Friday, July 22, 2011

A Dyslexic Poet -- William Butler Yeats

Recently, I was rereading the profile of William Butler Yeats from In the Mind’s Eye. I was reminded of what an interesting man he was -- and how much his story can teach us, even now. Below, I have inserted a section from that profile.

In the absence of basic knowledge of how to deal with dyslexia, several courses of action are possible. Both Faraday and Edison dropped out of school and were educated by their mothers, more or less--later taking personal responsibility for their own extensive self-education. Einstein's relationship with the conventional school system alternated between grudging toleration and active resistance, until he too dropped out, but at a much later and more risky stage; fortunately, his experience at the unusual progressive school at Aarau allowed him to get back on track, to some extent, reviving his serious interest in his studies and allowing him to pass his university entrance exams on his second attempt. Patton was tutored at home until he was ready to enter the conventional stream. Churchill limped through the conventional upper-class educational system, but his real education does not seem to have begun until he started his own self-study program as a young adult, while stationed with the British Army in India.

In the time of Yeats, Churchill, Patton and Einstein, in contrast to the time of Faraday, school systems had become more pervasive and it had become increasingly difficult to skirt the conventional system without severe consequences. In the face of the squeeze of conventional and universal educational methods, Yeats seems to have accidentally found himself in an acceptable and helpful alternate route:  stay in less demanding institutions until one's special abilities have begun to mature. During the early years in London, Yeats may have, in fact, been better off at a school that was less challenging, at least initially, in order to give him time to develop at his own pace and in his own way.

Parents and teachers may fault schools for not teaching certain skills at the expected ages. In most cases of learning difficulties, the best strategy seems clearly to be early identification and remediation. But in some cases, where delayed maturity in some specific area is a major factor,  it may be best to take the pressure off and merely wait for a while. In these cases, it may be that too much pressure on remediation of certain skills, too early, is not only wasteful but destructive, especially when the pressure comes from a heavy-handed classroom teacher rather than a specially trained tutor.

After the move from Ireland to London, Yeats' first school was run by a clergyman who was more concerned with gentility and athletics than scholarship. Regarding one student who was poor in Greek but good in cricket, Yeats explains that the head master would comment: “Oh, leave him alone.” As for Yeats himself:

“I was unfitted for school work, and though I would often work well for weeks together, I had to give the whole evening to one lesson if I was to know it. My thoughts were a great excitement, but when I tried to do anything with them, it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind. I was always near the bottom of my class, and always making excuses that but added to my timidity; but no master was rough with me. I was known to collect moths and butterflies and to get into no worse mischief than hiding now and again an old tailless white rat in my coat-pocket or my desk.”

One suspects that sometimes it may be better to let some things slide, at least for a while (but always trying to make progress in certain areas of strength).  If the neurologists are correct about the possible advantages of delayed maturation and the process of gradually learning to “guess” better based on greater life experience (among other things), then it would appear that the dyslexic (and those more or less like them) could sometimes use to advantage plenty of extra time. That is, if maturation really is a major factor in the course of development for the gifted dyslexic (with or without identification and remediation), then perhaps the first best guide is to be patient and make educational arrangements that do the least damage to the child's self-concept while ensuring that high-quality content is provided in any way possible--until the late bloomer is suddenly ready to take off, racing past many of his peers.

Yeat's recurrent reference to his active mind is accompanied in the above passage by an apt and powerful metaphor, as one might expect--“it was like trying to pack a balloon in a shed in a high wind.” It is also notable that he described himself as near the bottom of his class--and that he chose to use a small animal for distraction in class exactly as Susan Hampshire had done as a student. In varied times and varied situations, the incidental similarities between the people we are considering can be quite striking.

The advantages of the earlier (less demanding) school may be more apparent in comparison with his later school experience. At 15 years of age, Yeats went to a new school at Harcourt Street in London which was much more difficult and demanding than his previous London school had been. He explains:

“I had not thought it possible that boys could work so hard. . . .  Even had I never opened a book not in the school course, I could not have learned a quarter of my night's work. I had always done Euclid easily, making the problems out while the other boys were blundering at the blackboard, and it carried me from the bottom to the top of the class; but these boys [at the Harcourt Street school] had the same natural gift and instead of being in the fourth or fifth book were in the modern books at the end of the primer; and in place of a dozen lines of Virgil with a dictionary, I was expected to learn with the help of a crib a hundred and fifty lines. The other boys were able to learn the translation off, and to remember what words of Latin and English corresponded with one another, but I,  .  .  .  made ridiculous mistakes; and what could I, who never worked when I was not interested, do with a history lesson that was but a column of seventy dates? I was worst of all at literature, for we read Shakespeare for his grammar exclusively.”

