When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats

“When You are Old” is a beautiful love lyric. The lyric was composed in October 1891, amid W.B.Yeat’s unverifiable association with Maud Gonne who was an Anglo-Irish progressive, women activist and on-screen character.

Central Idea: The poet has addressed this poem to his beloved, Maud Gonne, who never reciprocated his love.

The speaker of the poem dramatizes his unreturned love by giving a future warning to the girl of a present day. He tells her that when she grows old she will get the flashbacks and memories and she will regret the rejected love.

The poem is full of a lover’s passion, intense feelings and spirituality. It conveys a message that true love is indestructible and constant.

When You Are Old


The speaker of the lyric addresses his beloved saying that when she is matured she should read a specific book which will help her to remember her childhood. She will recall all the people who had cherished her elegance and her excellence with either true or false love before, and furthermore that exclusive who had adored her spirit unequivocally as she developed old and the manner in which she looked changed. As she is helped to remember him, she will lament her botched chance of intimate romance.

Detailed Summary of When you are old By William Butler Yeats

Summary: 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.

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”

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.

Ask Your Question?


In the initial two lines, the speaker pictures his beloved as “old, and grey and full of sleep”, “nodding by the fire”, taking down and reading “this” book, which most likely refers to the book that was to end up Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics. The picture evoked is of a drowsy elderly person by the fire. The physical appearance of the lady is summarised by “grey”– her hair, eyes and skin have turned out to be lustreless and dull. The expression “full of sleep” proposes exhaustion, peace and her vicinity to death.

As she will read this book, she will remember the “soft look” and “the deep shadows” that her eyes had once had. Here the lyric gives us a glimpse of the lady’s childhood, proceeding to specify her “glade grace” which had stirred “true and false ” sentiments of adoration in her lovers. The words “sleep”, “slowly”, “soft”, “shadows” recommends a feeling of daze and stupor. The “shadows deep” brings out a feeling of the obscure and the mysterious, maybe inferring the quiet held by a man who has not encountered the harsh aspects of life or the attacks of time.

As she recollects this, she will also recall the man who had adored her for her “pilgrim soul” and the “sorrows of her changing face” as her childhood withered into old age. The “pilgrim soul” refers to the venturing soul, looking for devotion, travelling through life towards the last sign of death and salvation. The line also proposes the worship the speaker feels for the beloved. This man adored her truly and genuinely. The “one-man” here refers to Yeats himself since the poem depends on Maud Gonne’s dismissal of him, and is autobiographical.

The lyric comes back to the time period of her old age and portrays her “bending down beside the glowing bars” and mumbling to herself a little tragically how “Love fled/And paced upon the mountains overhead/And hid his face in amid a crowd of stars”. The “glowing bars” allude to the mesh railings of Gonne’s hearth. The last lines appear to recommend Yeats’ sentimental grievousness, irritated and confused, yet accomplishing the extent of the universe in his emotions.

This poem makes a subtle difference between Maud Gonne, who having rejected genuine love has dwindled into pulled back home life while the speaker’s affection has turned out to be supreme because of his confidence in the poise of the Heavens. The complexity is built up through the disjunction between the “glowing bars” and “the crowd of stars”. Rather than throwing unpleasant claims at her for not restoring his affection, he makes a subtle announcement of his commitment.

The themes of the poem are love, misfortune and regret and albeit dependent on the artist’s very own life. The assessment reflected in this lyric is normal to most, if not every, rejected sweetheart.

When You are Old Poem Questions-Answers and Summary 1

About William Butler Yeats

W.B.Yeats was a vital twentieth-century Irish writer. He was a ground-breaking influence behind the Irish Literary Revival and also established the Abbey Theater along with Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn. He filled in as its boss for quite a while and also promoted J.M. Synge, Sean O’ Casey and others. In 1923, he won the Noble Prize for Literature, which he viewed as “part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State”.

Yeats had proposed to Maud Gonne, a lovely, rich and brainy women activist, in 1891 and several times after that however had been rejected. He had also proposed to her daughter yet had been dismissed once more. Heat last wedded Georgie Hyde-Lees and had two kids with her – Anne and Michael.


The poem is written in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA CDDC EFFE which gives a steady rhythm to the poem. There is a use of alliteration in “glad grace” and “Love” is personified in the last stanza.

The repeated use of the word “and” in the first stanza gives a slow pace to poem, contributing to the stagnant atmosphere of the scene and the slow movements of the old woman, as she turns the pages of the book.

The literary devices in this poem are not very complex, as the poem flows smoothly by virtue of its simple rhyme scheme creating a sad reflective atmosphere which tones down the warning conveyed through the poem.


