Bald heads forgetful of their sins, Old, learned, respectable bald heads Edit and annotate the lines That young men, tossing on their beds, Rhymed out in love’s despair To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear. All shuffle there; all cough in ink; All wear the carpet with their shoes; All think what other people think; All know the man their neighbour knows. Lord, what would they say Did their Catullus walk that way?
The speaker is trying to create a contrast between the behavior of the scholars and young poets. The scholars are always described as “bald heads” who are “forgetful of their sins” implying that they are old and tend to forget things. Yeats describes them as “edit(ing) and annotate(ing)” their lines always in the process of improving their bland work.
The speaker is referring to the young poets as “young men”, creating a contrast by always calling the scholars as heads never with a body so as to describe them as intellectuals. “That young men, tossing on their beds / Rhymed out in love’s despair”, these young poets are described with a body suggesting that they have more of a life than the “bald heads”. They are living and enjoying every moment, tossing and turning at night probably because of a heart break from the day before. They are always trying to “flatter beauty”, though most of them don’t seem to listen to them as suggested by “beauty’s ignorant ear”.
Even though he has created a contrast between the scholars and the young poets, they are very similar in a lot of ways. They all hurry around to get to places, “all cough in ink” suggests that all are constantly writing something, “All think what other people think”. Thus young and old, both have a similar way of thinking and all know each other.
In the end Yeats poses a question, “Lord, what would they say / Did their Catullus walk that way?”. He means to ask what would happen if a great Roman poet like Catullus was like the scholars described by Yeats. I believe that by studying the literature, we can appreciate and understand the artistic expression but people like scholars in this poem are more concerned about their final work and hence they keep on editing their work and create an artificial work. There is passion and feelings attached to raw poetry and we should appreciate that instead of creating artificial work.