When You Are Old, William Butler Yeats – An Analysis


The title makes me think of a person’s expectation of old age, perhaps a broad overview of what to expect generally or even perhaps a promise or threat – ‘when you are old, these things are going to happen to you’.

Gut Reaction
This feels like a jilted lover (or soon-to-be jilted lover) saying ‘I’m the best you ever had because I loved you entirely, whereas all the other loves of your life only loved you superficially for your good looks’. It speaks to me of a warning – if you don’t see how great I am for you and you do leave me, in your old age you will regret it’. He also seems to be saying that he knows in his own old age he will be thinking of her and regret losing her too. I want to feel sorry for him and to tell the bint to buck her ideas up but after a couple of reads I don’t yet feel I can.

What does it all mean?
The poem feels to me like the author is saying ‘you’ll regret losing me, I’ll regret losing you, is this really how you want to spend your old age – open your eyes and see me!’

When you are old and grey and full of sleep
As it says. When the person the author is talking to is old. ‘Grey’ could be interpreted as ill and perhaps ‘full of sleep’ also, or it could allude to impending death. In which case, aren’t we all supposed to lay on our deathbeds and review our lives? This seems to be his ‘threat’.

And nodding by the fire, take down this book
Is the fire an acknowledgment of wealth? An old person sat by a fireplace probably didn’t have to light the fire themselves. Perhaps it is just an assumption that old age will bring the comfort of falling asleep in front of a fire.

Take down this book
So the author has written to his subject, this isn’t a verbal conversation being recalled. Perhaps it is not so much a love letter as a final plea not to throw their love away. Maybe he already knows her answer – that she will leave him anyway – but will keep his letter and read it over – taking down the book from a favoured place? From ‘book’ I assume he has written a long, impassioned piece for her.

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
He’s asking her to think of him – in old age, in the present – a plea to not forget about him. To read slowly is to think of the consequences of her actions and also to cement him in her memory.

And dream of the soft look
‘Soft look’; this woman is beautiful to him; gentle, feminine. Or he is seeing her through rose-tinted glasses?

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep
She has kind eyes perhaps, but ‘shadows deep’ alludes to secrets. Did she have lovers? Not-so-secret affairs? He also could be reminding her that her looks won’t last forever.

How many loved your moments of glad grace
For me, I can see the poem in two ways.
If the poem is to Yeat’s unrequited love actress Maud Gonne, is he envious of fellow viewers of her work? Is he saying she was publicly adored? A good actress (‘glad grace’)? Successful?
If however we take this as just an ‘ordinary’ man trying to hold on to his lover, does he feel multiple betrayals? Here he could be referring to her lovers or general admirers of the mannerisms she showed and the grace with which she showed them. Or maybe he’s lashing out at the person he loves most by insinuating promiscuity.
‘Glad grace’ makes me think of the kind of happy, easygoing attitude that some people have naturally and the way it draws people in, perhaps like Anna early on in Anna Karenina. I wonder if I feel some sympathy for her, because Anna herself didn’t seek out her affair, her general warmth towards people attracted it. That is not meant to justify it, just an observation (and I grew to dislike Anna more and more throughout the book!)

And loved your beauty with love false or true
People – adoring fans if Gonne, potential suitors or partners if not – were attracted to her attractiveness, and he acknowledges that whilst some of this love was only of ‘face value’ – admiration of beauty alone – he can see that some may have genuinely loved her too. It is easy to relate this to the false adulation of celebrity we see today; Gonne’s public would have loved her image and thought that they knew her just because she was ‘present’ to them. We do this with ordinary people as well as celebrities, admiring beauty and attracted to good looks, only to find a personality that doesn’t quite fit with this image of perfection we have created.

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you
He separates himself from all other lovers; he alone knew her whole, the good and the bad.
Pilgrim soul? Well, a pilgrim is someone who travels far to a sacred place; is he rejoicing in the deep down goodness of her, her pious nature beneath, or saying that her soul was a sacred place to him? That all seems a little too perfect: pilgrim soul could mean she was a wanderer, a rebel who didn’t live inside the confines society expected of her. No matter the actual meaning; he loved her regardless.
Maybe, upon further reading on my part, he was proud of her passionate politics?

And loved the sorrows of your changing face
For ‘changing face’ I could interpret: aging, how she behaves differently depending on the company, being two-faced to people, or simply acknowledging he loved her completely, faults and all. ‘I love you better than anyone else ever could, despite your imperfections’. Well, thank you Mr Yeats, how charitable to love me in all my unrefined glory where you yourself are perfection personified…
Maybe that’s just me being indignant and he was actually saying how much he loved her performances.

And bending down beside the glowing bars
When I read this my first thought is of class comparison. The old aged ‘she’ is beside a fireplace whilst ‘he’ sits before a cheap bar heater. Is their class difference one of their problems? Is he just acknowledging that he feels out of her league? Even the aesthetics of ‘fire’ and ‘bar heater’ are worlds apart.
Or, is this the author picturing himself an old man, alone, in a home where there is no warmth from other people, a small dwelling where he only has himself for company?

