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 mountain overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
W B Yeats (1865 -1939)
My thoughts on this well-known poem …
S1 …The speaker, who may or may not be old himself, is talking to lady who is young. We will consider a male – female conversation. The speaker is saying that when you are old and sitting in your chair by the fireside read my words. At the same time remember your beautiful eyes that were known to me when you were young.
S2 … As you look back on life remember all those that loved you. But this man, the speaker, loved you (all will love you) through the journey of your life with all its ups and downs – your pilgrimage implying a spiritual journey, and moreover he loved or will love your aging face too.
S3 … And when you think of me in old age – personified as Love (note the capital) you will be sad to see how time as fled. The speaker considers himself dead … the glowing bars has nice double meaning in terms of the lost love … but in a way he will be “hidden alive” – his face amid a crowd of stars.
I must admit that when I read this poem many years ago I thought it a little arrogant, but I do like the way face is a key element in each stanza.
Yeats is often identified in this poem with Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary who ended up marrying another man.
This poem was a response by Yeats to the French poet Pierre de Ronsard and his poem When You Are Truly Old.
Quand vous serez bien vieille
Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise auprès du feu, dévidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous émerveillant :
Ronsard me célébrait du temps que j’étais belle.
Lors, vous n’aurez servante oyant telle nouvelle,
Déjà sous le labeur à demi sommeillant,
Qui au bruit de mon nom ne s’aille réveillant,
Bénissant votre nom de louange immortelle.
Je serai sous la terre et fantôme sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendrai mon repos :
Vous serez au foyer une vieille accroupie,
Regrettant mon amour et votre fier dédain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dès aujourd’hui les roses de la vie.
Pierre de Ronsard (1524 – 1585), Sonnets pour Hélène, 1578
Here is a literal translation courtesy of – https://lyricstranslate.com
When you are truly old, beside the evening candle,
Sitting by the fire, winding wool and spinning,
Murmuring my verses, you’ll marvel then, in saying,
‘Long ago, Ronsard sang me, when I was beautiful.’
There’ll be no serving-girl of yours, who hears it all,
Even if, tired from toil, she’s already drowsing,
Fails to rouse at the sound of my name’s echoing,
And blesses your name, then, with praise immortal.
I’ll be under the earth, a boneless phantom,
At rest in the myrtle groves of the dark kingdom:
You’ll be an old woman hunched over the fire,
Regretting my love for you, your fierce disdain,
So live, believe me: don’t wait for another day,
Gather them now the roses of life, and desire.
Yeats has converted the sonnet form to three quatrains. And there is quite a different ending in Ronsard’s sonnet. Ronsard is very forceful thinking there is still much regret involved in the relationship using the words fierce disdain, at least from his perspective. And then there is the advice to live each day to the full. Don’t live in the past – So live, believe me: don’t wait for another day.
And my advice is of course to live each day to the full whatever the circumstances and whether you are young or old.
This is an example of taking an existing poem and using it in creating a new poem unique to your own thoughts. A little different from a paraphrase … to express the meaning of (something written or spoken) using different words, especially to achieve greater clarity.
Pierre de Ronsard on Wikipedia – https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_de_Ronsard
W. B. Yeats on Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/W._B._Yeats