?When You Are Old? By William Butler Yeats Essay, Research Paper
Writing about Literature
Sept. 14, 2000
“When You Are Old”
William Butler Yeats
Unrequited love is a common theme in poetry. Nature, death, wars, religions are all significant themes but love is the most important. It gives the reader an insight to the author’s inner feelings. “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats is no exception. Yeats reflects upon his unconditional love for a woman who was not ready for a serious relationship.
“When You Are Old” is about Maud Gonne, an Irish nationalist who William Butler Yeats was infatuated with and his unrequited love for her. In the poem, Maud Gonne is reflecting on past loves and relationships. She realizes that Yeats was her only companion who loved her unconditionally. Many loved her, or said they did, but not in every respect like Yeats. Perhaps if her realization were sooner, Yeats would have married her.
Many key words jut out, giving us clues to which Yeats is describing. The most significant is “Love” on the tenth line. “Love” is capitalized representing William Yeats himself. Yeats or “Love” fled because he knew it was the best for her. When one loves another unconditionally sacrifices must be made; in this case ending the relationship was the solution. Two other key words are located in the sixth line, “false” and “true”. These words are used to exemplify the love she received from her past relationships. Some men truly loved her while others were artificial with their love. William Yeats is telling us how he loved her good qualities, along with her faults. This again is a prime example of his unconditional admiration and praise for her. Maud Gonne was a strong, independent woman. A key word to describe her is “pilgrim”, located on the seventh line. Yeats depicts her soul as a “pilgrim”, constantly moving and free minded. A person with a “pilgrim soul” must be set free to wander in life. Yeats knew this and ended the relationship because she wasn’t totally happy.
The imagery in this poem sets the scene and the mood. A strong image is in the first line. Yeats uses great adjectives like “old”, “gray”, and “full of sleep” to depict Maud as an old, tired woman. This is very important because it sets the scene and tone. The imagery in the second line adds to this. “Nodding by the fire” also gives us a concrete picture. These two lines really illustrate a scene of an old woman reading a book by the firelight.
The theme of this poem is one of unrequited love. Yeats is acknowledging his unconditional wonder and admiration for Maud Gonne. He loved her very much but that same passion and love was not returned. This is a very common theme in poetry but Yeats demonstrates it very well because he uses a real life situation. His feelings and emotions are real because he experienced them first hand.
I can relate to this poem because I have been in a similar situation. I
had a girlfriend last year, who was very caring and compassionate. She was amazing but extremely attached. I was in the same situation as Maud Gonne. I needed my space for my “pilgrim” soul was uneasy. I am young and I need to experience new things and people, just like Maud. As I look back now I realize that my girlfriend was very generous and treated me with care. Those traits are hard to find in someone and I feel lucky to have experienced that.