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
Is he talking to himself, grumbling about his lost love, or the loss of his love for the woman over time? The strength of passion in his earlier words makes me think not but the capitalisation of Love, is he separating it from his own situation? Through his personification of love, is he saying that he’s lost his chance at Love forever because he’s lost her?

And paced upon the mountains overhead
Is love now forever unattainable to him without her? Or has he placed her in too high regard? Either way, both Love and ‘her’ are out of reach ‘overhead’.

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars
I wonder if the poem’s author is alluding to losing himself in people he sees as celebrity, or ‘better’ than him? Or, is he attaching (or planning to) attach himself to a score of pretty faces in an attempt to forget her? Or simply planning on losing himself in a busy lifestyle? If this is autobiographical, is Yeats planning on disappearing into the world of celebrity around him?

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
The poem is divided into three stanzas. The story starts with a warning to the subject about her future, returns to the present and then sweeps forward again into the author’s own probable figure.

Tone is pleading, reproachful, and self pitying. There is a wistfulness to it that can only be obtained by losing something that you truly believed to be yours.

Suggested rhyme scheme

This is a typical In Memoriam stanza structure and our heroic couplets are of the open variety. Classic example of the iambic pentameter meter. End/terminal and full/ordinary rhyme throughout, with masculine/strong rhyming. It ‘feels like’ end stopped lines feature in the majority but as run on appears in lines 3 and 4, then 10, 11 and 12, five our of the twelve, perhaps this isn’t a key factor at all.

Similes and metaphors
Pilgrim soul as a metaphor for rebellion or going against the established rules?
Shadows for secrets?
Crowd of stars for celebrity or general high life?

I don’t see any simile use because he isn’t comparing her to anything – he’s putting her above all.

Author’s relationship with their subject
Well, he is clearly infatuated with the subject to the point of warning her she will never be able to forget him. The second half of the poem takes on a self-pitying tone and so he becomes his own subject in a way.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
Yeats apparently had unrequited love for an actress called Maud Gonne. I read this poem and wrote about it without ‘spoilers’, then read other opinions and added my own take on it. It is very easy to see how this could be an ode to an idolised celebrity, which raises two questions in my warped little mind: was Yeats really not equal to her in terms of celebrity? Was he a creepy kind of celebrity stalker who didn’t really know her at all but had created this idealised image of her or an/infatuated ‘fanboy’?
Aside from the Gonne theory, some analyses see the personification of Love through its capitalisation as a ‘modern day’ Eros. I’m sure there are many other interpretations and I invite you to go and look; for me, these two are enough to add to my own view.
As for Maud Gone, she seems to have been quite a feisty, strong character and her biographies refer to her as a feminist, a champion of Ireland, a force to be reckoned with. Lucien Millevoye, her married lover and eventual husband prior to meeting Yeats, seems to have unleased her political aspirations. I wonder if Millefoye is one of the other ‘true loves’ Yeats refers to, perhaps in envy?

Signing off
If it is true that the poem is about Maud Gonne, then the theme of unrequited love naturally comes to mind. However. If he knows her better than any other, sees the good and the bad in her, surely he knew her well enough for his love not to be unrequited? We can all idolise someone without knowing them, we can dream of their perfection, but when reality sets in it is rarely one and the same. Dirty laundry. Unpredictable moods. Weird personal habits. And according to the hundreds of biographies out there, they did have a relationship of sorts depending on which version you read (chaste friendship or fleeting affair). So that isn’t really love of the ‘unrequited’ kind either, is it?
Getting caught up in other peoples’ opinions is not what I want to do here. It doesn’t mean they aren’t valid, it does mean if I don’t read this and analyse it for myself, I am defeating my own purpose.
So. Here’s my take on it.
A lot of analyses of this poem talk of yearning like this relationship is already done and dusted. For me I see it in its end days, in that awful period where you both know it’s coming to an end and where one invariably still loves the other more. But it is still at a point where it could be saved; she’s not quite left him yet. And I am no eternal optimist about love and such stuff.
My feelings toward the author and the subject have switched back and forth. I have disliked the subject then thought she was put on an unattainable pedestal, then felt that it wasn’t her fault she didn’t love him back. For the author I started by feeling sorry for him, then a little put off by his ‘I’m better than all the rest’ and ‘I love despite all that is wrong with you attitude’, finally returning to a little more understanding because hey, who hasn’t – who doesn’t – love someone despite it not being returned? Who hasn’t made someone perfect in their eyes and been let down by their actual existence – which isn’t their fault either by the way, people are flawed.
I really like this poem, I think it speaks to all of us who have ever loved anyone. It does leave me feeling a little unfinished, but that’s okay; I started reading about the alleged characters in this story and felt myself being lured into business that wasn’t my own. I’ll leave my images of these people shiny and intact rather than dulled by the facts; unrealistic I know, but then I can pretend there’s a ‘happily ever after’ possible for them.

Ireland Calling

Grade Saver

Colin Farrell

Maud Gonne

Lucien Millevoye

When I read this I think of the song… Black


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