When You Are Old: by W. B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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Stanza I

      (My beloved), when you grow old, when your hair turn grey, and when you look sometimes near the fire sleepily, then you should pick up this book that I am writing and read this poem. This poem then would remind you how beautiful you once used to be, and how soft and deep your eyes were when you were young.

Stanza II

      You will then remember that many men then loved you because of your joyful beauty. They loved you for your beauty, some with a true love, others falsely. But then you will also remember that one man (i.e., my self) loved your soul, and loved you for the sadness of your looks.

Stanza III

      Then, as you bend down near the glowing fire in the grate, you will murmur to yourself that love has left you, and has hidden itself for away, in lofty mountains and in the starry skies.

Critical Explanation

Introductory Remarks

      This stanza imagines the poet’s beloved as she would look in her old days, and as she would feel then. Then, in her old age, she would remember how graceful and young she once used to be.

Stanza I

      Nothing by the fire-dozing as she sits near the fire in lonely winter nights. This book—obviously, the book in which the present lyric is included. Dream of—think of the past youthful day is in a dreamy way. Soft looks your eyes had once—The poet’s beloved now has soft looks. Her eyes have an enchantment about them. They lend to her face a look of charm and sweetness. But they would not always remain so. In her old age, she would only remember these soft looks with regret.

      Note—By picturing a beautiful young woman as an old woman remembering her beautiful past, the poet is able to lend a touching pathos to the poem. The situation, in itself, is full of soft pity.

Stanza II

      Glad grace—a beautiful but vague phrase. During her youth, his beloved has a grace and a beauty that arises out of the joy of living. Her youthfulness lends a charm to all her movements. How many....grace—This is to be connected with the idea given earlier—the beloved in her old age, remembering her days of youth. The poet tells her how she would then remember her old lovers, who are no more.

      Note—The poet points out to her that other lovers love her only for her “moments of glad grace.” In other words, their love is only skin-deep.

Stanza III

      A bending down—His beloved in her old age, would bend down. Beside—near, by the side of. The glowing bars—i.e” of the grate; the iron bars in the fire-place are glowing hot because of the fire burning in it. And bending love fled—The poet imagines that in her old age his beloved would feel that love has left the world and lives now in the stars and the mountains. In other words, she will feel the loneliness of old age, when all lovers will forsake her (except one).

      Paced upon—walked upon. And paced overhead—Love no longer lives on earth, but upon lofty mountain peaks. And
hid....stars—Love, which visits us, in our youth for a while, rises up to the stars and becomes one with them.

Explanation: Stanza I

      Addressing Maud Gonne, the poet says that when she is old, she should take up this book of Yeats’s poems and read it slowly. He asks her to compare her old age with the time of her youth. Feeling sleepy and nodding by the fire-side she can compare her grey hair with the softness of look and deep shadows that her eyes had in the prime of her life. In brief, the poet wants Maud Gonne to have a feeling of the terror that old age produce, ‘full of sleep’ (Line 1). Here ‘Sleep’ can be explained as usual time of sleep as well as the natural laziness or lethargy that comes in a human being as he or she grows old.

Explanation: Stanza II

      In the second stanza, the poet further asks Maud Gonne to recollect as to how many people loved her when she was young and beautiful, and not all of them had true love for her beauty. Quite a few of them just pretended to love her falsely, but there was one man only (here the poet refers to himself) who loved, not her physical beauty alone but also the purity of her soul behind her beautiful shape. His love was purely spiritual and she must remember that he loved the pains of her growing old. It also means that he loves her even now when she is old and is prepared to share with her the sorrows of her age.

      ‘Moments of glad grace’ (Lines 5) the expression refers to the period of Maud Gonne's youth when she was extraordinarily charming, so much so that her beauty added grace to her personality and everyone was pleased by it, ‘pilgrim soul in you’ (Line 7). The poet wants to say that Maud Gonne carries a pious soul behind her physical charms and this pure soul had come to earth only to undertake a very short holy journey.

Explanation: Stanza III

      The poet says to Maud Gonne that when she lies down on the bed, bending a bit toward the fire-side where the iron-rods outside the fire chimney are glowing red with the heat of fire (This is what the expression ‘glowing bars’ means) she must say to herself in a sort of sad soliloquy that with the departure of her youth and charms, the false love of her lovers had also vanished away and evaporated in the midst of high mountains and stars. By saying this the poet also intends saying that in comparison to her false lovers, he was the only true lover who had loved her all through—from youth to old age and he loves her even now.

