From Deeply Personal to Aggressively Aesthetic: The Transformation of Yeats’s “When You Are Old”

This short paper was written for ENG 373: Terrible Beauty, Yeats and Modern Poetry, and was intended to be a Materialist/Historicist Analysis of the poem of our choice.

Since its composition in the late nineteenth century to woo a love interest to its status as the title poem of a collection of Yeats’s work, “When You Are Old” has drastically transformed in representation and intention over the course of its existence in print. Yeats first composed his iconic poem in 1891 for an informal manuscript volume that he gave to Maud Gonne as a token of his affection.  He titled this volume “The Flame of the Spirit.” It had a vellum cover with the title pressed in gold onto the front and originally contained seven poems, with “When You Are Old” as the final poem in the collection (Gould and Toomey, 124-25). In this volume, the first stanza of the poem read as follows:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep

And nodding by the fire, take down this book

And slowly reading, dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep: (qtd. in 124, lines 1-4)

Here, Yeats presents a series of enjambed lines and only provides an end-stopped line at the end of the quatrain. The quick movement of the lines that results from the enjambment creates a sense of insistence and urgency in the speaker’s plea. In the context of this poem in a small, bound collection—arguably given as a gift to the person that the poem addresses—the speaker’s appeal for her to “take down this book” takes on a specific meaning (124, line 2). The speaker is not merely referencing any book, or even any book that contains this poem, but rather is addressing the particular volume that was given to her and includes this original work.

In 2014, about one hundred and twenty years after the poem’s initial composition, Penguin decided to include Yeats in its Drop Caps series, as the letter “Y,” and titled the collection “When You Are Old: Early Poems and Fairy Tales.” The purpose of this series was to honor one exceptional writer from each letter of the alphabet (based on last name) by producing a beautifully designed edition of his or her most influential work. (See image of cover below.) Titling the collection after this poem and having the primary goal of the project as its aesthetic value encourage the reader to first appreciate the work as an aesthetic object. Additionally, the text of the poem itself here is slightly different from the original. This version of the first stanza reads:

When you are old and gray 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; (Yeats, lines 1-4)

Yeats uses more end-stopped lines with commas in this version, forcing more pauses and making the speaker less insistent and more reflective. The third line is also different in structure, changing from “And slowly reading, dream” to “And slowly read, and dream,” which slows the pace of the poem down even further, as the original “reading” implies immediate simultaneous action, whereas the new “read” implies one more impending serial action that must be completed (qtd. in Gould and Toomey, 124, line 3; Yeats, line 3). The implication of the word “book” in this edition changes, as well, shifting from the intensely personal meaning in the original to implicating the aesthetics of the new beautiful volume. Neither one of these versions is the definitive edition from which all significant meaning can be derived, however. In order to come to a deeper understanding of the poem, one must consider it in a variety of places and contexts.


(Hische, Jessica. When You Are Old Cover. 24 Sept. 2014. Barnes and Noble Booksellers, Inc, 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.)

Works Cited

Gould, Warwick, and Deirdre Toomey. “”Take Down This Book”: The Flame of the Spirit Text and Context.” Yeats Annual, No 11 (1995): 124-36. Print.

Yeats, W. B. “When You Are Old.” When You Are Old: Early Poems and Fairy Tales. Ed. Rob Doggett. New York: Penguin, 2014. 11. Print.

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