W. B. Yeats Attitude Toward Old Age in Poetry

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      One of Yeats’s concerns in his later poetry was old age and it's outcomes. Among other things, old age is seen as a symbol of the tyranny of time. At the same time rage against the limitations of age and society that is put upon an old man keep occurring again and again in his poetry.

      One of Yeats’s personal poems, The Tower begins with these lines:

What shall I do this absurdity
O Heart, O troubled heart—this caricature.
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?

      A few stanzas later in the same poem: Yeats asks the rhetorical question:

Did all old men and women, rich and poor,
Who trod upon these rocks or passed this door,
Whether in public or in secret rage
As I do now against old age?

      The above lines from Yeats’s poems make it sufficiently clear that Yeats did detest old age. The interesting thing about hatred of old age is that the source of this hatred is the absurdity resulting from the fact that as he grows older his imagination becomes more passionate and fantastical:

Never had I more
Excited, passionate, fantastical
Imagination, nor an ear and eye
That more expected the impossible

      In the poem The Tower itself he sees the fact of old age as a sort of battered kettle at the heel. In another poem, Among School Children, he sees himself as a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

      A powerful expression of Yeats’s anguish in the face of old age appears at the beginning of his famous poem Sailing to Byzantium:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
Those dying generations—at their song.

      In the next stanza he talks of the limited alternatives available to an old man, who to Yeats is no more than a tattered coat upon a stick:

An aged man is but a paltry thing.
A tattered coat upon a stick. Unless,
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

      For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Many other poenis talk of old age. In the poem The Spur, Yeats wonders why people object to his retaining lust and rage even in old age. After all, they have always been the motivating force behind his poetry. In the poem The Wild Old Wicked Men, Yeats says:

But a coarse old man. am I,
I choose the second-best,
I forget it all a while
Upon a woman’s breast,

      In An Acre of Grass Yeats claims that despite old age, he has a right to experience the whole of life to “pierce the clouds or shake the dead in their shrouds.” In the poem, Politics, he laments the loss of his youth:

But O that I were young again,
And held her in my arms!

      Then there is the poem A Man and Old, Yeats’s nostalgia for the days of youth is expressed in:

And what a blossoming,
When we had all the summer-time
And she had all the spring!

      At the end of the poem A Prayer for Old Age Yeats says:

I pray-for fashions work is out,
And prayer comes round again
That I may seem though I die old,
A foolish, passionate man.

      Another poem which has a very suggestive title and talks of old age is Why Should Not Old Men Be Mad.

No single story would they find
Of an unbroken happy mind,
A finish worthy of the start.


      Old age and what it brings with it are a recurring theme in Yeats’s poetry and they are responsible for some of the best and most poignant and passionate poetry that came from his pen.


What, in your opinion, is Yeats’ attitude to old age revealed in the poems you have read?

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