Published in 1893, When You Are Old by W. B. Yeats is a poem that engages with the themes of love, and regret. The speaker loves the person they are addressing, and the addressee is expected to regret the decisions of their youth in their old age. This poem is assumed to be written by Yeats to Maud Gonne, a revolutionary he loved, who had rejected his proposals thrice.
This is a 12 line poem, broken up into 3 quatrains. The rhyme scheme is ABBA, so the first and fourth line of each stanza rhyme, and the second and third line rhyme. This is also known as an enclosing rhyme.
Analysis of When You Are Old
When You Are Old | Analysis, Lines 1-4
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 telling the listener to think ahead and see what their old age would bring. When they are old, and tired, sitting alone by the fireplace, they should take down a book and remember the softness they had in their youth and the depth of their soul.
“This book” implies that it is a very specific book, and could mean the very book in which this poem has been published. “Full of sleep” shows us that in their old age, they will be tired but also this phrase implies that they are close to death.
When You Are Old | Analysis, Lines 5-8
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 that state, the listener will remember how many people loved them, though the love may have been fleeting or disingenuous. The people loved their happiness and elegance and paid attention to their beauty. They were loved by many in their youth because of their looks, but this love may have just been superficial. Yet, there was one man, the speaker, who loved their wandering soul. The speaker loved their emotions and their changing face and did not just place value on their appearance. He says that this love was true, as it would not change depending on how they looked and was value given to their character and their soul. This is where the poet expresses how deeply the speaker loved the one who rejected him.
“Pilgrim soul” could mean that in their youth, the listener was one who wandered and refuses to stay in one place for long, and hence they were not ready to make a long-term commitment to him. It could also mean a soul that has gone through a journey and had changed a lot. The speaker is trying to tell the listener that he loves them no matter how they look because he loves their soul.
The literary device alliteration is used in “glad grace”.
When You Are Old | Analysis, Lines 9-12
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.
Here, the speaker expects the addressee to feel regretful for what they left behind. As they bend down and look at the fire, they will remember, in sadness, how true love fled from them and hid away in the stars. The loneliness of old age is the image that the speaker is trying to portray for the listener, showing them the regret and sadness they will feel because they reject love. If the love that the speaker feels for the listener is cast aside, and he will flee from their life, and the listener will mourn the love they lost only years into the future.
Here, Love is personified. Love is represented as a being that can move of its own volition. Love will take flight and not look back. It will hide away from the listener as it has been rejected from their life. Their love will shroud his face among the stars, and the listener will realise what they have squandered only after it is too late.
In this poem, old age is represented very negatively. All the beauty and enjoyment is assumed to have been exhausted in their youth, and old age is portrayed to be grey, sad, sleepy, alone and regret-filled. The speaker is expressing that his love for them is not fleeting or false, because the value he places is not on the transient beauty, but the richness of soul and emotion.
This poem consists of the speaker trying to convince the listener that they will regret not accepting love in their youth, and asks them to look ahead to their old age when they will be alone and think about how they would regret letting go of true love that has come by them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Butler Yeats was born on 13 June 1865, in Ireland. In 1889, he published “The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems”, his first collection of poems. He is well known as a writer, poet and dramatist. His poems covered various themes like love, politics, aristocracy. nostalgia, and anarchy.
Some of his notable works are ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, ‘The Second Coming’ and ‘Easter, 1916’. W.B. Yeats is accepted as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. He was the recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
He died on 28 January 1939, in France. His epitaph is an excerpt from one of his final poems “Under Ben Bulben”.