When You Are Old

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

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.

Summary of When You Are Old

  • Popularity of “When You Are Old”: William Butler Yeats, a famous Irish poet wrote, “When You Are Old”. It was first published in 1893 and is one of the famous love poems. It comprises the poet’s eternal love for his beloved. However, its popularity lies in the description of the poet’s meditation on catastrophic onslaught of time.
  • “When You Are Old” As a Representative of Love: As this poem is about love, the speaker directly addresses his beloved and invites her to throw her mind forward to the future when she will not be attractive, beautiful or glamorous, but a fair old lady poking by the fire. He asks her to recall her past youth, how many people would have loved and admired her for her startling looks and eye-catching features. However, he mentions that there was only one person who loved her sincerely despite knowing the transient qualities of her beauty. He adds that he could have been the right choice for her, but she rejected him. As their love would not last, and she would surely regret her decision for the rest of her life. What enchants the reader is the way he has drawn a metaphorical comparison to show his genuine love for his mistress.
  • Major Themes in “When You Are Old”: Love, rejection and time are the major themes of this poem. To express pure love, the poet invites her to have a glance at the time when she will be old and will not be surrounded by fake lovers. Therefore, she should understand his feelings toward her. Throughout the poem, he tries to make her realize that her existing company loves her for her beauty, but one day she would grow old and regret lost opportunities.

Analysis of Literary Devices in “When You Are Old”

Literary devices are tools the writers use to create meanings in their texts to enhance the poems or stories and connect the readers with the real message of the text. Yeats has also used some literary devices in this poem to illustrate the meanings of love. The analysis of some of the literary devices used in this poem has been given below.

  • Imagery: Imagery is used to make readers perceive things with their five senses. He has used imagery in the poem such as, “And nodding by the fire, take down this book”, “And bending down beside the glowing bars” and “And paced upon the mountains overhead”.
  • Symbolism: Symbolism is using symbols to signify ideas and qualities, giving them symbolic meanings different from literal meanings. Here, “grey and weak and full of sleep” symbolizes an elderly woman. “Fire” is the symbol of fiery love she once rejected and “mountain overhead” and “crowd of stars” stand for things she knows exists but she can’t reach them.
  • Consonance: Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in the same line such as the sound of /n/ in “And bending down beside the glowing bars” and “And paced upon the mountains overhead”.
  • Alliteration: Alliteration is a repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of the letters in the same line. For example, the sound of /h/ in “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars”.
  • Personification: Personification is to give human characteristics to inanimate objects. For example, “Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled”, as if the love is human and it can move.
  • Enjambment: It is defined as a thought in a verse that does not come to an end at a line break; instead, it rolls over to the next line. Such as,

“And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

 Analysis of Poetic Devices in “When You Are Old”

Poetic and literary devices are the same, but a few are used only in poetry. Here is the analysis of some of the poetic devices used in this poem.

  • Stanza: A stanza is a poetic form of some lines. There are three stanzas in this poem with each comprising of four lines.
  • Quatrain: A quatrain is a four-lined stanza borrowed from Persian poetry. Here, each stanza is quatrain as the first one and the second one.
  • Rhyme Scheme: The poem follows the ABBA rhyme scheme in all the stanzas.
  • End Rhyme: End rhyme is used to make the poem melodious. The poet has used end rhyme in this poem such as in the first stanza the rhyming words are, “sleep”, “deep”, “book”, “look.”
  • Iambic Pentameter: It is a type of meter consisting of five iambs. This poem comprises iambic For Example, “When you are old and grey and full of sleep.”

Quotes to be Used

The lines stated below can be used in a conversation when talking about the destructive nature of time and aging how ruination and decay is the part of aging.  These could also be used in a speech when talking about the transience of life.

“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”