'When You Are Old' By William Butler Yeats: Paraphrase, Summary and Analysis

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;

Paraphrase: Stanza-1 

When you (my beloved) grow old and your hair turn grey, and when you look sometimes near the fire sleepily , then you should pick up this book that I am writing and read this poem. This poem then would remind you how beautiful you once used to be, and how soft and deep your eyes were when you were young.

Explanation of difficult phrases: Nothing by the fire- dozing as she sits near the fire in lonely winter nights. Dream of- think of the past youthful day is in a dreamy way. Soft looks your eyes had once- The poet's beloved now has soft looks. Her eyes have an enchantment about them. They lend to her face a look of charm and sweetness. But they would not always remain so. In her old age, she would only remember these soft looks with regret. 

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;

Paraphrase: Stanza-2

You will then remember that many men then loved you because of your joyful beauty. They loved you for your beauty , some with a true love, others safely. But then you will also remember that one man loved your soul, and loved you for the sadness of your looks.

Explanation of difficult phrases: Glad grace- During her youth, his beloved has a grace and a beauty that arises out of the joy living. Her youthfulness lends a charm to all her movements. How many…grace- This is to be connected with the idea given earlier-the beloved in her old are, remembering her days of youth. The poet tells her how she would then remember her old lovers, who are no more.

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. 

Paraphrase: Stanza-3

Then, as you bend down near the glowing fire in the grate, you will murmur to yourself that love has left you , and has hidden itself far away , in lofty mountains and in starry skies.

Explanation of difficult phrases: A bending down-His beloved in her old age, would bend down. The glowing bars- the iron bars in the fire-place are glowing hot because of the fire burning in it. And bending love fled- The poet imagines that in her old age his beloved would feel that love has left the world, and lives now in the stars and the mountains. In other words, she will feel the loneliness of old age, when all lovers will forsake her. Paced upon-walked upon. And paced---overhead-Love no longer lives on earth, but upon lofty mountain peaks. And hid---stars-Love, which visits us, in our youth for a while , rises up to the stars and becomes one with them.

Detailed Summary and Analysis:

Addressing Moud Gonne, the poet says that when she is old, she should take up this book of Yeats’ poems and read it slowly. He asks her to compare her old age with the time of her youth. Feeling sleepy and nodding by the fire-side she can compare her grey hair with the softness of look and deep shadows that her eyes had in the prime of her life. Inn brief the poet wants Maud Gonne to have a feel of the terror that old age produces , ‘full of sleep’. Here sleep can be explained as usual time of sleep as well as the natural laziness or lethargy that comes in a human being as he or she grows old.

In the second stanza the poet further asks Maud Gonne to recollect as to how many people loved her when she was young and beautiful, and not all of them had true love for her beauty even. Quite a few of them just pretended love to her falsely, but there was one man only who loved , not her physical beauty alone but also the purity of her soul behind her beautiful shape. His love was purely spiritual and she must remember that he loved the pains of her growing old. It also means that he loves her even now when she is old and is prepared to share with her the sorrows of her age. 

The speaker says to Maud Gonne that when she lies down on the bed, bending  a bit toward the fire-side where the iron-rods outside the fire-chimney are glowing red with the heat of fire she must says to herself in a sort of sad of soliloquy that with the departure of her youth and charms, the false love of her lovers had also vanished away and evaporated in the mist of high mountains and stars. By saying this the speaker also intends saying that in comparison to her false lovers, he was the only true lover who had loved her all-through –from youth to old age and he loves her even now.