining and heaving.

  • Heaney's poem is very affectionate, showing his love for his father. The Mother in contrast is resentful of the young.

Can you think of any other possible comparisons?

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Review task mother’s day

  • Note down the poet’s attitudes in the poem towards the old mother. Match them with the points below

“I must work because I’m old” line 9

To what extent do you agree with this statement?

Is it still relevant and true today?

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  • The old woman's day is very regimented. The strong, regular rhythm throughout the poem indicates both the sameness of her days and the monotony of what she has to do.

  • Her work is very physical. She uses strong, plain-sounding verbs to describe her work: kneel, blow, scrub, bake, sweep, which contrasts to the light, airy verbs applied to the young: lie, dream, sigh.

  • She uses childish language when she personifies the stars to blink and peep. Maybe this is because the appearance of the stars is a chance for her to relax at last and escape the rigours of her day.

  • She seems jealous of the young. She compares her life of work to their lives of idleness: the young women with nothing more to fill their days than worry about their ribbons.

  • Is the old woman mocking the young who have nothing more to complain about than the wind disarranging their hair OR is she quietly regretful, wishing that she has no more to worry about than they do?

  • It is sad that she has to work because she is old: we wonder what happened to her when she was younger to make hard work a necessity for her now. It is poignant that she does not seem to question her lot.

  • The last line shows the old woman's real feelings. The fire she refers to is her own life - and it is getting feeble and cold. This suggests that she does not have long left to live: her fire will soon go out.

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