W William Butler Yeats

When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats’ poem ‘When You Are Old’  is directly addressed to his lover, most probably Maud Gonne who was an Irish revolutionary.

While W.B. Yeats did write political poems, this poem, ‘When You Are Old’ 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. 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.

 

Summary

‘When You Are Old’ reveals that the speaker viewed himself as a true lover, desperately hoping that his beloved might look into her future and imagine herself old and regretting having never returned his love.

Many see this poem as highlighting the unrequited love between the speaker, presumably Yeats, and his former lover. In this poem, 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.

 

Meaning

To gather the full meaning of ‘When You Are Old’, a reader must understand the love life of Yeats. For many years, he was in love with a beautiful actress, Maud Gonne. Gonne would not (or could not) return his love. This was a bitter rejection for Yeats, whose heart was set on her. This poem is addressed to her. Here, Yeats specifically refers to himself as “Love”. “Love”, then, is personified in the form of the author himself. Yeats addresses Gonne, asking her to think about herself at the end of her life when all of her fame and beauty has faded into memory (Dwyer). His words resonate with the masses because all people young or old can relate. Those enjoying their youth can stop and picture themselves when they have aged. The elderly can reminisce on the days of their youth.

 

Structure

The poem consists of three stanzas, each containing four lines. The rhyme scheme is very distinct and steady; the first stanza is abba; the second is cddc; the third is effe. Yeats uses this closed rhyming pattern for emphasizing the idea of each stanza. Additionally, there are a total of ten syllables in each line. The stress falls on the second syllable of each foot. Hence, Yeats wrote the poem in iambic pentameter. This, coupled with the steady rhyme scheme, lends a sing-song quality to the poem. Apart from that, the rising rhythm is used for depicting the passion that the speaker still has in his heart for his beloved. Besides, the stressed syllables consist of the important ideas in a line.

 

Literary Devices

While the work is relatively short, like any Yeats poem, it is jam-packed with imagery and other poetic devices. The poem begins with a metonymy. One can find this device in the usage of the word, “grey”. The second and third lines of the first stanza contain anaphora. Moreover, there is a repetition of “and” in this section. In “moments of glad grace” is a metaphor for youth and the flourishing period of one’s life. Thereafter, in “pilgrim soul” the poet uses a personal metaphor. In the last stanza of this poem, the poet uses irony. One can find this device in the last line. Besides, there is an alliteration in the phrase “hid his face” present in the same line.

 

Themes

This poem reveals several themes such as the reality of passing time, the brevity of life, and the importance of love. The most important theme of ‘When You Are Old’ is the passing of time. This theme of transience forms the basis of this poem. Here, the poet highlights the fact that how one’s youthful hours fade away with time. Time neither stops nor stoops for anybody. Hence, the lady who is wasting the lover’s time by not accepting his love will suffer badly for the absence of that person. Thereafter, the theme of the brevity of life is another important aspect of the poem. Here, Yeats shows the transition of a lady from her youth to old-age and how she is going to lament for the speaker. In this way, the poet also emphasizes the importance of love.

 

Analysis of When You Are Old

Stanza One

Lines 1–2

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

The first stanza of ‘When You Are Old’ reveals 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.

Moreover, the speaker is addressing his lover, asking her to think about her future, when she is “old and gray”. The description of the elderly lady paints a mental image of someone whose days are nearly over. Most people have known at least one person so elderly that they cannot stay awake for many hours in the day. The image of “nodding by the fire” causes the readers to grasp the reality of the effects of aging, and to realize that they too will be old one day and unable to stay awake. The speaker asks this person to picture herself as an old woman, and then to “take down this book”. The book, the speaker refers to is likely one of his writings to her.

 

Lines 3–4

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

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. Moreover, he tells her to read and to dream. He says to her, “dream of the soft look your eyes once had.” This allows the readers to understand that the person to whom the speaker addresses is a beautiful woman, with soft eyes. However, her youthful beauty is no more. Hence, the poet ironically hints at the fact that beauty cannot keep the body’s gradual erosion safe. Now, the speaker’s beloved has deep shadows around her eyes, symbolizing pessimism and depression.

