Because we approach a three-day weekend, and I am loath to burden your holiday relaxations with some somber poem about the Great War, you get one more week off from World War I, which by this time 100 years ago was about to become the horrifying, human-eating trench war that almost no one saw coming. Instead, I offer another fling with one of Poetry Friday’s favorite guests, William Butler Yeats, whose stuff is always worth talking about (and, in my opinion, almost always really good). A blog I read has been inviting reader submissions all week long of books and poems that have profoundly affected people, and “stuck with them” long term, and when one reader mentioned this poem, it reminded me of some thoughts I’ve always had about it. I used to discuss this poem with high school sophomores, and I always enjoyed the chat, so it seemed to me it would be interesting to offer it this afternoon, and see what your various takes are. This is a work of Yeats’ very early career—arguably his first famous poem—written by a man in his 20s and published in 1892: this is “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 amid a crowd of stars.”
Yeats employs the style that too many imitated in poor, sing-song fashion—iambic pentameter (with occasional tweaks), end-stopped couplet rhyme, reliance on simple turns of phrase and familiar words—and shows what a master he was of words, and how in the right hands an approach to poetry that might look “greeting card” on first blush will open up and reveal some real depth of feeling. The approach is direct enough, since each of us as the reader is the second person, the “you” who will one day be old and grey. Yeats is gentle from the very beginning, the softest of sounds and phrases, a cadence that wraps around us like a well-worn shawl, and rocks us to sleep by the fire. The woman is asked to imagine herself at the end of her life, looking back on who she once was, and leafing through an old book of poems written by a man she once knew.
And not just any man—not a man like all the others, who “loved your moments of glad grace / and loved your beauty” (though it’s not clear to me that those are very similar bases for love, at all). No, this was the one man who saw something else in her—a pilgrim soul, whatever that phrase conjures for us. Perhaps an image of a heart never quite at rest. A woman who, despite her calm outward appearance, inwardly was forever journeying in search of some meaning not near at hand. And he “loves the sorrows of [her] changing face”—as I used to ask my sophomores, “what, does that mean he likes it when she cries?” But of course not; instead, it seems to me that the changes here are the weathers of age that take away the outward appearance she once prized. They may be sad to her, or perhaps some frown lines and wrinkles will arise out of sad expressions, but they only increase his devotion to her.
And then, he envisions, seeming almost eager at the scene imagined, she will bend beside the fire, murmur to herself about how she lost that one true love, who (unmarked by her, it seems) set out for the wilderness to travel lonely there, or else lost himself in the urban chaos of faces, one more pedestrian blurring past her every day. And I would always ask my class then, and I ask you now, what is this poem? Is it a love poem?
It seems to me (and of course I tipped my hand early on, in the post’s title) that Yeats is writing on some level about the “Nice Guy problem” that men seem to complain about online these days, or at least there is a sudden awareness of what I think is a long-standing male complaint. It’s sometimes colloquially called “getting friend-zoned”—the nice, timid, devoted male friend thinks he’s the only guy who REALLY gets how special this beautiful girl is who spends all her time surrounded by admirers, and he feels somehow unjustly treated by her, since she never takes him out of “the friend zone”, this conjectured mental space where lovely women apparently deposit their opinions of “nice”, timid, devoted male acquaintances. This isn’t all that nice a poem, if my thesis is right—it begins and ends where it does because that’s what’s emotionally satisfying to him. The image of her, old and alone, staring sadly into the fire and leafing through the poetry of the guy she never gave a fair chance (but now knows was probably a little too good for her—certainly miles better than those flashy guys she dated). Talk about some serious emotional issues, eh?
But that’s not the only reading, of course! Usually I could count on students to advance other possibilities, but I’ll just take the clearest one (and the reason this has been one of Yeats most-anthologized poems). The poem is simple, direct, and sweetly phrased—there’s almost no hint of bitterness in the words chosen. It’s wistful—the poet hoping that someday she realizes what she meant to him, not because he wants to twist the knife, but because his feelings meant so much to him (drove him into the mountains and the faceless crowd, ultimately) that he wants to believe that she will, at least once in her long life, recognize them and understand. The poem shuts no doors, draws no lines in the sand, casts no judgments, and pronounces no decrees. So why assume it’s the claws of an angry cat?
And I turn it over to you—what kind of poem is this? Why did Yeats write it, and what are we to make of it? Is it a bitter “friend-zoned” poet soaking luxuriously in the thought that the woman who spurned him will one day ache with sorrow over it? Or a nostalgic wish from a man who will always remember that girl with the haunted look and wish her well, wherever she is? Or something else entirely? Perhaps the Labor Day weekend will afford us all time to mull it over, and to offer a comment or two here on this post, if you like—thanks, as always, for your attention to this humble space and the poems that fill it!