'When You Are Old’ by W.B.Yeats (1865-1939). A Didactic Poem Addressed to the Love of his Life? An Analysis.

Updated on October 15, 2019
Glenis Rix profile image

Glenis studied for a B.A (Hons) in English Literature after taking early retirement. She was awarded her degree at the age of 67.

Maud Gonne in her Younger Days

Maud Gonne, age 23, in 1889 - the year she first met W.B.Yeats
Maud Gonne, age 23, in 1889 - the year she first met W.B.Yeats

The Relationship Between Maud Gonne and W.B.Yeats

The great love of the life of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats was the Irish actress and revolutionary Maud Gonne, equally famous for her intense nationalist politics and her beauty. Maud was a strong influence on Yeats’ poetry. He proposed to her on many occasions but was always met with rejection - she maintained, perhaps as an excuse, that his unrequited love contributed to the effectiveness of his writing. The sentiments expressed in the poem When You Are Old suggest that it was written with her in mind. In 1903 Maud married another man. Yeats eventually married another woman, in 1917. The marriage lasted until his death in 1939.

'When You Are Old' (1892) 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.

Life is a long preparation for something that never happens



W.B. Yeats
W.B. Yeats | Source

An Interpretation of 'When You Are Old' by W.B.Yeats

The poem is directed toward one young person, presumably a woman if read in the light of Yeat's biographical details.(Though a reader could apply the sentiments expressed in the poem to a man). I have made an assumption that Maud Gonne is the person about whom Yeats wrote, as she was his muse.

The speaker in the poem talks about a current situation but also predicts the future.

The first stanza seems to be self-referential in as much as it implies that the poem will be published. The person who is addressed is urged to read it in old age whilst reminiscing about the past and her lost beauty.

In the first two lines of the second stanza, the speaker continues the theme of reminiscence. The person addressed will remember that in her youth, her days of glad grace, she was loved by many men. She will remember that as her beauty and youth by this point in time have faded into the past, so has their love. In lines three and four, the 'voice' in the poem tells her, one man (implicitly himself) loved her better than anyone else - because his love was about more than her physical attributes, it is for the nature of her soul. Although the lines are ostensibly about what the woman will remember in old age they are actually a declaration of present-day love. 'Pilgrim' is an unusual choice of word to describe this woman's soul - a pilgrim is a person on a journey in search of something or somewhere. Historically, a pilgrim made a journey to a Holy Shrine.

The third stanza again presents a current situation projected into the woman's old age. She is told that she will remember that she rejected this man who loved her and predicts that the memory will make her a little sad. He evidently will have given up his pursuit of her, left in a state of agitation to pace amongst the mountains overhead and disappear amid a crowd of stars. The lines seem to suggest that, because of her rejection, he will never find peace. One day he will die, become stardust, and she will have lost him forever.

In summary, the poem seems to be both a warning about the future and an appeal to the beloved to reconsider, to see that without him old age will be bleak and full of regret.

Richard Ellman has written an excellent biography of Keats in which he gives details of an interview with Maud Gonne.

Why Analyse a Poem?

You might ask the question Why analyse a poem? Hopefully, you have enjoyed reading the sentiments that it expresses and perhaps it has conjured vivid mental images in your mind. You are satisfied to leave it there. But recognising poetic devices and detecting them in a poem can add to the reader's enjoyment. Furthermore, some poems may seem obtuse at a first reading - a line by line analysis helps to understand the message that the poet is attempting to convey.

There are a number of poetic devices that a poet can draw up and s(he) will redraft many times before s(he) is happy with the final version. A great deal of skill is involved in drafting a successful poem.

Some Poetic Devices to Consider When Reading a Poem

  • Form - the shape and pattern of a poem, created through the related devices of stanza and metre.
  • Line - the basic poetic device that distinguishes poetry from prose. A poet will insert line breaks at specific points for various reasons- they may emphasize a word or an idea, for example, or to follow a structured rhythm.
  • Rhyme - a skilled poet can create a musical experience for the reader/listener through the sound patterns that (s)he creates. Rhyme can occur throughout a poem, not simply at the end of a line.
  • Voice - some poems are personal, directly addressed to a specific person, or group, others are public and impersonal
  • Imagery - often used to defamiliarise what we are familiar with.
  • Metaphor - the description of something in terms of something else
  • Simile - saying something is like something else
  • Theme - what the poem is fundamentally about. An idea that the writer runs with through the poem, or to which he returns.
  • Alliteration - the repeated use of a letter or syllable, usually at the start of a word. Note, for example, how frequently the soft sibilant letter s is used in the first stanza of When You Are Old. It slows the pace and emphasises the sad tone of the poem
  • Repetition - in the second stanza of this poem the word loved is used four times.

