William Butler Yeats is a poet one likes in part, deplores in part.  He can give us interesting and pleasant lines, but all he writes is not woven of the same good thread — his poetry is unequal.

A good example is his well-known poem 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.

That is how it begins.  The lines are musical, though romantic and somewhat sentimental in their melancholy.  But you would not know, if someone did not tell you, that Yeats has borrowed these lines from the 16th-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard (1524-1585) who wrote in his Sonnets pour Hélène, (1587):

Quand vous serez bien vieille, au soir, à la chandelle,
Assise aupres du feu, devidant et filant,
Direz, chantant mes vers, en vous esmerveillant :
Ronsard me celebroit du temps que j’estois belle.

When you are very old, in the evening, by the candle [light],
Seated beside the fire, unwinding [yarn] and spinning [thread],
Speak, sing my verses, and be amazed:
“Ronsard celebrated me in the time when I was beautiful.”

We need not follow Ronsard further in detail, because his poem tends to “cleverness” in the second verse, in which he says no half-sleeping servant would not wake at the sound of Ronsard’s name, to praise the lady’s immortal name (made immortal by himself, of course); but he continues the third thus:

Je seray sous la terre et fantaume sans os :
Par les ombres myrteux je prendray mon repos :
Vous serez au fouyer une vieille accroupie,

Regrettant mon amour et vostre fier desdain.
Vivez, si m’en croyez, n’attendez à demain :
Cueillez dés aujourd’huy les roses de la vie.

I shall be beneath the ground and a phantom without bones;
In the shadows of myrtle I shall take my rest:
You shall be squatting by the hearth,

Regretting my love and your proud disdain;
Live, if you believe me, not waiting for tomorrow:
Gather today the roses of life.

In short, it is a rather superficial, earthy poem telling the lady that if she does not give him the romantic attention he deserves now, while she is young and beautiful, she will regret it when she is old and no longer so.

Ronsard’s poem is essentially the same in its message as that of the slightly later English poet Robert Herrick, who advised pretty young ladies in the beginning of his poem:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
   Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
   Tomorrow will be dying.

Herrick ended it with:

Then be not coy, but use your time,
   And while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
   You may forever tarry.

Herrick was a bit more practical than Ronsard in advising the pretty young things to marry, telling them that if they missed their early chance, they would likely end up old maids — would “forever tarry.”

But back to Yeats, who, while he obviously based the first part of his poem on Ronsard, nonetheless  in the second verse takes his own road, changing the nature of the poem:

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.

He tells the lady that many people had loved her gracefulness and her beauty, whether that love was “real” or not.  But one man — and here of course the one man is Yeats — loved her pilgrim soul — her adventuresome nature, her openness to new experiences — her “spirit,” as we would say, and loved also her changing moods over time: her face as it changed with the moment and with the years.  He is really saying that while others loved her only for her beauty, he loved her for her “soul.”

We can see that Yeats exhibits in these first two verses a love more serious and real than that of Ronsard — not just a “You’d better get me while you are pretty and can, because you won’t be pretty for long.”

Up to now, the Yeats poem has been simple and rather beautiful.  But I have always felt that in the last verse he loses his focus, loses his clarity, and lets meaning fall apart as the poem degenerates into pseudo-poetic blather:

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmer a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

The first line is fine, but the disaster comes in the second line, when Yeats personifies Love — indicated by the capital letter — and anthropomorphizes it:

…how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

It is this personification of love, this poetic abstraction that spoils the poem.  He jumps from talking about someone who really loved her — something concrete — into something abstract and scattered.  If he had told us that the young man who loved her had fled, if he had left her– his love unrequited — and had gone to live in the mountains, hiding his sorrowing face beneath a crowd of stars — that would have been fine.  But it is the unpleasant mixture of the first two straightforward verses with the personification and fogginess of the last that has always spoiled the poem for me.  No doubt others are more forgiving.

By the way, the photo chosen to head this posting is the lovely Queen Marie of Romania (1875-1938).  She was an extraordinary person, and if anyone had beauty and moments of glad grace, combined with the sorrows of her changing face, and a wonderful pilgrim soul, it was she.  If you want to know more about her “and be amazed,” as Ronsard says, go to this site:


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