There have been many poems written by many great poets including Shakespeare about the effects of time on us, both physically and mentally. But none of those poems do what the poem “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats does.
While all the other poems put the time in the first place, making it the ravaging destroyer of everything we hold dear, Yeats presents the idea of time and its effect in a very soft and melancholic way.
There is so much pain in this poem, not just in the speaker but also for the person for whom the poem is written. Let’s take a look at the poem and then try to understand what Yeats is trying to say and why.
When You Are Old by W.B Yeats
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. -William Butler Yeats
Meaning and Analysis of “When You Are Old”
A quick read will let you know that this poem is about love, age, and the persistence of beauty and the love that comes tethered to it. It talks about the fleeting nature of beauty and the false love that it brings.
Love based totally on the appearance of someone is false and will fizzle out the moment beauty starts to fade. And beauty will fade. The great distorter “Time” takes away everything, even the beautiful features of the most beautiful face.
But this is the central idea of the poem. The narrative is different here. The poet, Yeats, is telling someone about the ravaging nature of time and the fleeting persistence of beauty. But why?
Yeats is telling it to a woman, a woman he loved but she did not reciprocate the feeling. Perhaps because she was swarmed by other suitors who would love her for her beauty, albeit insincerely.
The poem is said to be for the famous Irish Nationalist and actress Maud Gonne. Yeats was infatuated with her, but she was not very impressed by the poet. This poem is one of many written by Yeats for Gonne.
Let’s analyze the poem stanza-by-stanza and find more detail about the meaning of the poem.
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 first stanza is the poet telling the woman that when she has turned old and weak and perhaps alone, she would take a look at this very poem in some book and read it, and she will start to think something.
Readers can see that the woman is not in a good phase of her life. Her youth has fled and she could only dream of the soft look and deep shadows her eyes had years ago. This poem will take her back to the past.
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 second stanza is the most important and impactful stanza of all. It is where the entire theme and message of the poem are given. And it is done so melancholically but in a beautiful way.
Many people loved this woman’s “moments of glad grace.” Her beauty was only momentary, destined to shine but doomed to last only a few years. That fleeting quality was the reason many people loved her.
But there was only one man who loved the “pilgrim” soul in her. That man was Yeats, the poet himself. “Pilgrim soul” here means the wandering nature of her soul, the tendency of not being able to be in one place or love one person.
Perhaps the woman never wanted to settle down. She wanted to explore and meet different people. The poet says that he also loved the “sorrows of her changing face,” which implies that he even loved this woman when her beauty had started to take leave.
The second stanza creates a contrast between the scores of people who loved her falsely, while he loved her truly. He did not care about her beauty. He loved even all her flaws. But alas, it amounted to nothing.
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 final stanza brings the woman back to the present (and distant future for the readers) when she is bending down beside the glowing bars and is all alone with nothing but a book. And in that melancholic moment, she would realize something.
She would realize how all the people who loved her have now abandoned her, just as her beauty and youth did. She would find herself alone, sad, and with no one who loves her. The pilgrim must settle down.
She would realize this, think of the time that has passed, and perhaps remember the poet and his love for her. What she would feel next is limited only to the woman.
The poet just knows that one day she will come to realize it. That would be enough for him. The poem then concludes.
The theme of the Poem
The poem “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats is a reflection on the passage of time and the inevitability of aging.
The speaker addresses an old woman, urging her to remember the feelings she once had for a man, presumably the speaker himself, when she was young.
The theme of the poem is the transience of youth and beauty, and the desire to hold on to memories of love even as one grows old.
The poem is a reminder that time passes quickly and that people should make the most of the time they have. It also reflects on the theme of unrequited love and the longing to return to a former state of happiness.
Here are all the literary devices used in the poem “When You Are Old” by W.B Yeats:
- Personification: The speaker personifies the “soft look” and “glad grace” of the woman’s youth, describing them as if they were living things that will eventually fade away.
- Imagery: The speaker uses vivid imagery to describe the woman’s aging and other emotions such as “mountains overhead” and “soft looks of the eyes and their shadows deep”
- Rhyme: The poem has a consistent rhyme scheme of ABBA, which creates a sense of musicality and unity in the poem.
- Enjambment: The poem uses enjambment, which is the continuation of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next without a pause, to create a sense of flow and continuity in the poem.
- Metaphor: The metaphor in the poem is used to compare the speaker’s love for the person addressed in the poem to a “fire” that will continue to burn brightly, even when the person is old.
Q: Who is the speaker in the poem “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats?
A: The speaker in the poem is not specified, but it is assumed to be the poet himself.
Q: Who is the subject of the poem “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats?
A: The subject of the poem is an old woman, who is addressed by the speaker.
Q: What is the tone of “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats?
A: The tone of the poem is melancholic, nostalgic, and reflective.
Q: What is the theme of “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats?
A: The theme of the poem is the transience of youth and beauty, and the desire to hold on to memories of love even as one grows old. It also reflects on the theme of unrequited love and the longing to return to a former state of happiness.
Q: What literary devices are used in “When You Are Old” by W.B. Yeats?
A: Some literary devices used in the poem are imagery, personification, metaphor, and repetition.