N.B. Not all poems, particularly modern ones, contain all of the elements mentioned above. I venture to suggest that you will be able to detect most of them in When You Are Old.

The Form of 'When You Are Old'

The form of When You Are Old is -

  • A twelve line poem of three quatrains.
  • Each line has ten syllables. When You Are Old is largely written in words of one syllable, which you may think emphasises the simplicity and sadness of the message that the voice is sending to the intended recipient.
  • The punctuation in this stanza, with caesuras in lines 2,3, and 4 slows the pace of the poem, reinforcing the mental imagery created of a tired elderly person by the choice of words sleep, nodding, slowly, dream.
  • The end- rhyme pattern of the poem is -

Verse 1 - ABBA

Verse 2 - CDDC

Verse 3 - EFFE

The Theme of ‘When You Are Old’

The theme of When You Are Old is unrequited love. The words are fundamentally a sad and final declaration of love by someone who appears to have lost hope that his devotion will ever be reciprocated

The voice is intensely personal, addressed to someone with whom he is closely familiar.

Questions & Answers

  • How is the journey from youth to old age described in the poem "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats?

    You need to carefully unpick the lines in the first two stanzas of When You Are Old to answer the question of how Yeats describes the journey from youth to old age. Youth is depicted as a time of physical beauty. As one grows older, the cares and troubles of life are reflected in the worry lines that gradually appear on the face. Hair gradually loses its natural pigmentation, turning grey. Old people tire more easily and doze during the daytime. Their physical actions are slower, as is their ability to absorb information - hence the need to read slowly.

    (Sometimes younger people need to slowly read, too, in order to pick up subtle inferences and allusions - which is often referred to as reading between the lines).

  • What is the mood and tone of the poem "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats?

    Reader response criticism is a school of literary theory with focuses on the reader of a piece of work, rather than the author.

    If applied to When You Are Old, the answer to the question 'What is the mood and tone of the poem' is reliant on the feelings/emotions that it arouses in the individual reader or 'audience.'

    Providing you can justify your answer to the question, any opinion that you give is valid. My personal opinion is that it the mood is sad, and perhaps a little angry. The tone is cautionary - the' voice' in the poem is giving a warning to the person addressed that, because she has rejected the person who truly loves her, she may suffer a lonely old age.

  • What is the meaning of the line "and hid his face amid a crowd of stars" in the poem When You Are Old?

    My interpretation of the phrase "hid his face amid a crowd of stars" is that the voice in the poem is speaking about an imagined life beyond the death of the human body.

    "Love" is a metaphor for the speaker - he is love personified. The love will not die with his body - his restless spirit will pace amongst the hills, and eventually be hidden amongst the vast number of stars in the sky. The words "hid his face" suggest that he will be undetectable but also, perhaps, that he will be unwilling to reveal himself.

    Why would he specifically mention his face? A face reveals emotions, so perhaps he is suggesting that he will still have feelings for his beloved even beyond death. Hiding his face may suggest that he does not want his emotions to be revealed or that, in some way, he wants to punish the person he is speaking to by becoming lost to her.

    Please bear in mind that unless a poet has specifically recorded what his poem means we cannot know what was in his mind, so we each put our own interpretation on the lines. It may be that you do not agree with my interpretation and that's ok because your own interpretation is as valid as the next person's. But in a written answer to an examination question you should provide a justification for your interpretation. This involves a close reading of the text.

  • Who is the speaker in the poem "When You Are Old"? To whom is the poem addressed?

    The identity of the speaker is not revealed in the poem. However, given the relationship between Maude Gonne and Yeats I think that a fair assumption is that the speaker is Yeats himself. The poem, to my mind, reflects Gonne's rejection of his love for her.

  • When does the lady take up the book to read as the speaker suggests in the poem "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats?

    You have assumed that the poem 'When You Are Old' is addressed to a female, which is reasonable given the context in which it was written. The voice in the poem suggests that she reads the book when she is an old lady. As the voice cannot predict the future we have no idea if his advice is ever followed.

© 2017 GlenR


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