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 far above,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
--- William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats’ When You Are Old
It’s undeniable: William Butler Yeats wrote some of the most influential poems of the 20th Century. He tackled essential issues with unparalleled tenacity and deftness. Yeats imitated no one; he had no time for that, he was busy creating a new style to appropriately fit the volatile politics of his native Ireland, and the even more volatile politics of his own life. Yeats is most remembered for political poems, such as Easter, 1916, and prophetic poems, such as The Second Coming; When You Are Old is neither political nor prophetic. It fails to carry the historical significance or social relevance of many of Yeats’s poems, so why choose to recommend it for reading?
Appearing in 1892, When You Are Old is one of Yeats’s earliest poems. Three years prior to its publication, he met the fiery and beautiful Maud Gonne, and as he famously said “the troubles of my life began.” She was his one love, and yet she was unattainable. He proposed to her countless times, and yet she always turned him down. There always seems to be a “yet” in the discussion of Maud Gonne and W.B. Yeats. She married in 1903 and Yeats would go on to marry as well, yet she remained his ideal and a presence in his poetry. It’s fair to say Maud is the subject of When You Are Old, which makes the time line and interactions between Yeats and Maud all the more puzzling. How could she resist a man who wrote such an astonishing forecast of their love?
Yeats makes us, the readers, inhabit the body of his beloved for this poem. He writes “When you are old and grey and full of sleep,” not specifically intending each of us as an interchangeable “you” character in the poem. We are meant to feel and experience the poem from the perspective of his beloved (we’ll assume from here on out that the you is meant to be Maud Gonne). He intends to record the intricate delights of her beauty and presence; these are features to be celebrated throughout history and he knows the importance of sharing them with others. As is often the case with great poems, there’s a sequence of lines within this poem that completely floors me. I would argue that the second stanza of this poem represents the most romantic four lines in the history of poetry. Many have loved her, to varying degrees of purity, “But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you.” Damn, that is good. He makes a claim for the intensity and exceptionality of his love by indicating that he---and only he---sees the devotion, the sacred, and the holy in her. It’s a heavy case to make, and yet Yeats emphatically punctuates his point by telling that only he “loved the sorrows of your changing face.”The poem’s second stanza leaves us expecting an epic love to commence, but Yeats shocks us all when he completes the poem with the revelation that this love fled and “paced upon the mountains overhead / And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.” Earlier I mentioned that this poem is not prophetic, maybe I was wrong. Yeats, painfully so, envisions Maud Gonne’s future without him. Did he know so early in their relationship that they would never be together? I highly doubt it. After building up this love, he banishes it amongst the mountains and stars, purposefully out of reach. This ending makes the previous stanza, the metaphor of her “pilgrim soul,” all the more startling. I hope for his own sake that William Butler Yeats did not read this poem when he was old; to do so would be to set himself afire with regret.