Below, you’ll find an analysis of the poem ‘When You Are Old’ by WB Yeats.
This is a bit of an odd one! The poet is upset with a woman for not committing to his love, so he writes a cautionary story to warn her of how sad a future without him might be. In a way, we could say that it’s quite a bitter poem, but in other ways, it does also explore the nature of true, everlasting love. Decide for yourself whether it’s clever, or a little cruel!
This analysis is tailored towards GCSE, IGCSE, and A-Level students (CIE / Cambridge, WJEC / Eduqas, OCR, AQA, CCEA, etc) but it is suitable for anyone studying the poem at any level.
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When You Are Old
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 glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
Nodding — bobbing the head up and down
Grace — softness, goodness, blessings
Pilgrim — a person on a spiritual journey
Sorrows — things that cause sadness
Murmur — whisper / mumble
Amid — in the middle of
When you’re old and your hair has turned grey and you’re tired, starting to sleep as you sit by the fire, take a look at this book (the book that has this poem in it), and read slowly, dreaming of the soft look that your eyes used to have their deep shadows. (Stanza 2) How many people were affected positively by your happy and graceful moments, and either falsely or truly loved your beauty? One man loved the spiritual, searching soul in you, and the sadness of your face. (Stanza 3) Bending down beside the glowing fire, mumble to yourself, a little sadly, about how Love ran away — he ran up the mountains overhead and hid his face in a crowd of stars.
The speaker uses a wistful tone to speak nostalgically about the past. However, this is curiously not the first-person poem, the speaker uses direct address ‘you’ / ‘your’ to project this experience onto the addressee of the poem. The essential story is that the subject of the poem, the woman, will be old and half asleep and she’ll suddenly remember her past, including those who loved her truly and those who loved her falsely. She’ll remember one particular person who loved her differently — for her soul, and her sadness — and then she’ll think of how Love (true love) escaped her. We can assume therefore that the speaker may in fact be this person, the man who loved the woman truly and differently, although tragically the relationship didn’t work out.
Syndetic listing — ‘old and grey and full of sleep’ — the syndetic listing (using the word ‘and’ between nouns) creates long, drawn-out imagery that emphasizes the idea that the subject of the poem has had a long life and also is in the process of beginning to sleep after a long day, sleep is often used symbolically in poetry as a metaphor for death so Yeats may be playing around with these two meanings and layering them.
Imperative verb / metafictive reference — ‘take down this book’ — the imperative phrasal verb ‘takedown’ is a direct command to the subject to think of the poet in her old age. It is also a metafictive device as it says ‘this book’, breaking the boundary between literature and reality. It assumes that the subject will have kept a copy of the poet’s book the whole time and suddenly think of reading it by the fire in her old age — quite a bold claim.
Sibilance — ‘soft look your eyes once had’ / ‘shadows’ — the use of ‘s’ sounds in these images creates a sense of softness that imitates the sleepy state of the subject, as well as the tenderness with which they look back upon their past.
Alliteration — ‘glad grace’ — this phrase stands out at the end of the line with the plosive ‘g’ sound providing a contrast to the abstract noun ‘grace’, which is often a soft and spiritual emotion or state of being. This perhaps betrays a bitter tone on the part of the speaker, who seems to be harboring bitter feelings of having been jilted.
Chiasmus — ‘love false or true’ — we typically hear this phrase as ‘true or false’, and so the poet deliberately uses inverted syntax to draw attention to the fact that he feels most people who loved the woman were likely false in their love, whereas he feels that he loves the woman truly and honestly, he also uses a range of abstract nouns — he loves her ‘soul’ and the ‘sorrows’ of her face, not just her ‘beauty’ as the others do.
Foreshadowing — ‘hid his face in a crowd of stars’ — the lasting visual image of the poem is symbolic in that traditionally stars are used to represent the concepts of fate and destiny. Yeats may also be referring to the literary trope of star-crossed lovers — popularised by writers such as Shakespeare. These types of lovers are perfect for each other, except circumstances outside of their control force them to be apart or force the relationship to end badly. It is possible that the speaker (likely Yeats himself) feels this way about the woman.
STRUCTURE / FORM
ABBA rhyme scheme — the stanzas have an ABBA rhyme to them, which creates three enclosed rhymed quatrains (four-line stanzas). These are also sometimes called introverted quatrains; implying that they have an introspective quality where they look deeper in on themselves, or back to the past — in the case of this poem it is a nostalgic reflection of the past that the speaker is saying his addressee and subject will have, although curiously the tense changes (the poem uses the time adverbial ‘when’ to look to the future) complicate the sense of time, suggesting that the poem is written at the moment where the subject chooses not to be with the speaker, and it is about him asking her to consider how empty her future will be without him.
