It became my favorite poem the first time I head it, and I heard it more than 40 years ago.
I didn't even understand it but it made me cry. It made me cry just as hearing Mirella Freni sing 'Un Bel Die Vedremo' made me cry before I know how how that aria fit into the opera that probably encompasses the definition of what sadness really is.
The wild Irishman William Butler Yeats wrote this poem -- probably for his muse, Maude Gonne McBride -- nearly 150 years ago. I have no idea why my mother read it to me when I was a child, any more than I know why she terrified me with images of Bess, the landlord's black-eyed daughter, shooting herself with a musket to warn her lover, the highwayman, the the Redcoats were onto him. (The picture of Bess' ghastly pallor even before she was a ghost came from a Childcraft CHILDREN'S encyclopedia that was, shall we say, vintage, even when I was young. It's so scary that I have trouble forgetting it even now and so have had to share it with others -- including my own children -- who also try to look away from the page when I read the part about Bess with her hed bent over the musket, "drench'd in her own red blood.")
Perhaps my mother knew that I would always be a yearny person ... the kind of person for whom Irish poems are meant -- in other words a "pilgrim soul," who would always go searching, even when she was tucked up in her own safe bed. As I grew older, and understood more of love and the loss of love, I appreciated Yeats' the power of Yeats' deceptive simplicity even more. This is a song of love and the endurance of love beyond youth, beyond age, beyond death. In 100 words or less.
When You Are Old
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;
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 among a crowd of stars.
Causes Jacquelyn Mitchard Supports
National MS Society, Women Against MS, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, One Writer's Place