“When You Are Old” by William Butler 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.

Yeats Believes Aging Increases Introspection

This poem is a classic and many people are taught it in literature classes in school. The irony is that these individuals are young themselves, usually in their teens or early twenties. In the blossom of youth, they are not able to appreciate the depreciating nature of feeling and being young.

I don’t think that Yeats intended for this poem to idealize being young. He more points out that when people get old, they are more pensive. They sit longer reading books, and in doing so, may be reminded of former memories and even flames. This is just a natural progression of getting old.

It sounds like Yeats is saying that there are many people that love a person when they are young.  However, it is a rare partner that loves a person’s soul so deeply, that doesn’t care about the person’s aging exterior. Inevitably, this Love (notice in the final stanza it is capitalized, referring to a singular person) flees and hides in a crowd of stars, which can signify death or moving on. Also, a beautiful part that I love to reread is the intense imagery of Love leaving, and stopping to pace along the mountains not wanting to move on to the stars.

Yeats wrote during an era where marriage was standard. There were not the same rights then for women as now, so more of them depended on a man for their financial and emotional security. They did not go out and obtain occupations. So the poem was probably reflective of most women in that era- they loved, they lost, and then they sat quietly. Some remarried and lost again. Mortality rates were also higher back then.

People in the modern era can look at this poem as something that prepares them to age to a state of contemplation. It inevitably happens when people slow down and spend more time taking care of themselves instead of working in one’s career.