POET INTRODUCTION:William Butler Yeats was an important 20th century Irish poet. He was a powerful influence behind the Irish Literary Revival and also founded the Abbey Theatre along with Lady Gregory, and Edward Martyn. He served as its chief for some time and also promoted J.M. Synge, Sean O’ Casey and others. In 1923, he won the Noble Prize for Literature, which he regarded as “part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State”.
In his youth his writings were influenced by the Irish legends and folklore. His works also reflect influences of Spenser, Shelley and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. In the modern age, however, his works became more realistic and free from the mystic beliefs of his early years.
Yeats had proposed to Maud Gonne, a beautiful, rich and brainy feminist, in 1891 and many times after that but had been rejected. He had also proposed to her daughter but had been rejected again.
He finally married Georgie Hyde Lees and had two children with her – Anne and Michael.
POEM INTRODUCTION: “When You are Old” was written in October 1891, during his uncertain relationship with Maud Gonne who was an Anglo-Irish revolutionary, feminist and actress. The poem is based on a sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, which first appeared in Le Second Livre Des Sonnets Pour Hélène (1578).
The speaker of the poem addresses his beloved saying that when she is aged she should read a particular book which will remind her of her youth. She will remember the people who had loved her grace and her beauty with either real or fake sentiments in the past, and also that one man who had loved her soul unconditionally as she grew old and the way she looked changed. As she is reminded of him, she will regret her missed opportunity of true love.
In the first two lines, the speaker pictures his beloved as “old, and gray and full of sleep”, “nodding by the fire”, taking down and reading “this” book, which probably refers to the book that was to become The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics. The image evoked is of a sleepy old woman by the fire. The physical appearance of the woman is summarized by the word “gray” – her hair, eyes and skin have become lustreless and dull. The phrase “full of sleep” suggests weariness, peace and her proximity to death.
As she reads this book, she will be reminded of the “soft look” and the deep “shadows” that her eyes had once possessed. Here the poem gives us a glimpse of the woman’s youth, going on to mention her “glad grace” which had aroused “true or false” feelings of love in her lovers. The words “sleep”, “slowly”, “soft”, “shadows” suggests a sense of stupor. The “shadows deep” evokes a sense of the unknown and the mysterious, perhaps implying the calm retained by a person who has not experienced the bitter aspects of life or the ravages of time – innocence.
As she remembers this, she will also remember that one man who had loved her for her “pilgrim soul” and the “sorrows of her changing face” as her youth wilted into old age. The “pilgrim soul” refers to the journeying soul, searching for a place of devotion, moving through life towards the final significance of death and salvation. The line also suggests the reverence the speaker feels for the beloved. This man loved her truly and unconditionally. The “one man” here refers to Yeats himself since the poem is based on Maud Gonne’s rejection of him, and is autobiographical.
The poem returns to the time frame of her old age and describes her “bending down beside the glowing bars” and murmuring to herself a little sadly how “Love fled/ And paced upon the mountains overhead/ And hid his face amid a crowd of stars”. The “glowing bars” refer to the grate railings of Gonne’s hearth.The final lines seem to suggest Yeats’ romantic heartbreak, disturbed and fuddled, yet attaining the magnitude of the universe in his feelings.
The poem creates a subtle contrast between Maud Gonne, who having rejected true love has dwindled into withdrawn domesticity whereas, the speaker’s love has become absolute as a result of his faith in the dignity of the Heavens. The contrast is established through the disjunction between the “glowing bars” and “the crowd of stars”. Instead of hurling bitter allegations at her for not returning his love, he makes an unobtrusive declaration of his devotion.
The themes of the poem are love, loss and regret and although based on the poet’s own personal life, the sentiment reflected in this poem is common to most, if not all, rejected lovers.
The poem is written in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA CDDC EFFE which gives a steady rhythm to the poem. There is a use of alliteration in “glad grace” and “Love” is personified in the last stanza.
The repeated use of the word “and” in the first stanza gives a slow pace to poem, contributing to the stagnant atmosphere of the scene and the slow movements of the old woman, as she turns the pages of the book.
The literary devices in this poem are not very complex, as the poem flows smoothly by virtue of its simple rhyme scheme creating a sad reflective atmosphere which tones down the warning conveyed through the poem.