When You Are Old Summary

“When You Are Old” poem, Yeats tells a loved one to cherish her youth and beauty, as they will fade with time. He imagines her old age, when she will regret not living her life to the fullest. The poem reminds us that life is fleeting and we should make the most of it. Read more 2nd PUC English Summaries.

When You Are Old Summary

When You Are Old Summary in English

‘When You Are Old’ was written to express the writer’s true and unforgettable love. The theme is a painful one of unrequited love, which the poet manipulates in an interesting manner. Instead of focusing upon the present or the past, the poet looks to the future, a future in which the two people in the poem are destined to be forever apart. The poet imagines an unreal condition that the woman he loved became old and felt regret for refusing his true love.

That is why the poem begins with the presumption that an old and grey lady was sitting beside the fire nodding her head. She is imagined to be reminiscing her memories when she recalls the soft look that her eyes had once, and how many suitors tried to court her, being charmed by her elegance and beauty.

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While admitting that many suitors were attracted by her youthful beauty, the speaker tries to tell her that he was the only lover who loved the pilgrim soul in her. He wants her to know that he was attracted by the beauty of her inner self and his love would remain constant even after she grows old. He assures her that he loves even the sorrows of her changing face. He means to say that over a period of time her beauty will have faded away and she will have grown old with her face having shrunk and skin having been wrinkled indicating that she has passed through many difficulties and sorrows.

He concludes visualizing that she is now bending down beside the dying fire, and tells herself in a whisper in a regretful tone that her true love has fled and is hiding his face amid a crowd of stars.

Analysis of the Poem:

‘When You Are Old’ is a short, exquisite, love lyric of twelve lines. It is a sad and introspective poem and is written in a melancholic tone.

The poem is in the form of a direct address by a lover to his lady love. In the poem, there are three stanzas of four lines each with a constant rhyme. The rhyme scheme hints that the speaker/ lover tries to tell her that his love will remain constant even when she grows old.

The most important aspect of this poem is the point of view taken by the narrator. The narrator is asking a woman, who is still young, to imagine a time when she is past her prime youth.

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;

The poet tries to put her mind in the future when she is an ‘old and gray’ woman, ‘full of sleep’, to ‘slowly read’ a book of memories from her youth. As the woman is ‘nodding by the fire’ she leafs through the book (her memories) and recollects her days of’soft looks’ and ‘sorrows’ as she changed.

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;

She remembers her faded beauty that was admired by many but then recalls the only man, the narrator, who loved her for her unique soul. He loved her even as she grew less beautiful and as her personality changed in the fullness of time. The alliteration ‘glad grace’ expresses that when she is young, beautiful and in her best moments of life many will be interested in her, but their love for her will be just false or superficial love. However, the narrator (speaker) will love her anyway no matter what happens to her beauty.

The line “and loved the sorrows of your changing face” suggests that when she gets old her face gets shrunk. So her face looks different but he will just love her with the same love he always had. There is also a contrast between ‘glad grace’ and ‘sorrows of your changing face’, which suggests that while the others love her in her happy times, he will love her every time, including the worst ones.

The phrase ‘pilgrim soul’ in the line, “but one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,” refers to the long walk that her soul has had, searching for real happiness, but really being alone. So, many lovers can love her for how she looks but only he can love her for who she really is. ‘Pilgrim Soul’ has reference to the Biblical belief that every soul is a pilgrim, on the way to salvation and redemption. The speaker, by referring to this aspect of the beloved rather than to her beauty and fame, evokes oneness with the inner and not the external self.

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.

In this stanza, the speaker exhorts the loved one to remember him in later years as she sits beside the fire and bends over the embers of the fire. The onomatopoeic ‘murmur’ suggests a whisper that shows that she has no passion or zest left. This adds to the imagery of age and weariness. ‘A little sadly’ suggests that in later years, as she remembers the speaker, she should feel regretful. The poet uses the word ‘love’ in all the lines in the second stanza and in the third stanza, second line, he capitalizes the word ‘Love’, giving it much intensity. He personifies ‘Love’ in the second line. In the lines,

And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars

‘pacing’ suggests that she was given a chance as ‘Love’ waited for her; it also suggests the gradual diminishing of the love which may then loiter over mountains for a while and then disappear. Being on the ‘mountains overhead’ suggests that ‘Love’ waited on a higher plain than that which she inhabited. Capitalized ‘L’ for love suggests that it is not just a person that she has lost but the ultimate, true, and everlasting possibility of love. The phrase ‘how love fled’ refers to the possibility that the speaker’s love would just fly far away because she is not receptive to his love.


Yeats’ poem is a bittersweet reminder that youth and beauty are fleeting, and that we should cherish the time we have. It also suggests that we should live our lives to the fullest, so that we have no regrets in old age. The poem is a powerful and moving meditation on the passage of time and the importance of love. It is a reminder that we should not take our loved ones for granted, and that we should cherish them while we can.