The poem “When you are old” by William Butler Yeats is a poem about human love, rejection, and bitterness. I say human love because it is conditional and it easily flows from fiery passion to sorrowful bitterness. In his life, Yeats was infatuated with a woman named Maud Gonne, who rejected his marriage proposal. After the painful rejection he composed this poem (“Explanation of: “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats,” 2000). The poem reflects his unending love for Maud. In the second line of the poem, “And nodding by the fire, take down this book,” “this book” symbolizes the book in which this poem was published (“Explanation of: “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats,” 2000). As Yeats composed this poem, he imagined in his mind’s eye that when Maud is old and gray, she will read this poem and regret that she lost the man who truly loved her for her “Pilgrim soul.”
This is one of my favorite poems because Yeats’ love for Maud is pure and strong. It is not lustful, but enduring. It endures to the point of possible bitterness when he says, “Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled / And paced upon the mountains overhead.” Pacing upon the mountains overhead symbolizes Yeats’ bitterness and he “asks her [Maud], as he imagines her in old age reading this poem (perhaps from the vellum-bound manuscript book where he had inscribed it along with other love poems), to recall how Love fled from them” (Bradford, 1965, p. 454).
Love is fleeting and this was so regarding Yeats and Maud’s relationship, but love can also endure through time and old age. When outside beauty fades, true love praises the heart and soul. Despite Yeats’ bitterness, he saw Maud’s “moments of glad grace,” “beauty with love false or true,” and “the sorrows of [her] changing face.” He embraced her heart and soul even though she didn’t love him back, and that is the definition of true love.
- Explanation of “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats. (2000). In LitFinder Contemporary Collection. Detroit: Gale. Retrieved from http://0-go.galegroup.com.oak.indwes.edu /ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CLTF0000001094CE&v=2.1&u=inspire&it=r&p=LITF&sw=w&asid=47752f18d8c2753c246857b3eacc321d
- Bradford, C. (1962). YEATS AND MAUD GONNE. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 3(4), 452–474. Retrieved from http://0-www.jstor.org.oak.indwes.edu/stable/40753563
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