Yeats Poem "When You Are Old...."

'When you are old...' is a brief critique of the famous poem by Yeats, including a discussion of imagery, theme, metaphor and meaning.

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 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.

--W. B. Yeats

'When you are old...,' by William Butler Yeats, is rich with mythical imagery. The ambiguity of certain images is found within its transitions. For instance, as the first line turns into the second a general meaning is transformed into something more particular; the sleep of impending death becomes the weariness of one "nodding by the fire."

Throughout the poem these kinds of transitions of meaning continue, lending a sort of hypnotic quality to the imagery that entrances the reader. The notion of the sleep of death packed into a certain moment wherein one is nodding by the fire is a hook promising deeper levels of meaning. Once brought into the movement of the poem, its content also appeals to me emotionally; the journey from youth to old age is briefly traced in a few tightly-packed phrases, suggesting the reality of sorrow and wasted time and the regret of forsaking the opportunity for Love.

The images are stark but flowing. The first two lines suggest comfort in old age. Death is not a violent end but something one "falls into" as easily as sleep. There is ambiguity here -- to sleep next to a cozy fire may be an attractive proposition, yet given the age and the connotation of the sleep from which one does not awaken in this world, she who is "nodding by the fire" may also be "dying by the fire," expiring as a fire is also extinguished.

On the other hand, the broad notion of nearness to death and the subversive fears and sadnesses it connotes is quickly brought into focus with a contrasting concrete image: an elderly somebody nodding by a fire. She who is "old and grey and full of sleep" begins to read. The phrase "full of sleep" both carries the broad connotation of death, and describes the sleeping that leads to dreaming. Reading, then, these words, she begins to dream about the past and her own youth in a self-reflective way.

The second stanza is descriptive of her dream of the past. As a transition from the first stanza into the second, she remembers her own "soft look," her eyes and "their shadows deep." From this image of her youthful gaze we are brought back to a more general view again; she is reminded of those who loved her "moments of glad grace" and her "beauty with love false or true." Both "grace" and "beauty" are vague and nondescript, yet these lines work to contrast those who loved these general aspects of her with the "one man" who loved her pilgrim soul. This seems to suggest a love willing to journey into age as a companion with her, still loving the "sorrows" of her "changing face" as she shifts through the years.

The deep shadows of her eyes, the vague "soft look" becomes more concrete as one imagines her "changing face" and the sorrows that come through experience. Yet, the one man who forsees in her pilgrim soul the inevitability of growing old, and is still willing to love her, is apparently rejected by her, possibly in favor of those who temporarily love her "grace" and "beauty." From this is implied regret, the sadness of missed opportunity in years that have slipped away.

The dream continues as she bends "down beside the glowing bars" of the fire, perhaps seeking warmth or comfort -- suggesting the desire and need for the fiery love she once rejected. She murmurs, as those who are alone might instead of speaking aloud, testifying to her isolation, "a little sadly." From this concrete image the dream again expands, and we see Love, capitalized as an absolute, fleeing, effortlessly into mountainous distances.

His face hid "amid a crowd of stars," an abstract image issuing from a more concrete description of loneliness and regret, speaks to that which is beyond her reach; it is a love that has become perfect and absolute in itself, which makes her feeling of sad regret all the more stark. The poem begins "When you are old...," rather than "Now that you are old...," which suggests that it is a warning, or a judgment upon an unrequited subject of love.

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