Jun. 13, 2004

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

SUNDAY, 13 JUNE, 2004
Listen (RealAudio) | How to listen

Poem: Poem: "When You Are Old," by William Butler Yeats, from Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats.

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 amid a crowd of stars.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of writer and teacher Mark Van Doren, born in Hope, Illinois (1894). Though in his lifetime he was a published poet and critic, and won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, he was perhaps best known as a professor of literature at Columbia University, where he taught many students who would go on to become important American writers.

He started teaching at Columbia in 1920. At a time when most teachers delivered long lectures, Van Doren led class discussions as though they were casual conversations. He spoke slowly, to give his students time to think, and he often gripped the lectern with his rough hands. His students included John Berryman, Clifton Fadiman, Thomas Merton, Lionel Trilling, Louis Simpson and Jack Kerouac.

Van Doren said of his teaching style, "My purpose was to examine the ways in which the greatest tellers had put divine things and human things together. The ultimate dimension, I suggested, was given to narrative by the presence in it of gods or their equivalent."

It's the birthday of poet and playwright William Butler Yeats, born in Dublin, Ireland (1865). He was a poet who lived during great political and social changes in his home country, but he spent much of his life obsessed not with politics but with mysticism. His aunt gave him a popular book of the era called Esoteric Buddhism (1884), about Eastern mystical philosophy, and Yeats especially loved its idea that the world of matter was an illusion. When he was twenty, he and a group of friends formed the Dublin Hermetic Society, in order to conduct experiments into the nature of ghosts and psychic powers. His father, who had wanted him to be a scientist, scolded him for believing in all that mystical nonsense. Yeats told his father that mysticism, next to poetry, was the most important pursuit of his life.

He got involved in the London Theosophical Society in 1887 and later joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, a group that performed a variety of ancient magic rituals. He attended sťances and tarot card readings. Seeing the performances of mediums and learning about reincarnation inspired him to study Celtic myths and folklore, which greatly influenced his poetry.

In 1889, he met Maud Gonne, a beautiful actress who had become an activist and who spoke out for Irish nationalism and independence. She became the love of his life, and though she refused his proposal of marriage, she believed that they were spiritually married, that they could communicate telepathically, and that they had been brother and sister in a past life. She helped him gather folklore from the peasants, and to learn about ancient Celtic culture. Yeats came to believe that if he could get in touch with the deep, mythic history of the Irish people, he could pull the country together with the power of poetry.

Yeats spent years writing plays about Irish nationalism for Maud Gonne to star in. But by 1910, Maud Gonne had married someone else and Yeats had given up on trying to win her love. He published the collection The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910), which was his first work of poetry that didn't make any references to fairylands or magic. He wrote, "Though leaves are many, the root is one; / Through all the lying days of my youth / I swayed my leaves and flowers in the sun; / Now I may wither into the truth."

He continued to consult with mediums and to experiment with automatic writing and sťances for the rest of his life, but he gave up on the idea of writing poetry for the collective soul of Ireland, and wrote instead for himself. He said, "We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry." Many critics consider his greatest poems those that he wrote after he gave up on Irish Nationalism, collected in books such as The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933).

Yeats wrote, "Now that my ladder's gone / I must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
Current Faves - Learn more about poets featured frequently on the show