Thursday, December 01, 2011

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.

On Something I Love: The Poem as Friend
by Joseph Ross

We met in a basement classroom. I was an eager ninth grader when this poem and I became friends. William Butler Yeats’ “When You Are Old” lives very close to my heart and it never strays far. I have loved this poem like a dear friend, ever since I first read it as a high school student.

In twelve perfectly crafted lines, Yeats offers us a most tender love poem, a darkly contemplative whisper from one lover who has died, to the remaining lover who lives. Yeats begins by gently placing us in an intimate, domestic moment and leaves us gazing into an eternity of memory and space, beckoning us to remember.

The poem opens in a quiet experience of solitude. A widowed lover sits alone, before a fire, with the fatigue that life and loss sometimes give. The lover is urged, by the companion who has already gone in death, to “take down this book,/ and slowly read,” and to remember. The absent lover beckons the living one to recall youth’s beauty, to recall the changing passions that came earlier in life. But mostly, the deceased lover pleads with the living one to remember the most honored compliment: that “one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,/ And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”

Can there be a more honest and abiding love? In the midst of ever-changing human emotions, the only love that truly anchors us through life is the love that honors our traveling selves, our changes, our sorrows. It is easy to love the fresh and attractive one. But it takes a decision to love a person who is changing, who knows and names the sorrows of the world and who wears them in the skin. At the heart of this poem, a deceased lover simply asks the living one to remember.

The poem’s final stanza takes us on a dizzying trajectory. The living lover bends down to stir the “glowing bars” in the fireplace, and from there we fly to the “mountains overhead” outside this quiet moment, and then farther still, into the vastness of space, where “Love…hid his face amid a crowd of stars.”

This poem has been my friend for many years because it is true. We are all pilgrims and we all change. In the flurry of our wanderings, we yearn for someone to love us, not in spite of our changes, but because of them. This love requires intention and practice. It is an act of the will over time, not of the moment. I have been fortunate to find this kind of love in my life. Yeats’ poem instructs me to nourish and cherish it.

I also love the places in this poem. I can sit before a fire, in silence, and stare into its flames and embers for hours. The delicate quality of flame contains a rare beauty and energy. Similarly, I can stand outside at night and stare into the black forever of space sprayed with stars. In those moments, you know your place, your perfect smallness.

That William Yeats was a genius, I take as doctrine. He wrote “When You Are Old” as a relatively young man, in his late twenties. This poem was part of his second collection of poems titled “The Rose,” published in 1893. Yeats’ love life has been widely commented on. For most of his life he passionately loved Maud Gonne, who would reject his love in favor of the Irish revolution. Later in his life, Yeats loved and married Georgie Hyde-Lees, with whom he had two children. Perhaps “When You Are Old” prefigures that more mature and stable love. Some years ago, I stood at Yeats’ grave in the Drumcliffe churchyard, in County Sligo, Ireland, and thanked him for the friendship of this poem.

Regardless of how this poem emerged from Yeats’ life, it has found a permanent place in mine. Its quiet truth can calm and settle me when I am anxious and scattered. Its lean craft can focus me when I am uncertain. I can often hear this beloved friend, this poem, reminding me to remember.

* Photo of Yeats by George Beresford

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Joseph Ross is part of the vibrant Washington, D.C. literary community. His first book, Meeting Bone Man, will be released in March/April of 2012. His poems appear in many journals and anthologies including Poet Lore, Tidal Basin Review, Full Moon on K Street, and Drumvoices Revue. He co-edited Cut Loose the Body: An Anthology of Poems on Torture and Fernando Botero's Abu Ghraib. He has read in the Library of Congress' Poetry-at-Noon Series and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He directs the Writing Center at Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and writes at

1 comment:

JB said...

Ah, Joseph, I loved this post! It's nice to see a great, deep reading of an excellent poem and to learn like I learned as a student (rather than how I learn now, as a teacher!) Well said, and thank you.