When You Are Old – W.B. Yeats

Summary of the Poem

When You Are Old is a Romantic Poem of W.B. Yeats. The poet as a lover imagines how his beloved (lover) in the future will appear.

First stanza says that he is writing this while his lover is sitting still relatively young, but she should read this when she is an old women, have gray hair and sleepy eyes. He tells her that if she feels sleepy, sitting in front of a warm fire place and picking his book of poems and read it slowly. In the poems, the poet expresses her beauty in the past.

Second Stanza reminds the woman how many men loved her for her physical beauty, but that was not the actual love. The actual love is loving someone for the inner beauty. True love is devoting the life to the lover as a pilgrim devotes his life to his religion. The poet says that he loved her for her inner beauty even at the stage when her beauty was totally faded.

Third / last stanza says even when she becomes old and thinks the poet’s love is no more, the poet reminds her that his lover for her is eternal (will always remain). The woman realizes that the only true lover was the poet, but by then the poet was no more.


Comprehension I

5 – What does the phrase ‘Your changing face’ suggest?

‘Changing face’ suggests how the young lady whom the poet loved realized that all her admirers loved her only for her beauty and grace and that only the poet loved her truly. How sad she felt.


Comprehension III

1 – Comment on the usage of time frame by the poet.

The poet uses the time frames of past, present and future very effectively. The poet for sees future when he is already dead. He imagines that his lover had become an old women, full of grey hair and sleepy eyes, sitting in front of the fire place. So he asks her to take up the book of poems he had written and read it slowly and dream of the soft look that her eyes had once. He asks her to remember the many men who loved her for her beauty and grace and also to remember him, the poet, because he was the only one who loved her with all his soul. By the time the lady realizes that the poet is the only man who loved her truly, he would have passed away into another world.


2 – ‘When You Are Old’ is a poem of contrasts. What contrasts do you find in the poem? What purpose do they serve?

The contrasts in the poem are:

  1. Young age and old age
  2. True love and false love
  3. Happy and sad.

They serve to bring out the poet’s opinions that beauty is not permanent. A beautiful young woman can transform into an old lady with grey hair and look unappealing. Many men will love a woman for her beauty and grace but not for her inner beauty. Such love is not permanent even though at that young age she will be happy to get all the attention of the young men, she will realize that in her old age that it was not true love, because he had loved her with all his soul. When she realizes this she will feel sad. But by that time, the poet has left this world forever.

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