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.