Reading Poetry: “When You are Old” by Yeats

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.

Poetry is like loving a woman.

Each woman is different, and each has come from a different area with different backgrounds. While literature has the same facets, different genres and different authors, in literature she tells you the story. In poetry, you have to ask her the story. So that is how you approach poetry: over a glass of wine.

The best first step is to say “what do I think this poem means,” and then turn to your neighbor and say “what do you think this poem means.” Both of you are putting together who you think this woman is. So reading academic papers on poetry can be very helpful.

The Rose was a book of poetry in celebration of Ireland, so the rose was the symbol of Ireland’s neverending beauty in various forms. But, in knowing this, if you want to understand what Yeats was really talking about here, you need to do a little research on Ireland in 1890. Where were they as a people then? What were they dealing with? The famine was in 1845-7, so they are recovering as a nation from that…but millions of Irish have left their land. How does Ireland feel when its children must flee because it cannot provide for them? Members of the Young Ireland movement had an armed rebellion and were convicted of treason in 1848. In 1866 a radical group called the Fenians made several attempts to overthrow British rule. Farmers were also renting their land from the British, which led to decades of unrest. In the 1870s-90s, Charles Parnell had a political reign where he fought for Irish autonomy in Parliment, and was considered the “uncrowned king of Ireland.” But radicals who assasinated British officials in Ireland claimed to do so for Parnell, which although was unfounded, continued to split the nation. But then it was discovered that he was living with a married woman, and he never recovered. And that brings us up to the time when Yeats wrote The Rose. So, that gives you an idea of where the soul of Ireland was when he wrote his ode to Ireland.

On the other hand, he was also desperately in love with a woman in Ireland named Maud Gonne, who has been known to be his muse during The Rose and also constantly rejected him as a lover.

So, between the rejection of his love, and the passion he feels for Ireland, you have a very good standing to read “When Your Are Old.

There is a longing for legacy in this poem. Like an old parent whose children have gone, they might remember the days when their children were young and playful. They’ll take down the book of pictures and remember when life was full of the energy of the future. The dream of aspirations for his country fade with the fire. The longing of a relationship with the woman he loves is unrequited. There are shadows, which only remember what once there, but is there no more.

There is my poetry reading for today 🙂

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