A Poem for Those Feeling Dragged Down

We are at that time of the semester when I have no idea how I will complete all the work before me.  My students are feeling the same way and like to point out that, if I were to drop the final assignment, we would all have an easier time of it.  William Butler Yeats understands what we are going through.

His poem “The Fascination of What’s Difficult” appeared in an e-mail message last week, courtesy of my English colleague Donna Richardson.  The purported subject is running a theater but it applies as well to teaching a literature class or, indeed, to any work that we once excitedly took up.  As Yeats complains, all the effort “has dried the sap out of my veins and rent/Spontaneous joy and natural content/Out of my heart.”

Donna informs me that Yeats wrote the poem in the early 20th century at a time when he was switching from “escapist aesthetic contemplations of the ideal”—he was enchanted with the Irish fairy world (the Sidhe)—to “grounding that ideal in the real world,” whether through Irish politics or theater management.  Donna adds, paralleling Yeats’s work with our own, that “trying to make an ideal work in the real world is messy and irritating.” It’s more fun to write plays and contemplate literature, she says, than to run the Abbey Theater or make a literature class work.

As the year winds down, I’m sure you have your own versions of dragging road-metal and handling tasks “that have to be set up in fifty ways.” Does the colt within you long to burst through the stable door and escape amongst the clouds?

Then again, Yeats also acknowledges that there’s something fascinating about all the hard work. Keep it mind that it deepens us and remember that we’ve survived in the past and will probably do so again. Yeats lightens our load simply by providing us with a poem that acknowledges how exhausted we all are.

Here it is:

The Fascination Of What’s Difficult

By William Butler Yeats

The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins, and rent
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart. There’s something ails our colt
That must, as if it had not holy blood
Nor on Olympus leaped from cloud to cloud,
Shiver under the lash, strain, sweat and jolt
As though it dragged road-metal. My curse on plays
That have to be set up in fifty ways,
On the day’s war with every knave and dolt,
Theatre business, management of men.
I swear before the dawn comes round again
I’ll find the stable and pull out the bolt.


Thanks to one of my readers, I now know that the illustration is by Kaziah Hancock.  Check out her remarkable website at www.kaziahthegoatwoman.com.

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  • I agree with Yeats. Grounding is hard. I’d much rather be flying on the clouds, as the colt which has had that experience. But I know that I am not only of air, but also of earth. Planting my feet firmly on soil while at the same time reaching my fingertips into the clouds is challenging. I can only hope that the setting of roots deep allows more sap to flow in the spring!

  • I needed this today, 42 sonnet explications into the pile of 122. I love reading them, but I hate grading them. Spoils whatever fun and imagination went into the essay, I think. But we shall prevail. Thanks.

  • farida

    Robin, just wondering who is the painting by? I enjoy the art you put with the posts. That painting tells the story of a pretty weary teacher… it reminded me of an English woman who taught maths to my mother and one of my sisters..God rest her soul.

  • Mr. Bates,

    Brilliant indeed, this recalls to mind, of the parable of Jesus, on planting seeds in good soil.. Some will bloom from all of your hard work, I know I do, and I am way out here… Your site, is a home away from home to me… There is always time for tea Sir, always…

    Good Day…

  • Robin Bates

    Sue, I hope to God I don’t have to wait for the spring for the sap to start flowing again. Healigan, I feel your pain–yes, it’s the grading that is particularly draining. I’ve learned that I’ve got to make assignments where there is something at stake for the writers–nothing drains like someone doing a paper as though they’re just jumping through hoops. I’ve been searching for the name of the painter, Farida, because I’m riveted by the image. It captures how I feel at the moment. To use John’s image, I keep telling myself I’m throwing seeds and hoping they’re not landing on hard ground or among the thistles. Yes, John, it’s good to remember to have a good cup of tea at hand when I’m grading. Thanks for the reminder.

  • 4 sets of papers to grade (choke) , with the obligatory c/c (choke) and evaluation of eras (choke b/c of the students’ struggle with these)…May attitude in October, building speed and currently December…I need to dance with Macbeth and wrestle with the brothers Grimm for some fun. This poem and picture suits me too well right now. Instead of grading this weekend, I cut snowflakes to hang on curtains and walls: my colt broke out, but it’s Monday now.

  • Robin Bates

    I love the idea of cutting snowflakes to hold on to one’s sanity, Nicole. But then, as you say, Monday comes and you are back (to quote another Yeats poem) in the rag and bone shop of the heart.

  • Katja

    Farida and Robin, the author of the painting is Kaziah Hancock, the “Goat Woman.” Her website: http://www.kaziahthegoatwoman.com/

    The painting is part of a series of work force portraits titled _Unsung Workers_: http://www.kaziahthegoatwoman.com/unsung_workers.html

  • Mary Jo

    My daughter is a freshman in college and is struggling with the decision whether to drop a class that has proven a real struggle. She could probably muddle through it and make a C, but it is humiliating for her, and as she says “…is not how college should be…why should I waste any of my precious four years in a class that is killing my spirit?!” A bit melodramatic perhaps, but none less real for the one that is suffering through it. As I tired to gently counsel her through her options, a phrase kept running through my head…’the virtue of doing what’s difficult…the value of doing what’s difficult’…etc….I just couldn’t grasp the exact phrase that seemed so familiar yet eluded me. My former classmate Jennifer Micheal suggested it might be Yeats, which I realized immediately, having read the poem many times. I googled the poem and up popped your blog. Of course, your title “A Poem for Those Feeling Dragged Down” was too fitting to resist, so here I am. I am going to send my daughter the poem and your post tonight, if for no other reason than that misery loves company!
    By the way, I was a student of your father’s…took my last required French class from him the summer or 1986, We began class every day at 8am singing La Marseillaise. It was great, as was he. I was saddened to learn of his death this past summer and know he is missed. I look forward to following your blog.

  • Robin Bates

    How wonderful to get this note, Mary Jo, and how wonderful that you had my father for a teacher. And that you were a classmate of Jennifer’s. It’s often unclear when to drop a course and when to hang in there. I tell my own students who are weighing their options that the first semester is usually the most difficult since, after all, they are often juggling roommate situations, homesickness, unstructured time, and various temptations in addition to courses that are more difficult than they encountered in high school. A number of times I have counseled students to drop a course during the first semester for that reason. But first, I always suggest that they go talk to the teacher and also find out if there are student tutors they can go to. If college is about initiating students into disciplinary discourse, then sometimes what initially is hard becomes second nature to them afterwards. Sometimes good things happen as a result. After all, Yeats’ wonderful poem is the result of his struggle, as is the related poem “The Circus Animals Desertion” (where he feels he has lost the magic). Then again, sometimes students get a bad teacher or are taking a course they are just not ready for. For them, I’m glad they have the drop option, which I did not have when I was in college.

    I’d love to hear what decision she makes. And in some ways, you have an equally tough job–being a sympathetic ear while leaving the decision up to her.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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