 

Stanza Two

Lines 1–2

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

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 ‘When You Are Old’, 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.

Besides, in this stanza, the speaker continues to ask the woman to think about herself when she is old and nods off by the fire, but now he wants her to imagine herself old but thinking back upon her earlier years. This is an interesting mindset, to be thinking of herself as old, but remembering herself as she is in the present. He asks her to think about the many people who “loved [her] moments of glad grace”. The speaker then asks her to imagine herself as an old woman, thinking about her past lovers who “loved [her] beauty with love false or true”.

 

Lines 3–4

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

In the next line, the speaker changes tracks, referring to the speaker 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 the 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.

In this way, he makes a clear distinction between himself and all the others who have ever claimed to love her. He says, “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you”. This man he refers to is himself. He asks her to remember, when she is old, that one person, namely himself, loved the soul within her. He loved her for more than her beauty and her fame. He loved who she was deep inside. He then claims that he would have loved her even as her beauty faded. He would have “loved the sorrows of [her] changing face”. He vows to this woman that had she returned his love, he would have loved everything about her, even the way her face would age and change with time.

 

Stanza Three

Lines 1–2

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

With this stanza, the speaker reminds the woman that she is imagining herself as an old woman. The description of her “bending down beside the glowing bars” reminds the readers that she is picturing herself as an old woman sitting by the fire, reading a book written by the speaker. In the next line, the speaker describes the woman he speaks to as letting out a small, sad “murmur”. She is sad because of “how love fled”. This is the first hint that the speaker, Love, has left.

Moreover, here, the speaker 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 as a person would.

 

Lines 3–4

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

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.

His love has been left unrequited, and so he has fled “and paced upon the mountains overhead”. Finally, after continual rejection, Love “hid his face amid a crowd of stars”. Thus, the speaker is proclaiming to the woman he loves that her rejection of him has sent him running to the mountains. He claims that he has hidden his face.

The speaker wants this woman to regret losing him when she is old and her beauty has faded. He believes that when she is old she will truly regret having lost the one person who loved her soul. Thus, he is trying to get her to picture herself as an old woman before she gets there. If she does, perhaps there is a chance that she may change her mind and decide to return the love of the man who loves her soul and whose love will not fade as her beauty fades with age.

The tone of ‘When You Are Old’ 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

W.B. Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, and is one of the most celebrated poets in Irish history. Many of Yeats’ 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 her. However, he could not marry Gonne. She did not return his love. Perhaps she regretted it when she was old, perhaps not.

Gonne, it would appear, could not bring herself to return his love. Rather, she went on to marry a man, John McBride. It is reported that Yeats was less than fond of this man. Some years later, Gonne divorced McBride, and some have speculated that she and Yeats had a relationship after the divorce. They never married, so whether or not they had a love affair is mere speculation (Dwyer).

Many see ‘When You Are Old’ as a poem highlighting the failed relationship with Gonne. 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.

 

Similar Poetry

Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes and subject matter of W.B. Yeats’ poem, ‘When You Are Old’.

You can also read about the heartfelt depression poems and best poems on time.

Work Cited: Dwyer, Jim. “Yeats Meets the Digital Age, Full of Passionate Intensity.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 19 July 2008. Web. 06 June 2016.

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About
Jamie joined the Poem Analysis team back in November, 2010. He has a passion for poetry and enjoys analysing and providing interpretations for poetry from the past and present.
    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Surely that is a job for the other Tellytubbies?

  • Kathleen Avalone says:

    I read the line, “and paced upon the mountains overhead” as the author waited impatiently for his love to be reciprocated but finally gave up and was gone “amid a crowd of stars.”

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Yeah, that seems to fit.

  • alia ahmed says:

    what is the main theme of this poem

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Unrequited love and rejection.

  • I’m no literary expert, but it would appear that the rhyme scheme is ABBA, CDDC, EFFE.

    • Lee-James Bovey says:

      Very nice spot! We just do it to make sure you are paying attention, of course. Will amend now.

  • ms chippy says:

    I wonder if “the pilgrim soul in you” refers to Gonne’s revolutionary ideals; pilgrims make their pilgrimage journeys not only for religious, but also cultural and political causes.

  • >

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