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'When You Are Old’ by W.B.Yeats (1865–1939) Analysis: A Didactic Poem Addressed to the Love of His Life

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

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

What Is the Theme of ‘When You Are Old’ by Yeats?

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.

'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.

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.

Life is a long preparation for something that never happens


W.B. Yeats

W.B. Yeats

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, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, in which he gives details of an interview with Maud Gonne.

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 the Poem

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

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

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

Answer: 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).

Question: In W.B. Yeats "When You Are Old," how is the poet's love different from that of others?

Answer: Other men loved the physical attributes of the person who is addressed in this poem. This type of love often fades when beauty fades. But the voice in the poem loves the soul (which we might describe as a combination of personality and character) of his beloved, a type of love likely to be more enduring.

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

Answer: 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.

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

Answer: 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.

Question: Can you explain the phrase "your changing face"?

Answer: Everyone's face changes as we grow older - lines and wrinkles develop. In later life muscles and skin might sag and eyes become sunken. All of these things can make someone less attractive to those people drawn to superficial beauty. What Keats is saying in When You Are Old is that the love of the voice in the poem for the person to whom he speaks is at a deeper level. He loves the changing face because he loves the character and personality that lie beneath it.

Question: what does the phrase "full of sleep mean"?

Answer: It means drowsy or tired. i.e. many old people doze during the daytime.

Question: What does "glowing bars"mean in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: The reference is to the bars of an old fashioned electric fire, which glow red when they become hot.

Question: What is the meaning of soft look in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: My interpretation is that soft look means gentle or loving, or perhaps innocent. You may choose to interpret it differently, of course.

Question: What will the poets' beloved in W.B. Yeats' poem, "When You Are Old," realize in her old age?

Answer: The poets' beloved will realize that 'love fled' and was lost to her (hid his face amongst the stars). The implicit suggestion is that she will realize that once her beauty had faded she would no longer attract men who were drawn by her attractive appearance and that she has lost her one chance of true and enduring love (with the voice in the poem).

Question: How is old age presented in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: Old age is presented as a time when both beauty and energy have declined; a time when weary old people doze by a fireside during daylight hours and have time on their hands to reminisce and to look back on errors of judgment that they made during their youth.

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

Answer: 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.

Question: What is Maud Gonne reminded of in the poem “When You Are Old”?

Answer: Firstly, we do not know for certain that “When You Are Old” is addressed to Maud Gonne, but my argument is that, given the nature of her relationship with Yeats, it is a reasonable assumption.

The person addressed in the poem is reminded that beauty fades as age advances and inevitably people whose love is based only on physical appearance will prove to be faithless. On the other hand, those who love someone for attributes such as character and spirit are more likely to remain faithful into old age.

Question: 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?

Answer: 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.

Question: What are the feelings portrayed in the poem "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats?

Answer: The poem reflects the sadness of the 'voice' at having been rejected by the person he loves. It is also cautionary - warning the person to whom the lines are addressed that she is likely to be lonely in old age.

Question: Is W.B. Yeats "When You Are Old" a sonnet, an epic or a lyric?

Answer: Well, “ When You Are Old" certainly is not an epic or a lyric poem and it falls short of the accepted definition of the sonnet form. Whilst the lines are written in the iambic pentameter rhythm used in a sonnet there are only twelve lines to the poem, whereas the sonnet form has fourteen lines. That said, some writers experimented with the sonnet form. For example, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote what he described as 'curtal' (short for curtailed i.e.shortened) sonnets that were ten and a half lines long.

Question: In the poem "When You Are Old?" by W.B.Yeats, are the imagines abstract or concrete?

Answer: A concrete image gives the reader a descriptive picture to imagine. Think of it as a picture in the mind's eye or of something that might be photographed. The concrete images in When You Are Old seems to me to be of a book of poems being read by an old lady sitting at the fireside.

The abstract element of the poem is the feeling images that are evoked of the old lady remembering and daydreaming. i.e., feelings and memories are sensual imagery - they cannot be seen or touched and are therefore abstract.

Question: what does the speaker want his beloved to dream of in "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats?

Answer: The speaker wants his beloved to remember the past - how she was, in the bygone days of her youth, much admired for her beauty. He wants her to reflect upon the fact that she was loved by many men only for her physical attributes, which have faded as she has aged. He wants her to think upon the fact that she was truly loved by only by one person (the voice), because he appreciated more than fleeting beauty and that this one person vanished from her life because she rejected him.

Question: How is the poet's love different from the others who love her in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: The voice in the poem has an enduring love that will stand the test of time because he loves the attributes of the character to whom he is speaking. But the others love her physical beauty, which will fade as she grows old and therefore make her less attractive to them - their love will not endure the test of time.

