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William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old"

Updated on April 19, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sketch of William Butler Yeats 1908

Source

Introduction and Text "When You Are Old"

William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old" is displayed in three riming quatrains with the scheme, ABBA, CDDC, EFFE. The speaker is addressing a loved one, yet he speaks from the stance of a suffering, unrequited lover. The poem is fashioned as a poem of subtle seduction.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey 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;

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;

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.

Reading of Y "When You Are Old"

Commentary

William Butler Yeats' "When You Are Old" is one of the poet's lyrics that qualifies as a love song without the usual Yeatsian political or modernist tinge.

First Quatrain: Unrequited Love

When you are old and grey 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 lamenting the love in his life that has remained unrequited. To the one who has rebuffed his offer of love he gives a command to read his future books that he is sure will be published—books that will contain the speaker's profession of love for the woman. The speaker wants the addressee, after she has become aged and "grey and full of sleep," to read his poems and think back on his love for her. He asks her to remember the "soft look / [Her] eyes had once," but he also wants her to remember "their shadows."

Those shadows alerted the speaker to the fact that his love for her would remain unfulfilled, especially because those shadows were "deep." The speaker emphasizes the physical condition of the addressee for "when [she] is old," she will be "grey," "full of sleep," and "nodding by the fire." All of these are weakened states that bemoan the lack of a partner. Although the speaker projects the poem into the future and imagines that the addressee will read it only in the future, he knows she will read it as a young woman, and he hopes she will reconsider her coolness toward him, accept his love, and not be "nodding by the fire" alone in the future but with him.

Second Quatrain: Loves the Real Person

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;

The speaker then refers to the situation that is galling him, that many more men than he have "love[d] [her] moments of glad grace," and they have also loved her beauty. But he establishes his uniqueness, again offering a hint of persuasion, by suggesting that he alone loves the real person she is. The speaker alone can "love the pilgrim soul" she is and, no doubt, will continue to be. Not only does he understand her because he loves her true self, but he also accepts and loves her when she is feeling moody; he loves "the sorrows of her changing face." He insists that he is the one who can accept her as she is. He loves her inner beauty as well as her outer beauty.

Third Quatrain: Imagining Rarified Love

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.

In the final quatrain, the speaker dramatizes the future moment when the addressee will be reading this heartfelt poem has addressed to her. She will experience sadness as she bends down to tend to the fire. He foretells that she will "murmur" in her melancholy that "Love fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars."

The woman would not honor the man by accepting his love when he offered it to her, and that love escaped like smoke that ascends and disperses into the rarified air. He asks her to imagine his rarefied love, and therefore the speaker himself, as he is slowly walking in the mountains where he seems to vanish among the "stars." The speaker wishes to have the woman experience sadness in the present for what he claims she will have lost in the future by not accepting his affection and love. He is sad that she will not reciprocate his affection, and he is dramatizing his feelings in an attempt to master them.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 22 months ago from U.S.A.

    Interestingly, after he gave up on the Gonnes, he married Georgie Hyde-Lees, and they had a happy marriage . . . so all's well that ends well.

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 22 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    Desperate, I would agree.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 22 months ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks for the comment, Stella. Yes, Yeats was pretty much full of himself. He was quite talented though and had a rather pleasant personality most of the time. He was shameless in his behavior regarding Maud Gonne--when after his final proposal, she refused to marry him, he proposed to her daughter. That always struck me as a rather desperate act.

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 22 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    I like the poem, but it sounds like Yeats is in love with himself. He seems to assume he is the best choice. It is clear she did not want his affection. Thanks, Stella

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