When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Analysis

"When You Are Old" is a short lyric of twelve lines in three stanzas. The poem is the product of the early period in Yeats's poetic career. It is addressed to Maud Gonne with whom he was in love. It forms a part of the group of poems published in 1893 with the title The Rose. It expresses the poet’s distress at the disastrous onslaught of Time.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

In this poem the poet narrates how his beloved Maud Gonne would grow old with the passage of time. Her liveliness and youthful energy would vanish and she would pass the time dozing by the fireside as old people want to do. She would perhaps pick up the volume of the poet’s Collected Poems, and slowly go through the verses wherein the poet has declared his love for her and admired her graces and charms. She would be reminded of the loveliness of her eyes that she once possessed and of their deep shadows. At that time she might think that many young people loved her for her beauty and youth, but there was only one whose love was sincere and genuine and it was certainly the poet himself.  The poet loved her not for her physical beauty only, but also loved for her soul. It was the poet among all others who could feel for her and love her because sorrow and suffering were depicted on her face.

The perusal of the poet’s love poems would set his beloved thinking longingly of the past. She would then realize the worth and importance of the poet’s love. With the realization she would mutter to herself with anguish that he was no more alive. He was dead and gone and his soul must either be hovering among the mountains or it must have become part of the galaxy of the stars overhead.

The poem presents a portrait of decaying and dying youth and beauty. The poet has referred to it time and again quite passionately all through his poetic career. Maud Gonne, his beloved, was a proud and headstrong girl. The poem sounds a note of warning to her. The idea is that if she does not reciprocate his love, which is not merely physical, but spiritual too, she would have to repent for her folly in her old age. Her youth and beauty would wither and vanish one day, and lovers who hover round her, lured by her bloom, would desert her one by one. Then she would smart with a sense of remorseful agony for the cruelty and callousness towards the poet. The poet intends forewarn her.

The poem has been written in three stanzas, each containing four lines. The rhyming pattern is very different and steady written in iambic pentameter, the first stanza is a b b a; the second is c d c d; the third is e f e f.

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Sharma, K.N. "When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 28 June 2017, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/when-you-are-old.html.