A few months back I presented a series of poems about old age that turned out to be written by young poets. Here’s another one written by the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats when he was in his 20s.
“When You Are Old” is generally considered to be written about Yeats’ love for Maud Gonne, who like Yeats was active in Irish cultural nationalism and their country’s struggle for political independence. Yeats’ largely unrequited love for Gonne has a long and complicated story, the kind I’d often delve into here—but not today. This widely assumed context for “When You Are Old” makes plain the poem’s historical, denotative meaning. One could paraphrase it like this: “You think I’m just another lovelorn suitor asking for your hand, and possibly other leading bodily parts, now—but someday you’re going to be old, and you’ll realize that the others around you were just after you ‘cause you’re a major hottie who seems to have it going on cultural-politically. I’m not like that. I’m your soul mate, who respects that you’re busy with this, and loves you even though you’re out searching for other things. That’s OK. Just know that someday, like when you’re old, you’re going to miss me. You’ll probably want to google William Butler Yeats some night and see if I’m still alive and what I’m up to….”
Yeats and Gonne. Yeats may be taking the bow-tie thing a bit too far. Rather than the musical style (or that paraphrase) I used today, I might have gone with this bare-faced expression of the same angst. You’re gonna miss me baby!
Did I just loose a bunch of readers* with this base summary of a beautiful poem that is sincerely loved by so many people? Don’t understand me too quickly, I’ll get back to what I think when I encounter this poem before I finish.
Indeed, this poem is especially well loved by older people and by a great many women.** If there’s a greatest hits of love poems in English, this poem is there. And I don’t think they’re wrong or missing some unavoidable explication of the poem’s context. I can’t say Yeats’ intent when he wrote it as a young man, or when he published it still being both of those things; but I doubt it was simply to dis an ex that wasn’t exactly an ex. And those that love the poem Yeats made are experiencing it in other contexts close to their own hearts and lives.
I’m close to Yeats’ age when he died, though still younger than Gonne who lived to be 86. The future mood predicted in this poem written by a twenty-something doesn’t ring false to me. I don’t dwell in the past, but it comes to visit me from time to time, and I’ll think of old lovers and not-to-be lovers absent and missing in time and place. For older people, some of those people remembered are dead, and so their present times and places are further obscured by the crowded stars. We often expect our poets today to write of their experience, but it turns out that we aren’t necessarily going to trade Yeats’ skill with a beautiful line for an authentic memoir-poem by an age-group peer.
One could trash this poem on gender role/sexual politics counts. Fine if you do—art is argument to a large part—but I doubt the women who love this poem do so all because they have self-worth issues. And after all, the poem doesn’t predict crushing regret at not bedding W. B. Yeats, or a reader’s personal equivalent. It only asks for a quantity of “a little sadly,” which doesn’t hurt anybody. Patriarchy aside, I suspect every letter in every acronym can accumulate such thoughts over a life-time. And throw out love, sex, and success, and we still cherish memories of any connection where someone saw and bowed to the pilgrim soul inside us. The youth in us seeks it, the old in us remembers it. Even 20-somethings.
So where does this pilgrim soul stand on “When You Are Old?” That want for connection it speaks of and the word music it’s sung in captures me entirely. It’s good not to trust poetry and poets entirely, but to give oneself over to this song is worthwhile.
I’m sure this poem has been set to music often, but that didn’t stop me. I used an interesting acoustic guitar tuning that someone said had been used by Mary Chapin Carpenter: C G D G B C for this, and then added another of my simple-is-all-I-can-do piano parts. That’s one of the joys of music: sometimes it doesn’t have to be complicated to please us. The player gadget is below to hear my performance. Here’s the text of Yeats’ poem if you’d like to read along. We’ll be back soon with more of our April celebration of National Poetry Month. Spread the word if you can.
*I’m hopeful I didn’t, if only because listener/readers here should already know that I’m going to mix things up. If you think today’s music is what I’ll do next time, you should hear the #NPM2020 piece I’ve been working on—and you probably will be able to in the next few days.
**Here’s a 10 minute video where someone old and someone woman both declare their love for this poem.