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.
(William Butler Yeats – 1893)
Yeats is one of the most celebrated poets in Irish history and many of his poems reflect the Irish spirit. This poem, however, concentrates on the love he once shared with a woman, to whom the poem is directly addressed. This woman is probably Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress and passionate Irish nationalist: Yeats loved her all his life and she was a source of inspiration to him. He proposed to her several times, but she always rejected him and preferred to marry another man.
“When You Are Old” seems to highlight his failed relationship with Gonne. When the woman is old and reflects on her past life, she will finally think of the poet with regret for not loving him. This poem (whose first stanza is inspired to a famous sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, the famous French poet of the Renaissance: “Quand vous serez bien vieille”) is filled with love and a sense of melancholy at the passing of time and the awareness that youth has only consisted of ”moments of glad grace”. The last stanza may either mean that their love has become transfigured, fleeing to the mountains and concealing itself among the stars or express a darker feeling, because the poet reminds the woman that their love did not last, and this is something she should regret for the rest of her life.
Quando sarai vecchia, e grigia e assonnata,
col capo tentennante accanto al fuoco, prendi questo libro,
e leggilo lentamente, e sogna il tenero sguardo
che avevano i tuoi occhi un tempo, e le loro ombre profonde:
quanti amarono i tuoi momenti di grazia felice,
e quanti la tua bellezza, con amore falso o vero,
ma uno solo amò la tua anima peregrina
e le pene del tuo volto mutevole;
chinandoti accanto alle ardenti barre del camino
mormora, un po’ tristemente, come l’Amore fuggì,
e vagò sui monti, in alto
e nascose il volto fra una moltitudine di stelle.