WB Yeats’ When You Are Old (1893)


  • Published as part of a collection, The Rose, which was inspired by Yeats’ long-time unrequited love, Maude Gonne
  • Yeats was madly in love with Maude and proposed to her on several occasions. He also proposed to her adopted daughter Iseult in 1917.
  • Maude rejected Yeats, because he was not fully committed to the Irish independence (Irish Nationalism), which she was passionate about. She had already fully rejected her Anglo-Irish heritage.


  • Biographical – unrequited love for Maude Gonne
  • Universal – lyrical expression of the unrequited love
  • Romanticism – as a Romantic poet, Yeats is isolated and mortal, but his work “this book” is an attempt to immortalise himself


Is this poem an expression of love? Or of hate/bitterness?

Is this poem an examination of the contrast between youth and age? Between beauty and sadness?

Is this a poem about Yeats’ suffering and isolation as a Romantic poet?


  • What is the effect of the repetition of “and” and “love/d”?
  • How would you describe the mood/tone of the poem? Quiet? Still? Hypnotic? Bitter?
  • What is the effect of the line/breaks and punctuation? In particular, notice that there is only one full stop and it is at the end of the poem.
  • What image is created through “old”, “gray”, “full of sleep”, “nodding by the fire”, “shadows”?
  • The abstract concepts of “grace” and “ebauty” are juxtaposed against the specificity of “one man”. What is the effect of this juxtaposition?
  • What is your impression of all the actions in this poem? Think of the descriptions, “Nodding”, “slowly read”, “dream”, “bending down”, “murmur, a little sadly”.
  • Why does Yeats create an abstract personification of Love hiding amongst the stars in an image reminiscent of Greek mythology?

Relation to other poems:

  • Yeats’ was rejected by Maude, because of his lack of conviction in the Irish Nationalism cause. You can see in his other poems, Easter 1916, that he saw the use of violence/force in the cause as unnecessary and tragic.


2 comments for “WB Yeats’ When You Are Old (1893)

  1. April 28, 2012 at 7:26 pm

    Check out this short film, inspired by ‘When you are old and grey’ and exploring the power of poetry and the experience of first love and regret: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qyDEEQoVqjY

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