Table of Contents
“When You Are Old” is a beautiful love lyric. The lyric was composed in October 1891, amid W.B. Yeats’s unverifiable association with Maud Gonne who was an Anglo-Irish progressive, women activist, and on-screen character.
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 poet is writing this poem 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”. 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.
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. 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.
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 is reminding his lover of how many people once loved her “moments of glad grace.” The speaker refers directly to his muse’s beauty, writing. 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.
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. 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”.
The speaker then changes tracks, referring to the speaker who “loved the pilgrim soul in you,” probably referencing himself. The speaker is accusing his former beloved of 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. He makes a clear distinction between himself and all the others who have ever claimed to love 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.
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.
The speaker reminds the woman that she is imagining herself as an old woman. She is sad because of “how love fled”. Moreover, 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…” The old woman bending closer to the fire, remembering—and regretting–how the love she once had from the speaker ran away.
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 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. He 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 poet uses the time frames of past, present, and future very effectively. The poet sees the future when he is already dead. He imagines that his lover had become an old woman, full of grey hair and sleepy eyes, sitting in front of the fireplace. So, he asks her to take up the book of poems he had written and read it slowly and dream of the soft look that her eyes had once.
He asks her to remember the many men who loved her for her beauty and grace and also to remember him, the poet because he was the only one who loved her with all his soul. By the time the lady realizes that the poet is the only man who loved her truly, he would have passed away into another world.