I’ve decided to create a series of videos showing genuine(ish!) responses to unseen poems at KS4. In this case, although I have seen this poem, I respond to it without planning, and show you some of the techniques that I would use.

Warning: typos abound!

It intends to balance formulaic responses with precise aspects of analysis. There are plenty of missed opportunities, which is sound enough for a genuine weekend-morning response…

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;
But the young lie long and dream in their bed          5
Of the matching of ribbons, the blue and the red,
And their day goes over in idleness,
And they sigh if the wind but lift up a tress.
While I must work, because I am old
And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold.

W – an old woman, little power, complaining about young, rigours of life.

R – Regular rhyme and regular rhythm: caesura.

I – Seed/lifting a tress

T – alliteration, monosyllabic verbs, onomatopoeia, punctuation to connect

E – weary, undermined, resigned

R – attacking young people


1) Global Idea – indicated by a productive language technique.

2) Development/intensification – of that idea

3) Resolution/or not of that global idea

Must Include:  alternative interpretations; structure and form as well – expectations.

How does Yeats present the life of the old woman in the poem, and what does techniques does he use to do so?

Yeats presents an image of an old lady both weary and resigned to spending the last moments of her life domestically caring for the young, presumably with an expectation that the opposite would be more ideal. The stark alliteration of the ‘fire flicker[ing]’ depicts her wizened lack of health and vitality, yet with a somewhat mystical quality as fire alludes passion and life. The perspective of the voice in the poem is distinctly prioritised by the poem opening with the pronoun ‘I’- while the poem bemoans the lack of action by the young in looking after the old, it is firmly rooted in one perspective only. In contrast to the musical language in the ‘fire’ image, the firm repetition of the monosyllabic verbs ‘scrub…bake…sweep’ amongst others evocatively underscores the tedium of the domestic responsibilities that the old woman must feel. Whilst a younger reader might see this as an attack on the idleness of the young, and therefore might adopt a somewhat defensive reading, those with responsibility for others might be more likely to see this as a defence of the rights of the old to a retirement of leisure.

This notion of the old desiring leisure is perhaps highlighted in the frivolous imagery of the young spending time ‘matching…ribbons’ in ‘bosom and head’. The juxtaposition of ‘bosom’ and ‘head’ suggests a balance of a full life both romantic (with feelings emphasised in the ‘bosom’) and scientific and intellectual (with experiences stemming from the ‘head). This idea, however, is only linked to the trivial appearance and concern of physicality in the ‘ribbons’. This imagery contrasts painfully with the mundanity of the previous monosyllabic actions of the old woman, and gives credence to the interpretation that this an envious attack on the young who should perhaps be spending more time and focus on allowing the old such time for leisure.

This attack, if it is indeed one, becomes more plaintive as the poem progresses. The final rhyming couplet of ‘old’ and ‘cold’ (the last in a line of regular rhymes and rhythm that probably reveals the underlying and unbroken routines of an Irish peasant), harshly depict the image of a life slowly dying. This image matches the ‘seed’ of the fire, which leaves any previously unsympathetic readers with an uneasy concept – the life of the old woman was perhaps unresolved, or still had creative endeavours and experiences left to be lived. Since a ‘seed’ has the purpose of creating life and newness, this image contrasts with the ‘cold[ness]’ of the final line to suggest that the old woman perhaps regrets a lack of creativity and leaving something worthwhile in her life. The expected religious ideology of the Irish peasantry in the early 20th Century would have supposedly prized the chance to live a life that would sacrifice more for a better afterlife – does this woman believe in the veracity of that idea?

Missed opportunities: Old ‘Mother’, not old Lady; linking ‘sweep’ and ‘fire’; linking the ‘song’ to a celebration, or not, of her life; Irish peasantry correct terminology for 20th Century?