When You Are Old by William Butler Yeats, Analysis & Summary

Introduction: This study guide offers a comprehensive analysis of William Butler Yeats' poem "When You Are Old." The guide delves into the poem's meaning and significance, exploring themes of aging, lost love, and the passage of time. It provides an explanation of each stanza, identifies major themes, presents six key facts about the poet, and offers a critical analysis of the poem's structure, language, sound devices, and literary devices. Additionally, the guide examines the attitudes and feelings expressed in the poem and suggests similar poems that share thematic connections with "When You Are Old." Through this study guide, readers can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of Yeats' poignant reflection on love and its enduring impact.

Poem Text

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.


Stanza 1: The first stanza portrays a scene in which the addressee is imagined as an old person, gray-haired and dozing by the fire. The speaker urges the addressee to take down a book and reminisce about the past. They encourage the addressee to remember the soft look in their eyes and the deep shadows they once possessed.

Stanza 2: The second stanza explores the addressee's past experiences with love. Many people loved the addressee's outward beauty and moments of grace, but only one person loved their inner essence, their pilgrim soul. This person loved the addressee even in the face of changing appearances and sorrows.

Stanza 3: In the final stanza, the speaker imagines the addressee as an old person reminiscing by the fire. They suggest that the addressee should softly murmur how love has fled and how it seems to wander among the mountains and hide its face among the stars.

Major Themes

Aging and Time: "When You Are Old" explores the theme of aging and the passage of time. The poem contemplates the changes that occur as one grows old and the bittersweet reflection on lost youth and lost opportunities.

Love and Regret: The poem also delves into the theme of love and regret. It highlights the importance of genuine love that sees beyond external beauty and embraces the soul of the beloved. The poem suggests a sense of longing and regret for missed opportunities in love.

William Butler Yeats

  1. William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) was an Irish poet and playwright.
  2. He was one of the key figures of the Irish Literary Revival and a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre.
  3. Yeats was deeply influenced by Irish folklore, mythology, and symbolism, which often found expression in his poetry.
  4. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923 for his poetic works.
  5. Yeats' poetry underwent stylistic shifts throughout his career, ranging from romantic and lyrical to more modernist and symbolic.
  6. His poetry often explores themes of Irish identity, love, mysticism, and the complexities of the human condition.

Critical Analysis

"When You Are Old" is a poignant reflection on the passage of time and lost love. Through vivid imagery and introspective language, Yeats conveys a sense of nostalgia and regret. The poem's structure, consisting of three stanzas, allows for a gradual exploration of the themes. The language is evocative, painting a vivid picture of the addressee's old age and inviting readers to contemplate the transient nature of beauty and the enduring impact of genuine love. The poem employs symbols, metaphors, and a reflective tone to convey its message, making it a timeless exploration of human emotions and the complexities of relationships.


  • The book: Represents memories and the past.
  • The soft look and shadows deep: Symbolize the addressee's youthful beauty and the profound emotions associated with it.
  • The glowing bars and mountains overhead: Symbolize the limits and elusive nature of love.
  • The crowd of stars: Represents the vastness and distance that love can transcend.


  • Imagery: Yeats employs vivid and sensory imagery to evoke emotions and create a vivid picture of the scenes and emotions depicted in the poem.
  • Metaphorical expressions: The poem utilizes metaphors, such as the pilgrim soul and the changing face, to convey deeper meanings and complexities.


  • Three stanzas: The poem is divided into three stanzas, each offering a distinct perspective on the theme of love and aging. This structure allows for a gradual progression and development of ideas.

Sound devices:

  • Alliteration: The poem incorporates alliteration, such as in "glowing bars," to create musicality and rhythm.
  • Rhyme: Yeats employs a traditional ABBA rhyme scheme in each stanza, enhancing the poem's lyrical quality.

Other Literary Devices:

  • Repetition: The repetition of the word "loved" emphasizes the contrast between superficial affection and genuine love.
  • Personification: Love is personified as fleeing and hiding, enhancing its impact and significance.


  • Nostalgia and longing: The poem expresses a sense of longing for the past and a nostalgic reflection on lost beauty and love.
  • Regret: There is an underlying feeling of regret for missed opportunities and the transient nature of love.
  • Appreciation of genuine love: The poem conveys the speaker's appreciation for the one person who truly loved the addressee's inner self.

Similar Poems & How They Match

  • "Remember" by Christina Rossetti: Both poems explore the themes of aging, love, and the passage of time. While Yeats' poem focuses on the regret of lost love, Rossetti's poem reflects on the desire to be remembered by a loved one after death.
  • "Sonnet 18" by William Shakespeare: This sonnet shares similarities with Yeats' poem as it contemplates the enduring nature of love and the ability of poetry to immortalize the beloved.
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