“When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats (Favorite Poem Project)


When I get to read a Yeats’… they call him in Wiki “Yurts”. For me, it was always William Butler Yeats. “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats. 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. My pilgrim soul is the part inside of me that wants to see the world and to understand it in different ways and through different cultures. And its taken me to a lot of different places. Its taken me to all the homelands of my ancestors to Ireland and Armenia and Greece and Germany and Switzerland and its given me sort of the sense of adventure that I want. I was in the Peace Corps for 2 years and I lived in Eastern Ukraine. And there I was able to get a true sense of myself because there were no mirrors of the regular societies. We see ourselves through the lenses of our friends or our work or our neighborhoods. And here I was going to a completely foreign place and I was able to find a clarity of self that I hadn’t had before. And that was a really extraordinary experience and I think it’s something that encouraged me to move from a village in Ukraine to Ukrainian Village here in Chicago. You get a sense of Ukraine to a certain extent living in Ukrainian Village and I love that. I love being able to walk down the street and hear people speaking in Ukrainian and to get some of the foods that I miss from Ukraine. “Our friends in Crimea were saying that the cities are dead. Everyone is staying home. No one is going to school or work and that the Russian militia are in the Tatar neighborhood the Crimean Tartar neighborhoods.” During my time in Ukraine I lived with an older Ukrainian woman. She was in her seventies when we lived together. And… she… gave me a great perspective on the experience of what it was like to be both Ukrainian and Soviet and and to have lived through these real periods of turmoil and history. And we lived on a farm together up the hill from the school where I was teaching and… it was extraordinary the way that we were able to interact with each other because when I first arrived I had very little Russian or Ukrainian language skills. And so the first night I got there the way that we communicated with each other was through song. (mandolin playing and Samantha singing) I would sing a song on my mandolin for her and then she would sing a war song that she sang with her veteran choir. And so that was a way for us to exchange a piece of art. Samantha: We’ll start from the top of that. I met Bailey at a lecture here in Chicago. (mandolin and guitar playing) (singing) We went on our first date to a bookstore and during our first date it was a silent writing session. And so we sat down and wrote quietly together for two hours. And then afterwards we went and had one of those very long cups of tea and for whatever reason I felt compelled this is a poem that I’ve known and sort of recited along in my head for awhile and I felt compelled to recite it to him. And maybe subconsciously it was some sort of test to see if he was willing to see what I saw in it. And I read it to him and he sort of leaned back and said “Pilgrim soul… that’s beautiful.” And… I knew that he had seen mine. (singing and instruments being played) My grandfather told me a letter to never stop finding beauty in art or music or poetry because that is what makes us the special creatures of God. Poetry can say… so much in so few words if they’re well crafted. I first encountered this poem in college during a first year seminar on Yeats. After that first semester I went home and as, you know, most young kids I visited my family… my parents and then my grandparents in Connecticut. “Docky”, my grandfather, is this sort of larger than life character to me and he was someone whose respect I wanted greatly. We were sitting around the dining room table, Docky and I, and for the first time we were holding court on this very erudite subject on Irish poetry. Docky: One year… your grandma Peg and I were in Ireland in Sligo where he’s buried. And I think this was the first time that we got to sit and exchange points of view as peers. And so… I started telling him about the classes I was taking and this Yeats seminar in particular and then he walked off and he went to a bookshelf and pulled down this book and it was a Yeats reader. And he… read it to me and he stands beside me and he opens to this page and he reads this poem. 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. Amen. Amen! Samantha: What does it mean to you when you read it? Docky: Your mortality and this is what the thing is… and uh… I happen to face it with uh… uh… joy if you want to use the phrase. I think my affection for this poem affirms for him that some of the things he’s tried to create some of the values he’s tried to instill in his family have survived through the generations. And so our shared affection for it I think… is… gives him a great sense of solace that the hard work that he’s done of this Earth is… is… was time well spent. (laughing) I’m glad that my mom was there to help with the Facetime stuff for Docky cause I felt like otherwise it would have been a little bit complicated. Technology is only a means to facilitate a message, you know. He’s got all the substance. (Samantha laughs) So what do you feel when I read the poem: “When You Are Old?” Are you going to read it first? Well I’ll try my best here. “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats. 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. Like Shakespeare said, “Poetry soothes the savage beast.”

5 thoughts on ““When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats (Favorite Poem Project)

  1. Thank you both for this lovely poem. My best friend sent me this poem for my birthday last year. I treasure it, will always treasure it. My dear and beloved friend died early this week. I am overwhelmed with grief. We had planned a picnic in the spring when cherry blossoms bloom in the park. He has truly gone now, to 'hide his face among the stars'.

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