Song of the Old Mother by WB Yeats


‘Song of the Old Mother’ by WB Yeats is about an old woman describing the chores that she does every day. In the first two lines the old woman gets out of bed then lights the fire. She cooks and cleans until nightfall. The woman thinks that young people are lazy and have a much easier and carefree life than she does. In the final two lines the woman says that she must work because she is old and at the end of the poem the fire, that took her a lot of effort to light, has gone out again.

Written in 1899 and set in rural Ireland the poem reveals what life was like for peasant women in those times. As she is a poor and aging woman, her life is hard and very repetitive. WB Yeats uses this old woman to show what life was like for the poor and elderly in rural Ireland.

‘Song of the Old Mother’ uses imagery very effectively. Words such as ‘kneel’, ‘scrub’ and ‘sweep’ convey the hard physical work that the old woman does every day while ‘the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold’ creates a mood of sadness as, despite all her efforts, the fire goes out. The image of the fire going out could symbolise her life coming to an end as, like the fire, she too is feeble and dying. Contrast is used to reveal the different lifestyles of the old woman and the young people. Images used to describe the young include ‘the young lie long and dream in their bed’ and ‘their day goes over in idleness’ which are very different to the images of drudgery used to describe the old woman’s life. Such imagery has an emotive effect as it is intended to make us feel sympathetic for the woman and angry towards the idle young people.


Yeats uses a number of poetic techniques in the poem. The metaphor ‘the seed of the fire flicker and glow’ creates a vivid image of the fire growing from a tiny spark to a full grown fire whilst the repetition of this image in the final line, ‘the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold’ emphasises how repetitive her life is. The metaphor of the fire getting weaker and dying also foreshadows the future for the old woman and creates sympathy for her.

Alliteration is used to contrast the hard work of the old woman with life of the young people. In ‘the young lie long’ the repeated ‘l’ sound creates a lazy, languid feel to emphasise the carefree, idle lifestyle of the younger generation. I find the final line of the poem very effective. ‘And the seed of the fire gets feeble and cold’ makes me feel sad as it suggests that the old woman, who has had a life of drudgery and poverty, is nearing the end of her days.

The poem uses rhyming couplets and rhythm very cleverly. The rhyming couplets such as ‘blow/glow’ and ‘old/cold’ give the poem a repetitive feel like the woman’s work and the use of a steady rhythm makes the poem read like a song which fits with the title of the poem.

The poem has a sorrowful tone. The list of hard and menial jobs in the third line ‘scrub and bake and sweep’ makes the reader feel sorry for the old woman. The contrast between her day to day struggle and the idle life of the young adds to this gloomy mood and the line ‘I must work because I am old’, which suggests that the woman has no choice but to work until she dies, reinforces the melancholic feeling of the poem.

‘The Song of the Old Mother’ deals with a number of themes. Yeats explores old age and the attitudes of elderly people towards the young. The poem also covers issues such as poverty and life in rural Ireland at the turn of the century. Maybe Yeats was trying to show what life was like for old people who have to do lots of work and perhaps he hopes that the poem will change people’s attitudes towards poor elderly people

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