The irony is poignant.  But the work was unrelenting. He learned his Latin lesson well once and then he was chided for not knowing it all the time. “No one knew that I had learnt it in the terror that alone could check my wandering mind.”

A curriculum more ill-designed for Yeats'  kind of mind can scarcely be imagined. All of the subject matter seems to have been converted into cold data to be memorized (where those with skill only in memory could still shine), while Yeats' areas of interest and strength, whether literature or history, were transformed into further frigid and lifeless difficulties.

Even his skill in geometry, the touchstone for so many of our visual thinkers with learning difficulties, was discounted for Yeats, not only by his school and peers, but also by his own otherwise supportive father: “ ‘Euclid,’ he would say, ‘is too easy. It comes naturally to the literary imagination.  .  .  .’ ” In spite of this, Yeats' interest in geometric concepts persisted in curious ways in his subsequent creative work. This interest also provides a glimpse at his propensity for a curious form of visual thinking in this later work.

For example, one of the dominant images he used in some of his most admired later poems was that of the “gyres.” These were seen as two cones or vortices, one inverted inside the other, so that each vortex, according to Yeats’ description, formed “from itself an opposing vortex, the apex of each vortex in the middle of the other's base. . . .”  This visual image was used to embody the basic concept of generalized inverse proportion or reciprocal action--that is, in various aspects of life and nature, as one thing increases, another diminishes, and vice versa.

Thus, curiously, the poet draws on deep mathematical concepts to find  patterns to shape his poetry. Thus, one of Yeats’ most important images is a kind of three-dimensional geometric model, one which entails a form of conic sectioning--where any moment in time is a slice through the two cones (perpendicular to the axis of rotation), giving two circles, one increasing in area as the other decreases in area over time--as one circle shrinks to a point and another point expands to an ever larger circle.

So, we have come full circuit. Earlier, we considered visual-thinking scientists, mathematicians and inventors who thought in analogies and images like a poet. In Yeats, we see a poet who repeatedly uses major images and archetypal analogies that are in effect three-dimensional geometric models--essentially mathematical patterns in their conception and application.

Eventually, Yeats, like so many dyslexics, had to make the best of his very limited academic and professional options. And also like so many dyslexics, he chose to pretend to his parents that his decisions were more a matter of personal preference than bitter necessity. (After all, the appearance of being in control is really quite important.) Thus, when Yeats told his father that he would not go to Trinity College Dublin as three generations had before him, he preferred to have it seen as self-assertion or rebellion--but he confided: “I did not tell him that neither my classics nor my mathematics were good enough for any examination.”

Yeats went on to arts college because he had few other options. Yet, unlike his more conventionally successful peers, he was driven on by an unflagging, childlike enthusiasm and a relentless passion. Yeats never did learn many of his “basics.” He probably never would have done well on anyone's examinations of achievement. However, in time, he became the leading poet in the Irish Literary Renaissance and the central playwright in the establishment of the Irish National Theater. He made extensive use of traditional Irish legends and tales, but he never could learn to speak Gaelic. He had hated studying history as it was taught but became a major figure in the making of history and sat as a Senator in the new Irish Parliament. He followed his father's advice and did not concern himself with making money, yet he directed the committee that selected the designs for the distinctive coin series of the new Irish state. He was slow to read. Yet, in time, he learned to compose a distinctive and musical verse that is still among the most widely read English poetry of this century. He never became anything like a scholar. Yet, in time, his work would be recognized by a Nobel Prize for Literature and hundreds of scholarly books would be written about his life and works. In time, he learned to write. But he never learned to spell.


  1. This is a fascinating piece, and really lends hope to those who struggle with traditional schooling, that their unique skills and abilities may be better appreciated in more apt settings. You make the very important point, that early on in the educational process building the child's self-esteem is more important than drilling them with rote learning and trivia; this is true when teaching any student, but especially true when teaching students with dyslexia

  2. I am amazed how significant a role Euclidian Geometry has played in my life and apparently in the lives of my fellow dyslexics. Geometry was about the only bright light in the dismal years I spent in high school.
    I wish to take this opportunity to thank you for the time and effort that you made in writing “In the Minds Eye”. I have punchiest extra copies to hand out in an attempt to increase the knowledge and interest in dyslexia.

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