‘When You Are Old’ is probably the earliest of Yeats’s truly great poems, written in 1891 when he was still in his mid-twenties and published the following year. Before we offer some words of analysis about this lyric, it might be worth reminding ourselves of the text of the poem:
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 overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
In summary, ‘When You Are Old’ is a lyric poem in which Yeats – or, perhaps more accurately, the speaker of the poem, who could or could not be Yeats himself – addresses a woman he loves. He asks her to return to the poem he has written for her when she is old and grey and tired, and to use the speaker’s poem as a way of remembering her youthful beauty, and how many people (with good intentions and bad) loved and admired her.
But one person (i.e. he, the speaker himself) loved her for her ‘pilgrim soul’ or questing nature, as well as her youthful good looks; indeed, the poet tells her that he loved her even as she got older and lost her looks, and grew more sorrowful as old age approached.
And as she bends down before the ‘glowing bars’ of the fire, the speaker asks that she murmur to herself how the man who loved her went to wander on the mountains and hid away among the stars (suggesting a spurned lover who is doomed to wander the wilderness alone, seeking solace among poetry and natural beauty).
Of course, the power of this short poem derives not just from the sentiment (which is in itself not all that original, and the stuff of a thousand Renaissance lyrics and a hundred thousand contemporary love songs) but from its strange casting into the future: Yeats (or the speaker) and the beautiful addressee of the poem were both young when he wrote the poem, but he can already foresee the fact that she will grow sorrowful and that he will continue to love her even as her youthful looks give way to age. There’s also a peculiar poignancy attendant on the idea that the poet/speaker already knows that his love for her is a lost cause: she will never love him back. All she will be able to do is ‘take down this book’ and read what he wrote for her, rather than (say) turn to him and hear him say the words, there by her side. The poet knows that his poetry is the only way to pay tribute to her, and that he will never win her.
The final lines present more of an interpretative challenge than the rest of the poem, and are what (arguably) saves the poem from mawkish self-pity in the face of (suspected) unrequited love. Instead of running off to pine away in a cave somewhere, Yeats declares (somewhat prophetically) that the spurned lover will seek solace among the grandeur and vastness of the world (and, indeed, the universe beyond the world), among the mountains and the stars. It’s almost as if there’s a tacit recognition that great art can spring from romantic failure, or from just missing out on happiness: greatness, while a poor second to love, is the only ‘second’ there is.
True enough, this poem is thought to be about Maud Gonne; Gonne would prove to be a lifelong muse for Yeats, but would refuse to marry him. In 1891, when Yeats wrote ‘When You Are Old’, he and Gonne were in a relationship, but it was failing and Yeats feared he was losing her. Can we analyse ‘When You Are Old’ as a personal last-ditch attempt to persuade Gonne to pledge his love for her before the chance was … well, gone?
Perhaps. Although, if this is the case, then like the Tudor poet Sir Thomas Wyatt (who introduced the sonnet to England from Italy), Yeats was using another poet’s sentiment to express his own personal feelings: ‘When You Are Old’ is actually based on a Petrarchan sonnet (‘Quand vous serez bien vieille’) by the French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-85). Yeats adapted Ronsard’s sonnet for his poem comprising three quatrains, rhymed abba (thus following the rhyming pattern for the first four lines of a Petrarchan sonnet).
In the last analysis, this is perhaps why ‘When You Are Old’ reads and feels as though it could have been written any time between 1500 and 1900; its tropes are familiar, its sentiment one that would hardly have struck the Elizabethan sonneteers as alien. But Yeats shows his technical skill through using the enclosed rhyme (abba) to hint at a love just within reach, only to slip away, so that we end up back where we began.