When you are old and gray and full of sleep


When you are old and gray 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



A medieval poem, a translation with variation from a time when courtly romantic love was the mode. As in much of such poetry the poet/lover expresses a platonic sort of love which is not returned by the beloved. Also the troubadour poet would not really expect to be loved in return,  partly because the beloved was of a far higher social status than himself. 


That kind of ‘romantic’ love is less common in poetry now, though has survive from the eleventh century many aspects of ‘boy girl’ relationships, and is still found in films.  


Yeats translates Ronsard’s poem  and alters it in some ways.  In Ronsard there is greater emphasis on the way the poem will survive his disappointment, and perhaps redeem it.   And there’s an element of self-serving.  In his poem it’s he who will gain in old age because it’ll be his poem that she is remembered by.  Also – something not found in Yeats -  he is also using the poem to persuade her to become his lover on the grounds that life is short , ‘seize the day’. 

Herrick wrote

 ‘gather ye rosebids while ye may’ 

Shakespeare’s female lead in As You Like it wrote

     ‘Men have died betimes and worms have eaten them.  But not for love.’

Yeats takes the role of the resigned troubadour who is going to have his love rejected for ever.    He’s not thinking in terms of fame at all but regret, and because it seems to him he’s the only one who saw the real person in her, the sadness, the ‘pilgrim soul’, which he so much admired.    Yet Maud Gonne was anything but the passive ‘lady’ of troubadour poetry.   Although he loves her as an individual, it is the searching and seeker (pilgrim) in her that he loves.  And yet he also saw her  as the  epitome of the loved woman – Helen of Troy – and  an embodiment of Ireland yet to be free.  

The ‘pilgrim soul’ is contrasted to outer face shown and admired, the ‘glad grace’ and ‘the beauty’ but the inner person,  set indeed upon a pilgrimage to make Ireland independent, but yet, Yeats suggested, not properly recognised by those around her.  He was very disparaging about the man she eventually married – a ‘vainglorious lout’ – he called him, a man of action unlike Yeats himself. 

 And yet at the end he’s talking about ‘love’.  It isn’t Maude but love who ‘hid his face’ from her.  And, in the sky where Plato located souls, of the dead, of the not yet living, and these are the crowd, and so the face of that individual love is lost in this celestial crowd.

 The poem makes a shift with the line ‘but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you’.  The rhythm comes much closer to a ‘iambic pentameter’ norm than it has been since the first line’s ‘old and gray and full of sleep’, and the ‘one man’ now becomes the centre of the poem.  He’s move from talking about her to himself.  And even when he returns to look at things from her point of view,  and again reasserts the iambic ‘norm’

 “And bending down beside the glowing bars’

 Her feelings are still being seen through his regret.  He makes her the one who ‘murmurs’ (now breaking up the iambic flow) because now she is saying what he has already know,  what she couldn’t see at the time,  and it’s not just Yeats who has ‘lost’ her.  She has lost the chance of love.  She now is expressing regret – as he imagines – and the regret is his own too (and this echoes the sort of triumphalism in the original).   The imperatives surely suggests that in some way he is ‘telling her to’  “take down this book,” and towards the end to “murmur, a little sadly”.    He’s saying that this poem, which when you read it in the book you take down then,  will have turned out to be right.  Your ‘pilgrim soul’ will be solitary still because you didn’t respond to me, the one who understood your sorrows then,  and by extension understands in advance your sorrowful regret in the future, but without any satisfaction.

 Yes she was admired by so many, a crowd of stars, all gone, and the one she’d like to single out lost among them.   The ‘changing’ face – changing like the moon and so traditional in this world of impermanence under those stars.

And yet, I’m wrong, there is arrogance here.   Because even if it is ‘love’,  that pilgrim soul love is Yeats’s own, and when he/it ‘fled’ it was to an elevated place, the ‘mountains overhead’,  where he didn’t just go or walk, but ‘paced’  perhaps in despair, but an elevated one,   and then ‘the stars’ where love/Yeats can ‘hide his face’,  become anonymous perhaps.   But the image of him on the mountains, lost in the stars, is shown from her viewpoint, surely.

Here at the end, the poem again comes close to the iambic pattern

“And paced upon the mountains overhead,

and hid his face amid a crowd of stars”

 Where only the sec ond syllables of ‘upon’ and ‘amid’ have to be very slightly unnaturally stressed to make the completely regular x/x/x/x/x/.    Although ‘love’ is now turned into a kind of mythological figure in the sky, it/he is connected  with ‘one man’, mentioned early in another almost perfectly regular iambic line.

 So the poem expresses a mixture of regret,  self-vindication, and compassion

 Throughout the relation between ‘I’ and ‘you’  is unstable.  In the first stanza, why ask her to recall, or rather dream of  ‘the soft look/Your eyes [her own eyes] had once’, when it would seem more likely to be his recollection, and in the poem of course it is.  That soft look would be the lover’s view, something she could not see herself, let along ‘their shadows deep’.     It’s as if he’s inviting her to look at herself now, dream, as he saw her, and so appreciate his feelings – which she knew about though perhaps not ‘from inside’,   but always rejected at the time.  She didn’t ever properly ‘see’ him in and through the way he saw her.  In seeing that ‘pilgrim soul’ is he suggesting that he knew the ‘real her’ better than she did herself?

 The poem retains a lot of the ethos of Ronsard’s own time, of the courtly love, romantic love tradition.  How far is it possible to get into this poem if you find that assumptions about love and the gender roles  something over archaic,  a matter of images and types, role positions we no longer adopt?  Maude Gonne herself seems to have been aware of the gap between person and beloved when she wrote to Yeats

“You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that.... The world should thank me for not marrying you."

Yeats recognised something of this, much later,  when he wrote, in The Choice


              The intellect of man is forced to choose

             perfection of the life, or of the work,

  And if it take the second must refuse

   A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.


Yeats sees love as an idea, perhaps he idea of a lost experience.  At the same time he is attempting to see his situation through the eyes of Maude Gonne, both the ‘pilgrim soul’ which he understands better than anyone, and also the symbol of ‘the beloved’.  She is something already in him, his longing, and this longing is also connected with poetry, and perhaps is what his poetry comes out of.   The poem is a symbolic expression of his love, just as Maude is a symbol of his need to love.    In this lies his link with medieval conceptions of love, and sense of allegory.  His way of seeing the world in terms of symbols is mocked by Pound in one of the Pisan Cantos.

And Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame

in search of whatever

                       Paused to admire the symbol

with Notre Dame standing inside it



Here, we might say, he admires the symbol with Maude Gonne standing inside it.