The speaker paces around a classroom, looking at the schoolchildren. The nun says that what they learn in school is to read and to sing. They learn about history, sewing, and how to be neat “in a modern way.” The children stare at the speaker, an old politician.
He dreams of a Leda-like body bent over a fire in a domestic scene. She is telling a story of how a small interaction with a child turned its day to tragedy. Together, over the story, they share a great deal. Looking at the children, he wonders what she was like at their age. He sees her as a child and is mad with love.
Her current, gaunt image comes to mind. She once was pretty, but she is now comfortable and old. Did the speaker’s mother, when carrying him, know that seeing this woman would be enough compensation for her child’s birth? Plato thought nature to be imperfect; Aristotle contemplated the nature of things, as did Pythagoras...but these are all merely subjects for students to study.
Nuns and mothers adore images, but the mothers’ images are their children. The speaker questions life’s very location, wondering what part of a tree is the essence of the tree, what part of a dancer is a dancer, and which is the dance itself.
The subject matter of schoolchildren contrasts greatly with that of the earlier historical poems in this collection. Here is evidence of civil society, of progress, and of modernity - none of which were possible during the Anglo-Irish War or the Civil War. From this, and from the implication that the speaker is a senator (as Yeats was after 1924), one may deduce that this is a later poem, written from the standpoint of a more peaceful Ireland.
The children are poignant for the speaker because they are associated both with an obvious type of innocence and with the woman whom the speaker loves. By comparing her child self and her current incarnation, it is sharply evident to the speaker how she has aged. The imagined conversation between the two, in which she seems to be a schoolteacher rather than a revolutionary, is wishful thinking on his part. Yeats’ musings on whether it was destined that he should fall in love with this woman is related to “Leda and the Swan” in that it presupposes a series of events that must come to pass. The final stanza is a philosophical riddle concerning whether man acts or is acted upon, and serves as a connection to Yeats' uncertainty as to whether he loves or was destined to love.