Q.No.1. How is the journey from youth to old age described in the poem?
Ans. The poet describes the period of youth as prised with physical charms, attractive eyes, pleasant feeling of love etc, while as it describes the old age in terms of grey hairs, drowsiness, sorrow, and desolation.


The journey from youth to old age is very heart touching. In our prime youth, we are flocked by many admirers. Life seems to be very sweet and happy. But freaks and vagaries of nature spare none. As we grow old, all pleasures and false admirers begin to fade away. Then we are left alone and bitterness of life dawns on us.

Q.No.2. What does the phrase full of sleep mean?
Ans. The phrase ‘ full of sleep’ has a symbolic meaning which means old age. It indicates the natural drowsiness that comes in human beings as one grows old and approaches death.


The phrase ‘full of sleep’ means approaching death, being drowsy and lifeless all the time. In our ripe age, we always feel meek, feeble, tired and we wish to keep sitting or lying all the time. We are then, indeed, ‘full of sleep’

Q.No.3. How is the poet’s love different from those who also loved his beloved?
Ans. The poet’s love stands different from those of the other lovers. Others loved his beloved for her soft looks, charming eyes, and physical beauty. The poet loved his beloved for her pilgrim soul and inner beauty. His love was spiritual, while as others was sensual.


The poet says that his love for his beloved is sincere and eternal. He loves her not only for her physical appearance but for the soul she has in her. His love is spiritual. The love of others for her could be true or false, but his love for her is certainly true and selfless. He loves her external beauty as well as her intrinsic nature.

In other words, we can say, The poet loved his beloved for her pilgrim soul and inner beauty. His love was spiritual, while as other’s was sensual.

Q.No.4. What is Maud Gonne reminded of in the poem?
Ans. Maud Gonne is reminded of her youthful days when she was charming and energetic. She is also reminded of her only true love who would love her for her pilgrim soul. Others love was short-lived while as the poet’s love was persistent.


Maud Gonne is reminded of her youth, beauty and grace. She is reminded of the false admirers who flocked her for her outer beauty but in old age, they have forsaken her completely.

She is also reminded that she will realize the true worth of the poet’s sincere love for her in her old age. She will then regret for the pure love which has slipped from her hands. She will feel sad for the disappointed poet to whom she has never responded.

Q.No.5. ‘But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you’ Explain.
Ans. The line describes that there was only one lover who loved Maud Gonne truly. He loved her for her inner beauty which did remain intact for the whole life. His love continued even when she becomes old and ugly while as those whose love was false distanced themselves when her physical charms lived its days.


Pilgrim soul represents the pure heart and beautiful soul of Maud Gonne. The poet tells his beloved that in her old age, she will realize the true quality of her various lovers. She will realize that there were many who loved her only for her youth, beauty and looks. But there was only one person who loved the pilgrim soul in her.

In other words; the poet loved her intrinsic soul and not merely her physical charm. He would love her eternally even when her pilgrim soul has left for another world

Q.No.6 Write a paragraph on emotions portrayed in the poem?
Ans. This poem is full of emotions and passion. Yeats uses the word love in all lines in the second stanza and in the third stanza, in the second line, he capitalizes this word giving it so much intensity. That demonstrates he wants to express the strength of his love for Maud and it can be seen as ethereal because it fled over the mountains and hides in a crowd of stars. That love goes up and high like If it is increasing, unreachable and untouchable. It can also be seen as even when he will be dead, his love will be alive. Here, we see that he wants Gonne to know the magnitude of his love for her. Thus the poet tells his beloved that true love is pure. It is of spirit & not the body. A true lover does not only love the physical charms of his beloved but most importantly loves the beautiful soul in her. The beloved may grow old & lose her beauty, but true love never grows old. His love continues even if the beloved refuses to accept him.

Further, the poet personifies the love in the lines “and paced upon the mountains overhead”, “and hid his face amid a crowd of stars”. The word “paced” seems to me like going from one place to another without being stable and choosing the right thing or the right person. We can also see alliteration in the words “hid”, “his”. He establishes again the urgent need that Maud must choose him now. I also see as if nature plays an important role in his way to express how pure his love was for her. The author tends to use these elements of nature in many of his poetry like in this poem.


The writer possesses the best feelings of affection for his believed specifically Maud Gonne. But she never reacts his adoration. The poem ‘When You Are Old’ is an outflow of his serious emotions. It hits our heart with feeling.

The writer reminds his darling her energetic days when she was extremely lovely. She had alluring eyes and attractive hair. Many cherished her at that phase of life. But now she has been displayed as an old woman with grey hair and wrinkles all over. The writer turned into an extremely passionate and communicates her to recollect those occasions when she had an alluring body and was adored by numerous individuals. Some adored her with genuine notion while others cherished her physical body just. But there was one man namely the poet who had otherworldly sort of affection for her. This man cherishes her not in her energetic days but rather at each phase of her life. He adores her even when the distresses of old age mists her face and left their mark there.

