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When You Are Old W.B. Years

William Butler Yeats an Irish poet, dramatist and prose writer, one of the greatest English-language poets of the 20th century, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Between the Celtic visions of THE WANDERINGS OF OISIN (1889) and the intellectual, often obscure poetry of the 1930s, Yeats produced a tremendous amount of works. According to David Daiches, Yeats first started writing poetry. He then turned “to mysticism of one kind or another, to folklore, theosophy, spiritualism, Meo-platonism, and finally elaborated a symbolic system of his own, based on a variety of sources….”

Short Summary of The Poem

The poem, “When you are old” has been written by an Anglo- Irish poet, ‘William Butler Yeats’ – a noble laureate in English literature. This poem has been taken from ‘The Rose’ addressed to Maud Gonne.

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The poet had madly fallen in love with Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary, who never responded to his love.

The poem begins “When you are old….”, rather than “Now you are old. “,
which suggests that it is a warning or judgment upon an unrequited subject. The poet tells his beloved that one day she will become old and her hair will turn grey. She will lose the soft look of her deep eyes. She will feel drowsy and tired all the time. She will spend most of her time by the fireplace sleeping and warming herself. He wants that she should then take up his book of poems and read it slowly and properly. These poems will remind her of her youth, beauty and grace. She will remember that there were many men who wanted her. But as time passed. she grew old and all their love disappeared. She will then realize that there was only one person who loved her truly and whose love was spiritual. He loved her in and out. He not only loved her external features but also her intrinsic nature.

In the concluding lines, the poet doesn’t unleash a flurry of bitter recrimination at her because of his unrequited love, but instead offers a self-effacing declaration of his devotion and says:

“…And paced upon the mountain overhead And his face amid a crowd of stars”

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She will then feel sad over the fate of the dead poet. She will realize how the poet’s sad soul had gone flying high above the mountains and has hidden itself behind the stars.

Detailed Summary of When You Are Old

“When You Are Old” is a short lyric of twelve lines in three stanzas. The poem is the product of the early period in Yeasts’ poetic career. The poem has been written in three stanzas, each containing four lines. The rhyming pattern is very different and steady written in iambic pentameter, the first stanza is abba; the second is cdcd; the third is efef. It is addressed to Maud Gonne with whom he was in love. It forms a part of the group of poems published in 1893 with the title ‘The Rose’. It expresses the poet’s distress at the disastrous onslaught of Time.

In this poem, the poet narrates how his beloved Maud Gonne would grow old with the passage of time. Her liveliness and youthful energy would vanish and she would pass the time dozing by the fireside as old people want to do. She would perhaps pick up the volume of the poet’s Collected Poems and slowly go through the verses wherein the poet has declared his love for her and admired her graces and charms. She would be reminded of the loveliness of her eyes that she once possessed and of their deep shadows. At that time she might think that many young people loved her for her beauty and youth, but there was only one whose love was sincere and genuine and it was certainly the poet himself. The poet loved her not for her physical beauty only but also loved for her soul. It was the poet among all others who could feel for her and love her because sorrow and suffering were depicted on her face. The perusal of the poet’s love poems would set his beloved thinking longingly of the past. She would then realize the worth and importance of the poet’s love. With the realization, she would mutter to herself with anguish that he was no more alive. He was dead and gone and his soul must either be hovering among the mountains or it must have become part of the galaxy of the stars overhead.

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The poem presents a portrait of decaying and dying youth and beauty. Maud Gonne, his beloved, was a proud and headstrong girl. The poem sounds a note of warning to her. The idea is that if she does not reciprocate his love, which is not merely physical, but spiritual too, she would have to repent for her folly in her old age. Her youth and beauty would wither and vanish one day, and lovers who hover around her, lured by her bloom, would desert her one by one. Then she would smart with a sense of remorseful agony for the cruelty and callousness towards the poet. The poet intends to forewarn her.

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Questions And Answers

Q.1) How is the journey from youth to old age described in the poem?
Answer. The poem presents a portrait of decaying and dying youth and beauty. Youth is the time of joy and strength. It is the time when one has all the charms and graces. But as we grow old, we become frail. The hair turns grey. We feel sleepy and tired all the time. We lose our physical strength and beauty. The deep and dark eyes lose their lustre. The old age is full of sorrows.

Q.2 What does the phrase ‘full of sleep’ mean?
Answer. The phrase ‘full of sleep’ is a symbol of old age. It means being drowsy and listless all the time. In our old age, we always feel sleepy and tired. The agility of youth remains no longer with us. The life becomes dull and dreary as we wish to keep sitting down.

Q.3 How is the poet’s love different from those who also loved his beloved?

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Answer. The poet’s love depicted in the poem is more spiritual than merely physical. Her (Poet’s beloved) youth and beauty would wither and vanish one day, and lovers who hover around her, lured by her bloom, would desert her one by one. But the poet loves his beloved from the bottom of his heart. His love for her is sincere. He is not just fascinated by her physical charms, but his love is beyond these transient realms. He loves the holy soul within her. Thus his love is spiritual.

Q.4 What is Maud Gonne reminded of in the poem?
Answer. The poem sounds a note of warning to his beloved (Maud Gonne). The idea is that if she does not reciprocate his love, which is not merely physical, but spiritual too, she would have to repent for her folly in her old age. Her youth and beauty would wither and vanish one day, and lovers who hover around her, lured by her bloom, would desert her one by one. Then she would smart with a sense of remorseful agony for the cruelty and callousness towards the poet.

Q.5 ‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you’. Explain.
Answer. The poet reminds her beloved that there were many who loved her when she was young and beautiful. They loved her physical charms. Their love was merely for flesh an bones which could not be called love, but lust. The poet tells his beloved that she will realize in her old age the true quality of his love. He loved the pilgrim soul in her. In other words, the poet’s love was spiritual in nature. He would love her constantly.

Q.6 Write a short paragraph on the emotions portrayed in the poem.
Answer. The perusal of the poem ‘When you are Old’ would set his (poet’s) beloved thinking longingly of the past. She would then realize the worth and importance of the poet’s love. With the realization, she would mutter to herself with anguish that he was no more alive. He was dead and gone and his soul must either be hovering among the mountains or it must have become part of the galaxy of the stars overhead. The poem presents a portrait of decaying and dying youth and beauty. Maud Gonne, his beloved, was a proud and headstrong girl. The poem sounds a note of warning to her. The idea is that if she does not reciprocate his love, which is not merely physical, but spiritual too, she would have to repent for her folly in her old age. Her youth and beauty would wither and vanish one day, and lovers who hover around her, lured by her bloom, would desert her one by one. Then she would smart with a sense of remorseful agony for the cruelty and callousness towards the poet.

Q.7 Discuss the ‘images’ used in the poem: ‘When you are old’.
Answer. The use of figurative to represent objects, actions, and ideas in such a way that it appeals to our physical senses and can create mental pictures is generally known as ‘Imagery’. The poem has been made rich with a number of images:
I old and grey (old person).
ii full of sleep.
iii nodding beside the fireplace.
iv reading of the book.
v soft looks of the bright and dark eyes.
vi glowing bars.
vii mountains.
viii crowd of stars.

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