Dec. 20, 2008

When You Are Old

by William Butler Yeats

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

by William Butler Yeats

When You are Old

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.

Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

"When You are Old" and "Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven," by William Butler Yeats. Public domain. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, the lifelong muse of poet W.B. Yeats, born in Surrey, England (1865). She and Yeats first met when they were both 25 years old. He fell in love with her immediately and remained in love for the rest of his life.

Maud Gonne was tall and exquisitely beautiful. Yeats wrote, "I had never thought to see in a living woman such great beauty. A complexion like the blossom of apples. Her movements were worthy of her form."

Yeats asked her to marry him in 1891, but she refused. It was the first of many times that she rejected his marriage proposals. But they remained close to each other throughout their lives, and agreed that they had a "spiritual union."

When Yeats met Gonne, she was actually in a secret relationship with a French political journalist, Lucien Millevoye, an older married man who had been her lover since she was 19. She had two children by him — the first died in infancy, and the second, Iseult Gonne, was referred to in Ireland as Maud's niece, rather than her daughter. Yeats actually considered marrying Iseult, who was also a great beauty. In 1903, Maud married the Irish revolutionary John MacBride, a man Yeats considered somewhat crude. Their marriage was an unhappy one, and they separated. MacBride later participated in the Easter Rising of 1916 and was executed by a firing squad.

In response to one of Yeats' many marriage proposals, Maud Gonne told him, "You would not be happy with me. … You make beautiful poetry out of what you call your unhappiness and you are happy in that. Marriage would be such a dull affair. Poets should never marry."

In 1911, she wrote a letter to him and said, "Our children were your poems of which I was the father sowing the unrest & storm which made them possible & you the mother who brought them forth in suffering & in the highest beauty."

He wrote many poems for her, including "When You are Old" and "Aedh wishes for the Cloths of Heaven."

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