April 19th: "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.

###

This is another one that’s a teeny bit self-indulgent–wow, Yeats, you were the only person to love Maud Gonne for who she really was, huh? But what I love about it is that it’s not explicitly a poem about how she’ll be sorry she didn’t love him back. It’s rather a poem about the sadness of love ending, and life going on without it. Let’s compare it to the poem it was based on, “Quand vous serez bien vieille” by Pierre Ronsard. This translation is by Anthony Weir, you can read it in the original French here:

When you are very old, at evening, by the fire,
spinning wool by candlelight and winding it in skeins,
you will say in wonderment as you recite my lines:
“Ronsard admired me in the days when I was fair.”

Then not one of your servants dozing gently there
hearing my name’s cadence break through your low repines
but will start into wakefulness out of her dreams
and bless your name – immortalised by my desire.

I’ll be underneath the ground, and a boneless shade
taking my long rest in the scented myrtle-glade,
and you’ll be an old woman, nodding towards life’s close,

regretting my love, and regretting your disdain.
Heed me, and live for now: this time won’t come again.
Come, pluck now – today – life’s so quickly-fading rose.

###

Yeah, I’m willing to cut Yeats some slack, seeing as how his poem is approximately ten million times less obnoxious than that. For another perspective on Yeats and Maud Gonne, see: all of Yeats’ other poetry (sorry, cheap joke, but I am particularly fond of “Among School Children” which has one of the best descriptions of love I’ve ever read), this hilarious comic by Kate Beaton, and presumably in Gonne’s own autobiography, A Servant of the Queen, unless she felt that other aspects of her life might be more important to talk about. It would probably be frustrating to live a long and full life and be a revolutionary and all that and still have everyone just want to talk about how you didn’t marry Yeats even though he asked you five times.

5 thoughts on “April 19th: "When You Are Old"”

  1. Oh, you are way too generous by Yeats. (Granted I’d never seen the Ronson poem before, so I had nothing against which to judge his own, apparently more restrained, version of this self-venerating nonsense.) Dude, Maud Gonne is NEVER gonna take down that book! If she’s dreaming about anything gone by, it’s her youthful firebrandishness, not you!
    Besides which, after striking out with Maud, he waited until her daughter was grown up and then proposed to HER. That’s just not right.

    1. Besides which, after striking out with Maud, he waited until her daughter was grown up and then proposed to HER.
      Oh my god, did he REALLY??? That’s APPALLING. That may displace my previous favorite bit of Yeats creepiness, A Prayer for my Daughter. The whole thing is amazing but here’s the best part, IMO:
      …An intellectual hatred is the worst,
      So let her think opinions are accursed.
      Have I not seen the loveliest woman born
      Out of the mouth of Plenty’s horn,
      Because of her opinionated mind
      Barter that horn and every good
      By quiet natures understood
      For an old bellows full of angry wind?…
      Classy, Yeats. Even your daughter is still somehow all about your ex-girlfriend, huh? Also, I hate it when guys try to decide EXACTLY how beautiful they want their daughter to be, as he does earlier in the poem–not TOO beautiful but not ugly or anything, they usually decide. Just…why are you even thinking about that? It’s weird.

  2. <>
    That’s exactly what I thought when I first read that poem! Really, WB? In a poem about your BABY DAUGHTER?
    That said, I should also say I think he’s one of the greatest poets ever, at least in the English language, which is all I can vouch for. I always wonder how different his poetry might have been (better or worse?) if things with Maud had worked out the way he wanted.
    Yay, poetry month! I’ve really enjoyed these posts.

    1. I adore Yeats too…as I said “Among School Children” has one of my very favorite descriptions of love ever, where he says “And it seemed that our two natures blent/into a sphere from youthful sympathy/or else, to alter Plato’s parable/into the yoke and white of the one shell.”
      I have similar wonderings about Keats, who is also one of my favorite poets–if he hadn’t had TB, and he’d lived longer, would he have grown up and written unimaginably amazing poetry that WASN’T all about the brevity of life, Romantic Gothic, and women being jerks? Or was that actually his first best destiny? Because they are GREAT poems about the brevity of life, Romantic Gothic, and women being jerks…
      Hee, WB! Now I am imagining the story of Yeats and Maud Gonne as a WB-style teen drama. Or else the WB, but as produced by Yeats. Lots of really angsty teen dramas about political activists and Greek mythology, I guess, with really esoteric and incomprehensible but strangely compelling segments every few episodes?

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