January 9, 2011

Analysis of W.B. Yeats's "When You Are Old"

Analysis of William Butler Yeats' When You Are Old

William Butler Yeats' poem "When You are Old" is a free adaptation of Pierre de Ronsard's poem "Of His Lady's Old Age" (Ronsard's poem is at the end of this analysis). It is a poem about true love that transcends death. Pierre de Ronsard died in 1585 (Shakespeare died in 1616). He was a deaf poet of great renown. He enjoyed many perks of the courtly life as a favorite among the royal family.

I believe the narrator is a man, who wrote this poem for his beloved to read after he died. His beloved is growing old, sitting next to the fire to keep warm (as you grow older your skin thins, and you are more susceptible to cold temperatures). He wants her to remember her youth; he wants her to remember the good times and the bad. People inevitably change over time, and he wants her to remember the innocence that she once had; how her youthful naivety filled her with unwavering hope for a wonderful future.

She was a great beauty that was loved by many when she was young; the boys were captivated by her charm, and youthful attitude. There was only one man that loved who she was on the inside; the others were merely attracted to her beauty. He loved her adventurous soul. He loved her during the good times and the bad; his love was unwavering.

He is looking down upon her from Heaven's glowing gates; he is sad that he had to leave her, but he leaves her this poem. He paces the heavenly mountains, eagerly awaits the time when they will be reunited. He hides his face in the stars, so that she can't see his pain.

Pierre de Ronsard's poem "Of His Lady's Old Age"

(translated by Andrew Lang); written in 1550

When you are very old, at evening
You'll sit and spin beside the fire, and say,
Humming my songs, 'Ah well, ah well-a day!
When I was young, of me did Ronsard sing.'
None of your maidens that doth hear the thing,
Albeit with her weary task foredone,
But wakens at my name, and calls you one
Blest, to be held in long remembering.
I shall be low beneath the earth, and laid
On sleep, a phantom in the myrtle shade,
While you beside the fire, a granddame gray,
My love, your pride, remember and regret;
Ah, love me, love, we may be happy yet,
And gather roses, while 'tis called to-day.


Yeats, William Butler. "When You are Old." The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Twentieth Century and After. 8th ed. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: Norton, 2006. 2026.

The Sonnets of Europe, ed. by Samuel Waddington. London: Walter Scott, 1888; Bartleby.com, 2012. 18 July 2014. .

Published on January 9, 2011 by Sophia Brookshire © All Rights Reserved

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