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Featured Poem: When You Are Old by W.B. Yeats

Written by Rachael Norris, 14th December 2020

This week's Featured Poem, When You Are Old by W.B.Y eats, is brought to us by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin. To see what else we have coming up this month on the theme of 'Winter Warmth', our December readings calendar can be downloaded here. 

Some poems create really vivid pictures in my head when I read them, more than others do (or at least, it can take a few readings to conjure something up). The first part of this poem presents a very clear image to me; I can see this person in a high-backed armchair placed not far from a roaring fireplace on a winter’s night, enclosed and cosy, sheltered away from the world outside. I don’t know about you but that sounds rather ideal to me, and a situation I’d like to find myself in when I am older. I like the idea of ‘slowly read’, as well; there’s no haste or hurry here, and it seems to add to the relaxed atmosphere, allowing the ‘dream’ that comes to drift in gently. Is it really a dream that’s spoken of here, or a memory of the past? Perhaps memories can become like dreams, or feel like them, when the years that have passed become increasingly distant.

There’s something I find really moving about the contrast between the ‘many’ and the ‘one man’, as well as the ‘beauty’ and the ‘pilgrim soul’. Both of these things can and do exist at the same time, but there seems to be something deeper and perhaps even more humble in the ‘pilgrim soul’, and the fact that ‘one man’ loves and, by that, knows this person who is perhaps regarded as an object of fascination or some untouchable idol, almost, by many others makes me feel comforted. There’s also something about ‘the sorrows of your changing face’; I’m thinking about how different it would feel if the sorrows were joys, instead. If someone loves your sorrows then that love feels as though it is really deep and true, indeed.

The ‘glowing bars’ make me think of a fire again, particularly coal burning red and orange in a grate, so it feels like we are brought back to the present from the dream that was visited. Who is doing the murmuring here, I wonder? It feels like that’s something you might do while you’re in a deep sleep, perhaps. Those last couple of lines feel rather bittersweet; that love has been lost, at least in its physical sense – and also quickly and unexpectedly, by the fact that it ‘fled’. Yet it can be found in the ‘mountains overhead’ and ‘amid a crowd of stars’; both of those things feel really awe-inspiring and magical to me, and that they are constants within nature leaves me with a feeling of reassurance.

I hope that this poem can give some warmth to you, regardless of whether you’re able to sit by a fire or are perhaps relying on other forms of heating.


When You Are Old


When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;


How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;


And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.


W.B. Yeats

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