When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats

Here is an analysis of William Butler Yeats’ poem When You Are Old, which is directly addressed to the speaker’s lover. Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, and is one of the most celebrated poets in Irish history. Many of his poems reflect the Irish spirit, but this poem concentrates more on the love he once shared with a woman. This woman is probably Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary who ended up marrying another man. Yeats himself would go on to marry, but many see When You Are Old as a poem highlighting the failed relationship with Gonne. After an initial read, many see this poem as one that is filled with love, but the last stanza is dark; the speaker is reminding his former mistress that their love did not last, and this is something she should regret for the rest of her life. While this is one of Yeats’ most popular poems, he wrote many others that were just as successful. As a result, he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923.


There are two analytical interpretations of this poem within this article. To read the second analysis, please scroll to the bottom of the article and click ‘Next’ or page 2.

When You Are Old Summary

This is a poem that many see as highlighting the unrequited love between the speaker, presumably Yeats, and his former lover. The speaker, talking directly to his muse, instructs her to open the book in which this poem can be found and to re-read it. While re-reading, she should recall how many people loved her for both true and false reasons, namely because of her beauty. The speaker goes on to tell the lover that there was one man, probably the speaker, who loved her completely. In the final stanza, the speaker tells his former lover that she should remember that this love did not last, and she should be filled with regret because of it.

 

Breakdown Analysis of When You Are Old

The poem is comprised of three stanzas, each containing four lines. The rhyme scheme is very distinct and steady; the first stanza is a b b a; the second is c d d c; the third is e f f e. Additionally, Yeats wrote the poem in iambic pentameter. This, coupled with the steady rhyme scheme, lends a sing-song quality to the poem. While the work is relatively short, like any Yeats poem, it is jam-packed with imagery and other poetic devices.

The first stanza opens the poem, revealing that our speaker is talking directly to his former lover. The first line reads: “When you are old and grey and full of sleep…” From this line, the reader can derive that he is writing this while his lover is still relatively young, but she should read this again when she is an old woman. The speaker has very specific instructions for his lover. Not only should she read the poem when she is “old and grey and full of sleep,” but also when she is “nodding by the fire,” according to the second line. In the third and fourth lines, the speaker tells his former beloved to “…dream of the soft look/Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep…”In conjunction with re-reading the poem, the lover should also remember the beauty she once possessed.

The second stanza is a continuation of the first, and this time, the speaker is reminding his lover of how many people once loved her “moments of glad grace.” This line, the fifth in the poem, utilizes alliteration with “glad grace,” which further adds to the musical rhythm of the work. In the sixth line, the speaker refers directly to his muse’s beauty, writing, “And loved your beauty with love false or true…” He references the fact that many people loved the woman, but some of those people did not truly love her, perhaps only valuing her for her physical beauty. In the next line, the speaker changes tracks, referring to the one man who “loved the pilgrim soul in you,” probably referencing himself. Yeats’ diction here is worth contemplating, and much has been made of the phrase “pilgrim soul.” A pilgrim is one who travels for religious reasons, but it can also mean a person who wanders. Perhaps the speaker is accusing his former beloved as being a restless, fickle person, but he may also be referring to the woman’s constant wonder and intellect, or the fact that he was as devoted to her as a pilgrim is to his religion. However one interprets that line, it is safe to say that the speaker is telling his lover that he loved her to the very depths of her soul. The speaker takes this one step further in the final line of the stanza, telling his lover he also “…loved the sorrows of your changing face,” which means he loved her even when her beauty had started to fade and age.

The speaker then returns to when his lover becomes an old woman, telling her that she will be “…bending down beside the glowing bars,/Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled…” These first two lines of the third stanza depict the old woman bending closer to the fire, remembering—and regretting–how the love she once had from the speaker ran away. In the tenth line, Yeats utilizes personification by having love flee like a person would. In the last two lines, Yeats writes that after Love fled, he “…paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” The last line, “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars,” contains very beautiful imagery, as the reader imagines Love hiding between the stars in the heavens. Yeats seems to be telling his lover that while his love for her will always remain, she will be unable to reach it, as one is unable to reach into the heavens and pluck out a star. The tone of the poem changes with this last stanza. While the first two stanzas could be seen as romantic and positive, the loss of the speaker’s love in the third stanza drastically changes the tone, which has become full of regret.

 

Historical Context

While Yeats did write political poems, this is not one of them. However, it should be noted that Maud Gonne, like Yeats, was seen as a political figure in Ireland. Both were nationalists, and it was this passion, coupled with her undeniable beauty, that made Yeats fall in love with her. Yeats proposed to her numerous times, and each time he was denied. Both went on to marry other people, but the impact Gonne had on Yeats’ work is undeniable.

To view the next analysis of this poem, click ‘Next’ or page 2.

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7 Comments

  1. anonymous November 29, 2016
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