When You are Old
William Butler Yeats, 1891
Every culture has its love poetry, you might think, and maybe you’d be right, but you’d also be surprised to see that sometimes love seems to be the main thing men sing about, and sometimes not. What young men sing about now, with hearts full of joy or sorrow, I’m not sure. You’d have to ask them what they find most dear. I hope they are still encouraged to look for their most precious earthly treasure in a beautiful and gracious woman.
And what if you fall deeply in love, and for one reason or another the love is not requited, or it is requited with appreciation or friendship or gratitude, but not with any love that binds man and woman in marriage? You might walk away from that love, let it go, try to forget it, and, as they say, “move on.” But try, my dear reader, to imagine a young man full of ardent passion and the highest intellectual and patriotic ideals, falling in love with a beautiful woman possessed of the same passion and ideals, in a nation they have devoted their lives to, a nation struggling for its liberty. You can no more walk away from that than you can walk away from your soul. And that is what happened to the young poet, William Butler Yeats, who fell in love with Maud Gonne, an actress and an Irish separatist, a passionate adherent to whatever she took in hand, some of it half mad, and never reliably on the side of any traditional morality. Yeats proposed to her many times over a long stretch of years, and she always turned him down. Every photograph I’ve seen of Maud Gonne suggests that she was self-willed, intelligent, of a classical and somewhat haughty bearing. You can tell why Yeats was enthralled, and why that was not necessarily an easy thing for him.
Here, in 1891, just two years after he met her, the young Yeats imagines that she is reading a book many years later, when she is “old and grey.” Probably it is a book of Yeats’ own poems. And as she reads, she remembers that many men loved her for what was most obviously lovable, her “moments of glad grace,” but there was only one man who loved her “pilgrim soul,” her restless yearning, her sorrows; only one man who really knew who she was.
Yet she did not respond. And now, as she sits and nods by the fire, and as the grate in the fireplace with its iron bars suggest a quiet and settled prison, he begs her to “murmur, a little sadly” — or he foretells that she shall do so — about the Love that fled, to walk on the high mountains, pacing alone, and to hide his face “among a crowd of stars.”
A love poem it still is, because the poet is still warning his beloved that it should not be so, she should not allow this to happen. There must still be hope! But how beautiful are the words, so simple, you might think you could have written them yourself; but all the art here is in hiding the fact that there is any art at all. The heart speaks, and hopes that another heart will hear.
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.
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