William Butler Yeats: When You Are Old Poetry Explication
William Butler Yeats’ “When You Are Old” illustrates the theme that people will regret all of the opportunities for true love they have missed. Yeats writes, “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” (L. 5-7). Most of the men loved her only for her looks, and once her looks receded, everyone left her. In the last stanza, he says that she is now lonely because none of the other men stayed with her forever, while he would have stayed. He then proceeds to say that she wants to have him back, but he is hiding and the love that he could have given her has long since evaporated. He also intimates that when someone misses the opportunity for true love, they will not always be able to get it back. Even though some might be pretty when they are younger, old age will conquer the good looks, and without someone who loves one for being themself, they will be lonely for the rest of their life.
Yeats starts off the poem with a symbol, “When you are old and gray and full of sleep” (L. 1). This poem, written from his personal experience with Maud Gonne, an English actress who rejected his true love for another man who loved her only for her good looks. The symbol is telling Gonne to imagine the future when she does not look as beautiful to show her that everyone who loved her only for her beauty will have left her. Then, to show how hard it is to find Love again, Yeats wrote, “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars” (L. 12). He employs imagery to illustrate a beautiful picture where the reader can imagine Love hiding behind the shining stars in the night sky. Finally, Yeats personifies love by claiming, “Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled” (L.10). He utilizes personification to show how quickly love opportunities can disappear and instead of letting it slip away, people should grab on and hold tight. Finally, Yeats illustrates, “And bending down beside the glowing bars” (L. 9). He wants readers to visualize an old woman who is bending down beside the red-hot iron bars of a fireplace where a fire is burning bright. Yeats paints many beautiful pictures to show how love can run away from one extremely easily, and once it has gone, it is insanely hard to find it again.
The poem is a ballad with three short stanzas that describes the elusiveness of love and how easily it can slip out of one’s grasp. Yeats wrote the poem in Iambic Pentameter with a rhyme scheme of ABBA-CDDC-EFFE. The rhyme scheme could be describing the stages of life on how it goes from being young to being old then back to being young again. This sort of shows how once someone is old, they might look back and reflect upon their past misdeeds or regrets. At the beginning of the poem, he tells Gonne to take this poem down from the shelf and see how he predicted that she would be lonely. When Yeats wrote, “And bending down beside the glowing bars, / Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled” (L. 9-10), he is showing how he wants Gonne to look back and regret her decision of not picking Yeats over the other men. While some phrases like “full of sleep” and “nodding by the fire” will calm and soothe many readers, the author writes in a tone that is mysterious. It is mysterious because when the last line says that a man’s face is hidden amongst the many stars, it could be interpreted in multiple ways. First, because there are too many stars to count, Yeats hints that the true lover is hidden too well amongst too many people. Since some people believe that one becomes a star after death, it could also be interpreted as the lover being dead and up in the sky. After reading this poem, one might feel calm because of the phrases that Yeats uses, or one might feel doleful because they think about all of the chances at the love that they missed. Yeats writes, “How many loved your moments of glad grace” (L. 5). He alliterates “glad” and “grace” because he wants to emphasize the beauty of youth. Then, he implements consonance to soothe readers, “And bending down beside the golden bars” (L. 9). This ties into the mood of the poem because some might feel a tad bit sleepy after reading this poem. Instead of using a simple word like traveling, Yeats uses the word “Pilgrim” to describe how Gonne migrates like the Pilgrims to a new place. Yeats implements all of these words and sound devices to soothe the reader.
I think that is an enlightening poem that helps me realize that I should take all of my chances instead of letting some of them sift through. I like this poem because it elucidates many things that I have not understood in the past. For example, I never knew what would happen to someone if they had rejected a person who really loved them. Now, I found out that they would become lonely for the rest of their lives because of that decision. It gave me a new perspective on life because it taught me many things like how easily love can leave. This does not pertain to me because I have never been asked to go out or dance with someone. I appreciate how much work Yeats put into making this poem from his personal experience, and the insightful lines successfully help convey the feeling of rejection of true love.