Saturday, April 5, 2008

William Butler Yeats - 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.


Amanda said...

Matt- I found that list of your favorite poems and I wrote them down. I googled each one and took a look at it a few weeks ago, when I was looking for anything to do besides reading for class. I have to say, this was my favorite on your list of favorite poems. Something about this one inspired me to print it, cut it out and put it on the bulletin board in my room. Thanks for introducing me to a beautiful work of art!:)

Mark's Blog 2.0 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark's Blog 2.0 said...

This comment may seem strange, but I am compelled to try to reach you.

One of my second semester college composition students was to write an essay about Yeats' poem, "When You Are Old." The student found your site and took large passages from your reflections on the poem. The student DOES supply a list of references (your website and the URL for the Wikipedia article which also reflects extremely long passages taken nearly verbatim.

What would you want me to say to this student about the way you work was used? Please feel free to email me at .

Many of us in academia are struggling: on one hand, we are extremely excited and thankful that students are getting engaged with our subject matter through the students' interest in web 2.0 technology. On the other hand, students seem to struggle with (a) the ethical issues involved and (b) with the critical thinking we are asking them to do.

Any suggestions/advice from someone who has had his work plagiarized would be greatly appreciated!

Unknown said...

I remembered a touching poem in Chinese translation and found it finally in internet. It is this poem. Then I was curious to know if this one is also loved by English readers and being pleased to find your comment. Agree with you this poem is great. But when I first read it, I thought "you" could be the poet himself as well. "You" is also us, whoever has a soul and who desire to be loved in the way described in the poem. That's why we feel this poem is touching and sadly touching.

Anonymous said...

Great analysis. Yeats certainly was an outstanding poet. I love the way he can convey a whole story in a poem, like he does in "Leda and the Swan" for instance. But this love poem is something completely different. With very romantic elements, especially that of impossible, unattainable love, it transmits the feeling of longing for what we can never have but being at peace with it at the same time.
Thank you for sharing.

Sam said...

In the "mountains overhead" section, Yeats could also be speaking of the heavens, as the stars are also commonly used to personify death and the heavens. "Hid his face amid a crowd of stars" could be speaking of the speaker dying and watching her from heaven, as the poem is taking place in old age. Just a thought. I am analyzing this poem right now for my AP English class and I love it. Your information about Yeats love to Maude Gonne is very interesting and puts a very interesting spin on the poem.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it has to do with death as it says "When you are old" rather than Now. Suggesting its in their middle years so she can read upon it make a decision before she becomes old and regrets it.

TheVoicesProject said...

Check out this short film, inspired by 'When you are old and grey' and exploring the power of poetry and the experience of first love and regret:

Anonymous said...

To Matthew A Kaberline:
Damn, you're good.

Rohinton Moos said...

Hi Matt, I enjoyed your short essay. Actually, Maud was a "pilgrim", as she was an English girl who engaged in the Irish fight for Freedom, rode out mid-winter to resettle cottagers who were evicted by their English landlords, and was editor of the free Irish press. Yeats realized his love was unrequited but loved her never the less: Check out the SONGS I have posted on YOU TUBE > Rohinton Moos, and let me have your comments as to whether they do justice to the poems.

Ana said...

at the end, should it not read "and paced upon the mountains overhead"
Otherwise, lovely to find this.