Critical Analysis


      When You Are Old is a love-lyric that sings of the fleeting nature of love. It represents one of the most important side of Yeats as a poet—his love poetry and his lyricism. It typifies many of the qualities which distinguish Yeats as a poet.

Development of Thought

      In the first place, this poem presents the conception of love. Love is for him a spiritual rather than a physical passion. It lives on the peaks of mountains and is hidden among the stars. But the poet also notes the evanescence of love, its fleeting nature, and its transience. Love, especially love that is born out of the beauty of the beloved’s face or eyes, dies and is forgotten. It is remembered with regret. Against this love stands love of a higher nature—the love of the “pilgrim soul”—a deeper, and spiritual love.

      Secondly, this poem expresses the poet’s powerful sense of the sad change that inverts every material. Beauty fades; love dies. Life is beautiful, but ever-changing. Nothing has permanence—except, perhaps the “pilgrim soul.”

      Thirdly, this poem, also captures the poet’s regret, his wistfulness and his sadness. The whole poem is pervaded with a melancholy and arouses a feeling of pathos. The poet pictures a beautiful woman has grown old, living in a world of sad thought, sweet memories, recollecting the days when her eyes were soft and deep and her body graceful and supple when there were many who loved her. Now, alas! love is fled with her beauty. She sits near a fire, alone, dozing, thinking of the past that is gone forever.

      Fourthly, this poem, therefore, is a fine example of the poet’s lyricism. It is a song—short, sweet and sad. In twelve lines, the poet creates magic. He builds up a little world which lingers forever in our imagination. The poem appeals to some of our deepest and most powerful feelings.

      Fifthly, this poem is a good example of Yeats’s use of words. His words are suggestive and evocative. They are vague, but their vagueness makes them expressive. The poet does not describe that lady in concrete detail, but uses words which give the general impression of softness and beauty. Similarly, the phrase ‘‘pilgrim soul” also becomes magical because of its suggestiveness. Finally, the poet arouses vague feelings of beauty, mystery and wonder in the last two lines of the poem.


      The theme of the poem is old age—the fleeting nature of love. Youth and beauty arouse love; with the coming of old age, greying hair and dying beauty, love, too, vanishes into “the mountains overhead”, and hides “his face amid a crowd of stars.” Youth identifies love with eternity, old age shows it to be as fleeting as all other things of life.

      This oft-attempted theme, however, has been adopted by the poet and tackled in the most original manner. This general idea has been clothed in the particularity of a concrete situation. The poet talks to his beloved who is now young, and imagines what she would be when she grows old. Then, when years bow her down, she will perhaps someday remember how men once loved her for her looks, for her soft eyes which had “shadows deep”, for her glad grace. Then she shall feel sad, and shall remember with regret how love has vanished into the cloud. One man—presumably the poet—alone loved, not her external charm, but her “pilgrim soul.” Thus, the poet embodies the general idea of the transience of love in the particular situation of an old woman remembering the good old days when men loved her, though they love her now no more.

A Tone of Regret

      This situation that the poet creates, lends the poem a tone of wistfulness and regret, almost of pathos. With a rare vividness the poet draws a clear picture of this old lady of the future, her eyes full of sleep; her hair grey, nodding alone by a fire, reading old books and living in a sad world of old memories. The days of youth and beauty, with their lovers, are all gone, and she sits alone by the fire, her face softened by thoughts of bygone days.


      The poet displays the skill of a great mastery in the matter of detail. He is able to build up his picture in words that are at once simple and vivid. The words he chooses are full of associations, so that they carry an atmosphere of regret around them. The description of the lady in her old age is built up with a few deft touches. She is old, grey and full of sleep. She nods by the fire. In her youth, she had a soft look about her eyes, which had shadows and the figure of the lady, the poet yet uses words which allow us to build her up according to our fancy, and the picture that we make is bound, to be beautiful. The vagueness of the words used is so suggestive that it particularises the picture more effectively than any concrete description would have done.

      The last two lines of the poem are obscure when analyzed, and yet they at once elevate the whole tone of the poems to a still higher level, the words are vague, but beautifully suggestive. Love is imagined to be “peace upon the mountain overhead” and to hide ‘‘his face amid crowd of stars.”

      Thus, the twelve lines of this poem shows Yeats to be a master. Here is poetry of “dream, longing and music.”

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