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.

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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.

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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.


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


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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


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