The love poem paints the image of vanishing youth, dying excellence, and momentary nature of false love. The feelings depicted in the lyric contacts a portion of our most profound and most serious sentiments. This poem is loaded with feeling and energy. Yeats utilizes the word love in all lines in the second stanza and in the third stanza, a second line he capitalizes this word giving it so much power. That exhibit by, in light of the fact that it fled over the mountains and covers up in a horde of stars. That adoration goes up and high as if it is expanding, inaccessible and unapproachable.

It can also be seen as notwithstanding when he will be dead, his affection will be alive. Here, we see that he needs Gonne to know the size of his adoration for her. The creator exemplifies the affection in the lines “and paced upon the mountains overhead”, “and hid his face in the crowd of stars”. “Paced” appears to me like moving between various places without being steady and picking the correct thing or the perfect individual. We can also observe alliteration in the words “hid”, “his”. He sets up again the critical need that Maud picks him now.

I also observe as though nature assumes an essential job in his approach to express how unadulterated his adoration was for her. The creator will, in general, utilize these components of nature in a considerable lot of his verse like in the ballad ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ (1898).

I decipher the words “glowing bars” as the jail of adoration and figments or the excited obstructions to give and get love in light of the fact that the ideal opportunity for it will be left. This is found in the mainline of the third stanza; “And bending down beside the glowing bars”. He’s begging her affection, twisting down and adjacent to each hindrance, which are her adoration and the other men, to let her know he is perseverant and has an unrestricted love for Maud Gonne.

Different pieces of information we found to achieve this end are that in the event that we set up together a few words that rhyme like “sleep” and “deep”, on the first stanza, we can see the picture of a dead individual. In the event that we do the same with words “grace”, “face”, on the second stanza, we envision and feel the magnificence; the same occurs when we set up together the words “true” and “you” on the second stanza as well, we can feel that it is the thing that he truly cherishes; the genuine you, the true self, Gonne’s spirit. Also, at long last, in the event that we set up together the words “fled” and “overhead”, on the third stanza, we have the symbolism, the sentiment of something that has left. This all demonstrates Yeats is giving her the subliminal command inside the unmistakable and direct message to cherish him now, that he is the special case who truly adores her and to not give time a chance to stroll against their satisfaction.


As we can find, Yeats unbelievably utilizes numerous components impeccable and harmoniously associated and concentrated into a short poem, for example, alliteration, immaculate metric, spondees, images and personification of affection to give her the correct message influencing to reach her change of mind and reciprocal love to him.

Q.No.7. What images does the poet use in the poem?
Ans. Images are pictures produced in the mind by the use of typical words. In this poem, the poet has used a number of images. Some of them are as under:

a) nodding by fire

b) moments of the glad race.

c) the pilgrim soul

d) sorrows of your changing face.

e) a crowd of stars.


The poet uses following images in the poem: grey hair, full of sleep, nodding by the fire, deep shadows of eyes, sorrow of changing face, glowing bars etc.

Q.No.8. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?
Ans. The poem is written in iambic pentameter with the rhyme scheme ABBA CDDC EFFE which gives a steady rhythm to the poem. The poem has three quatrains. The first line of each quatrain rhymes with the fourth, and the second with the third (abba).

Ask Your Question?

Additional Questions

“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats additional questions

1. What does the poem infer about the power of poetry and the written word?

The poem infers that poetry lasts and remains as a constant reminder of what was. The speaker suggests that poetry has the ability to contain a man’s life in its lines and, in turn, to ensure that life never dies.

2. The term “glad grace” is an example of what literary device?

The repetition of the ‘g’ sound suggests that it is an example of alliteration.

3. In what ways is the soul, to the speaker, a “pilgrim”?

The soul of the spoken to is on a pilgrimage through life. It is in a state of constant movement and experience, with its ultimate destination, through death, being heaven.

4. By having love flee to join the “crowd of stars” overhead, what is the speaker suggesting is its role in life?

Love is described as having the role of protector and guidance through life for the pilgrim soul.

When You are Old Poem Questions-Answers and Summary


Sharing knowledge has helped humanity to survive and evolve into the smart and productive species that it is today.A Candle loses nothing by lighting another candle."Margaret Fuller says, "If you have the knowledge, let others light their candles with it."


2 thoughts on “When You are Old Poem Questions-Answers and Summary

  • 13 Jul 2020 at 11:00 AM

    Can you answer this question, please?
    Q: Explain the phrase ‘your changing face.’

  • 8 Jan 2019 at 1:35 PM


Write Your Opinion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Subscribe. Yes, it is free!

Shout questions, submit your articles, get study notes and smart learning tips and much more...!