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 among a crowd of stars.
William Butler Yeats
This poem has a lot of movement, spatial, chronological, and psychological, for a single sentence about an old woman drowsing by the fireplace. There's a gentle, romantic haze over the first stanza, as the poet urges her, through the portal of the book we too are reading, to look backward into her romantic past – in fact, to dream of (rather than to examine clearly) that past. She is nodding, she reads slowly, her look was soft, and the shadows deep. The past here is a twilight kingdom, filled with her moments of "glad grace" and with many youthful lovers – this is a reverie, not a novelistic analysis. But the key word here is the very first one: when you are old. In fact, this past is still the present, and the woman at this point is neither old nor grey – the poet is telling her that this is what she should do, when the time comes. when she is old and grey.
At the moment when he is addressing her, presumably she is still young and graceful, with many admirers, but he's suggesting that in the long run his rivals will be a blur, and out of the many will come forth one – himself, the one man who sees beyond the deeps of her soft eyes and into her soul: her pilgrim soul. Pilgrim changes how we see this woman, and brings us in contact with a restless spiritual quality in her that immediately becomes more important to us than her outer appearance – it's such a vivid and unexpected word, its connotations of the sacred and searching overpowering the more generic "beauty" and "grace" that are attracting the poet's rivals. And pilgrim changes how we see the poet, who has a deeper sense than the others of what is valuable in the beloved. Her pilgrim quality is linked with her sorrows (again, unspecified, creating a melancholy sense of life's oncoming sadness as she ages; we're being drawn into a mood and a mode here, rather than a series of specific, narrative incidents). He's suggesting to her (warning her?) that the deepest, truest love comes from the one who sees beyond her enticing exterior to the deeper, more restless, sadder life within.
The sorrows reflected in her changing (aging) face bring us back forward in time to the old woman the poet conjured up at the beginning. She bends down towards the warmth and light of the "glowing bars" (the metal bars of the fireplace, that hold the burning wood or coal, and shine with their light and heat) – she seems to be alone; perhaps her rejection of the poet has brought forth this hint of a solitary future, and a warning against rejecting the true lover, since that rejection will result not just in the loss of love, but of Love – the capital letter indicates that there's more at stake than the loss of one man mooning over her; she faces the loss of Eros himself. In this last stanza she's no longer just sitting by the fire, she's bending down to it, and we have to move in close to hear her murmuring ("a little sadly"). While we move in closer and closer to her, as if a camera were moving into a tight close-up, the poem itself, its mode, mood, and meaning, are expanding, opening up more and more. We've gone from love to Love, a god fleeing and pacing on the mountains – run off, but still on this earth – until he hides forever beyond reach among the scattered crowds of stars. The rhyme here ties her fireplace (the "bars") with the mystic surrounding universe (the "stars"), which holds what she has lost (or what he is warning her she will lose).
I took this from The Collected Poems of WB Yeats, but the edition I have seems to be out of print; I think this one is the replacement, though there are a number of Yeats collections available. My copy indicates that this poem was first collected in The Rose, published in 1893. Yeats was born in 1865, and so was not yet thirty when he wrote this. In this poem, love among the elderly seems rooted more in memory and reverie than physical desire; I wonder if he still felt that way as he himself grew old.