His chosen comrades thought at school


This is an interesting poem by WB Yeats which seems to ponder on the purpose of life. The title, “What then?”, a question which is repeated in the final line of each of the four stanzas is a bit like the ‘So what?” question which challenges us to push beyond our comfortable preconceptions and views of the world.

What Then?

HIS chosen comrades thought at school
He must grow a famous man;
He thought the same and lived by rule,
All his twenties crammed with toil;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

Everything he wrote was read,
After certain years he won
Sufficient money for his need,
Friends that have been friends indeed;
‘What then?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘ What then?’

All his happier dreams came true —
A small old house, wife, daughter, son,
Grounds where plum and cabbage grew,
poets and Wits about him drew;
‘What then.?’ sang Plato’s ghost. ‘What then?’

The work is done,’ grown old he thought,
‘According to my boyish plan;
Let the fools rage, I swerved in naught,
Something to perfection brought’;
But louder sang that ghost, ‘What then?’

William Butler Yeats

From <http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-then/&gt;

Each of the four stanzas takes us through the stages of what looks like a successful and fulfilled life, by any standards. It begins with a young man identified by his peers as likely to do well, and who actually works and studies hard in his teens and twenties to be well-prepared. The second stanza recounts the fulfilment of this potential – recognition for his work, high earnings and lasting friendships. In the third stanza, he gets a family and a nice house with garden. And in the fourth stanza, as an old man, he looks back and realizes he has achieved all he set out to and lived his life to perfection.

And yet, there is a ghost lurking over his shoulder and asking at every juncture, “What then?” is this the human capacity for self-doubt and dissatisfaction, even in the face of such lifelong achievement? Maybe so, but that seems to be belied by the last stanza in which the man looks back with pride and acknowledgement of all he has done. Or is it the poet hinting that there are other, perhaps more spiritual aspects to life, which have been neglected by the pursuit of worldly success?

The Poetry Dude


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