When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats

An Alternative Analysis

In order to gather the full meaning of When You Are Old, a reader must understand the love life of William Butler Yeats. For many years, Yeats was in love with a beautiful actress by the name of Maude 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 address to Gonne, and 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. When You Are Old reveals the reality of passing time, the brevity of life, and the importance of love.


When You Are Old Analysis

Stanza 1

When you are old and gray and full of sleep
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

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 own writings to her. 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.


Stanza 2

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.

In this stanza, the speaker continues to ask the woman to think about herself when she is old and nodding 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”. Then he makes a clear distinction between himself and all the others who have ever claimed to lover 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 3

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

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. 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 hid 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 actually gets there. If she does, perhaps there is a chance that she may change her mind and decide to return the love of the one man who loves her soul and whose love will not fade as her beauty fades with age.


William Butler Yeats Background

William Butler Yeats never did marry Maude Gonne. She did not return his love. Perhaps she did regret it when she was old, perhaps not. Nonetheless, this poem reveals that the speaker viewed himself as her one true lover, and desperately hoped that he could get her to look into her future and imagine herself old and regretting having never returned his love. 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).

Works 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.

To view the previous analysis of this poem, click ‘Previous’ or page 1.

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  • Avatar 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 Lee-James Bovey says:

      Yeah, that seems to fit.

  • Avatar alia ahmed says:

    what is the main theme of this poem

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      Unrequited love and rejection.

  • Avatar ACG says:

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

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

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

  • Avatar 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.

  • Avatar hi says:

    hi aninymous

  • Avatar anonymous says:

    This is very helpful for my poetry explication thank you!

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