Question: Who, according to the speaker in "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats, fled and hid his face?

Answer: The voice in the poem is implicitly addressing the individual for whom it was written. We can infer that the sentiments expressed are those of Yeats and that the poem was speaking to Maud Donne. If you accept this premise then it follows that it was Yeats who "fled and hid his face."

Question: How does W.B.Yeats compare his youth and old age in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: The 'voice' in "When Your Are Old" does not compare his youth to his old age in an overt manner. We assume that this voice is a young Yeats addressing his beloved. His love has been rejected in favour of many other suitors. He says that eventually he will abandon his pursuit of the beloved i.e. flee and hide his face among the stars - which I assume to be a metaphor for dying. The poem suggests to me the unrequited love that many experience during their youth. But in the case of the speaker in the poem, the love is enduring and lasts until his death.

Question: How would you describe the attitude of the voice towards the person to whom he speaks in W.B. Yeats' poem, "When You Are Old"?

Answer: I think the voice in this poem is both wistful and angry. The speaker is sad that he has been rejected, but his anger is directed into an implied suggestion that the person whom he loves will be sorry in her old age that she rejected him.

However, keep in mind that the intentions of a writer are sometimes seen in current literary theory as slightly outdated - it is the reader who imparts his or her own meaning to the words on the page. So we each might describe the attitude of the voice in this poem in different ways. Read carefully and put your own interpretation on the poem.

Question: Is the poet's attitude to love revealed in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: The voice in a poem does not necessarily reflect the views of the poet who wrote it. However, as "When You Are Old" appears to be a deeply personal poem addressed to Yeats' love I would suggest that in this case the poet's personal attitude is revealed.

He seems to feel that many people are attracted to another person by physical beauty but that this type of love, which is merely physical attraction, is not enduring. It fades when the beauty of the beloved fades. The voice in the poem, however, loves with a more enduring love, which is based on the character and spiritual aspects of the beloved. My interpretation of the lines is that he believes that his love will last until his death, and beyond. Because his love has not been returned his spirit will be restless, roaming the hills, and will finally be lost among the countless stars in the sky.

Question: In the poem "When You Are Old" by W.B. Yeats, whose love is true and intense?

Answer: The love of the 'voice' in the poem is true and intense. We do not know for certain who the 'voice' is. A writer may assume any voice that s/he chooses; but given the history of Yeats and Maude Gonne, we can assume that the voice is Yeats speaking about his personal experiences.

Question: What is Yeats's views on love in old age as revealed in the poem?

Answer: It is clear that the voice in the poem believes that love associated with physical beauty is often transitory, fading as the beloved becomes older and less beautiful. He believes that enduring love is based on the character of the beloved.

Question: Why would the person be addressed in the poem When You Are Old as 'murmur ,a little sadly '?

Answer: The verse is looking into the future when the person who is addressed will be old. Visualise an old person reminiscing, speaking out to herself/himself in a quiet voice. S/he doesn't need to speak more loudly because there is nobody listening to the spoken thoughts of missed opportunity of having companionship and love. The image created is of a lonely elderly person.

Question: What is the main theme of the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: It seems to me that the main theme of this poem is unrequited true love, based on the beloved one's character rather than on physical attributes that fade with age.

Question: What are the metaphors in the poem "When You Are Old"?

Answer: A metaphor is a literary device for conveying complex images or emotions.

A striking extended metaphor in "When You Are Old" seems to me the personification of deep love and the description of life after death in the third, final, stanza of the poem.

In line 10 the word "Love" is a substitute for the name of the 'voice' of the poem. The implication is that love has been the most important thing in his life. Even when he has fled to the hills, which I interpret as a metaphor for dying, his love endures. His spirit cannot rest because his love has not been reciprocated and so it paces amongst the hills until finally his face is forgotten, fading from view, described as being hidden in the vast constellations of stars in the sky. It seems that even when he has been forgotten his spirit, which is comprised of love, somehow endures in the Universe. But that love is no longer accessible to the beloved one to whom the lines are addressed.

Question: In the poem 'When You Are Old ', who loved the lady for her inner beauty and goodness?

Answer: The' voice' in the poem 'When You Are Old' does not specify the person who loved the lady but we may infer that the ' voice' is that person. as he seems very familiar with both the strength of feelings that are expressed in the lines and the qualities of the lady. (But bear in mind that it is not specified that the beloved is female. This may affect how different readers in modern times might interpret the poem).

Question: What is meant by "And bending down beside the glowing bars,", in the poem "When you are Old" by W.B. Yeats?

Answer: The 'glowing bars' referred to in the poem When You Are Old are the bars of an electric fire, which glow bright red when they become heated once the fire has been turned on.

© 2017 Glen Rix