Rhyming couplets — at the center of the stanzas is a rhyming couplet, typically used to signify love and harmony between couplets. Yet this is disrupted by the beginning and end lines of each stanza, which gives the feeling of jilted or disruption in the love.
A single sentence — the poem is a single sentence, with a regular rhythm to it created by the semicolons which signify a pause at the end of each stanza. This makes it feel like a complete unit or moment in time as if it is a single thought or image that appears to the poet — perhaps a vision of how the future will be for them both if they are to remain apart.
WB Yeats was an Irish poet, he published this poem in his second collection ‘The Rose’ (1893). Many critics are of the opinion that the poem is about Yeats’ relationship with Maud Gonne, a political activist who was known for having relationships with right-wing politicians and who retained the affections of Yeats for many years, without committing to a relationship with him. They met in 1899, and it is speculated that they had a brief affair although Maud was with Lucien Millevoye, a French politician, at the time. Certainly, Yeats was in love with her and remained her close friend for many years after, although they never were in a confirmed relationship and she married and divorced other men during this time. She is often called ‘the muse of WB Yeats’ among other titles, for the deep impact she had on his poetry.
Pastiche — the poem is a pastiche of Pierre de Ronsard’s poem ‘Quand vous serez bien vieille’ (When you are very aged), written in the 1500s. Ronsard’s poem follows the same ABBA CDDC rhyme structure in the first two stanzas, then EEF GGF tercets in the final two. It also has the same central concept — the speaker says to the subject that when she is old, sitting by the fire and spinning wool, she will remember that long ago Ronsard (the poet) wrote about her. He will have immortalized her in poetry, and everyone will be so captivated by her beauty and the words of the poem even so many years later after the poet himself is dead and in the ground and the woman is old. The poem ends with an entreaty to the subject to love the poet, persuading her that she doesn’t want to wait until she’s old and regrets not living life fully, she should embrace life fully in her youth and accept the poet’s love for her. Yeats’ poem is very similar in most ways to this — it follows a very similar narrative until around halfway through, when it becomes less persuasive and more regretful in tone, showing that the poet was hurt by the subject’s rejection, he states that he truly loves her and also threatens that he will run away and no longer contact the subject if she rejects his advances (an interesting proposition given the context of what happened to Maud and WB Yeats in the long term). Pastiche is a genre which intentionally over the top and melodramatic in tone, as well as being satirical — poking fun at a topic. Therefore, if interpreted in this light we could say that Yeats is being playful and joking a little at the seriousness of the topic, whilst at the same time wanting to make the intensity of his feelings known.
True love should not be rejected — There is a sense that the speaker feels his love for the woman is truer than the other offers she has had. The woman is clearly beautiful and highly desirable and attractive (if it was indeed a poem about Maud, she was a wealthy and supposedly beautiful, intelligent woman). Maud’s relationship at the time was with a much older man, and Yeats, being closer in age, may have felt that her choice of a relationship was inappropriate or in some ways ungenuine. The poem explores the idea that marriage or partnership for practical, financial and convenience reasons are all seemingly not sustainable, and only true and genuine connection of souls will bring long-lasting happiness into old age.
Love or attraction based on beauty alone is unsustainable — the poet explains that many love the woman for her ‘beauty’, but also that many of these men are ‘false’ in their love. This abstract noun has a double meaning, either it could suggest that they are fake or insincere and do not truly love her, or that their love is misplaced and they only love her for superficial reasons, such as her ‘beauty’, which will fade over time. In contrast, the speaker loves the ‘soul’ and ‘sorrows’ of the woman, he connects to her even in times of difficulty and sadness.
Age should not be spent in sadness, regret, and nostalgia — the woman is at a moment of peace, where she is falling asleep by the fire in old age, but she is suddenly disturbed by a feeling of regret and sadness, that reminds her of a different and perhaps happier life she could have led. The poem is not only about love, but it is also a reminder to always make decisions that feel genuine and true to ourselves, anything other than that will cause suffering and trouble for us as we pass through life.
Youth should not be spent avoiding commitment to important decisions — on the flip side, there is a sense that youth is an important time for us as well, we make major decisions during this period of our lives and often we may feel like there’s a lot of time left or that we can defer or avoid making choices until later, but this is not always the case. The poet half-threatens in his poem that he will run away and hide, disappearing forever if the subject does not reciprocate his love — something which pressurizes her, he hopes, into committing to him in their youth.
- Jilted lovers
Thanks for reading! If you find this document helpful, you can take a look at our full CIE A-Level Poetry course.