When You Are Old By William Butler Yeats

Unrequited love can be incredibly torturous but it can also be an inspiring creative force and is perhaps the most powerful muse in the world. And while it can lead to unwanted implications like stalking and obsession, if channeled in the right way, it can also lead to some beautiful and memorable creations. Think of all the artists, writers and musicians who credit their achievements to a muse they couldn’t win over. Van Gogh made some of his best work after Kee Vos, his beloved cousin by marriage, broke his heart. Dante fell in love with Beatrice when he was 8, and as an adult immortalized his devotion to her in La Vita Nuova and The Divine Comedy. In our own time, Smith, Adele and Taylor Swift are giving voice to unrequited love in their music.

In this poem by W.B. Yeats, he highlights the unrequited love between the speaker, presumably himself, and his former lover, Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary who ended up marrying another man. When someone reads this poem for the first time, it seems to be filled with love, but the last stanza is dark; the speaker is reminding his former mistress that their love did not last, and this is something she should regret for the rest of her life.

When You Are Old By William Butler Yeats

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.

About W.B Yeats

An Irish poet and one of the foremost figures of 20th-century literature, William Butler Yeats was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival along with Lady Gregory, Edward Martyn and others. While the above poem by Yeats is one of most popular poems, he wrote many others that were just as successful. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in December 1923. He was aware of the symbolic value of an Irish winner so soon after Ireland had gained independence, and sought to highlight the fact at each available opportunity. His reply to many of the letters of congratulations sent to him contained the words: I consider that this honour has come to me less as an individual than as a representative of Irish literature, it is part of Europe’s welcome to the Free State.

Some of his important later works include  The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Works {1893}, The Rose {1893}, The Wind Among the Reeds {1899}, The Wild Swans at Coole {1917}, A Vision {1925}, The Tower {1928}, Words for Music Perhaps and Other Poems {1932} among others. Yeats passed away on January 28, 1939, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. The publication of Last Poems and Two Plays shortly after his death further cemented his legacy as a leading poet and playwright.