What Is The Symbolism In, 'When You Are Old' By W.B. Yeats?


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Robin Burden Profile
Robin Burden answered
WB Yeats makes good use of symbolism in his poem, When You Are Old.
Symbolism in, 'When You Are Old' by W.B. Yeats Despite the poem only being 12 lines long, Yeats conjures up a couple of images that are used symbolically.

The rhyming couplet of 'take down this book' and 'read, and dream of the soft look' makes use of a book as the symbol for 'reading someone's face'.

The use of phrases like 'nodding by the fire' and eyes having 'shadows deep' when describing someone in their old age is symbolic of death and mortality.

The idea of 'fire' is also used to symbolize the fiery rawness of a love past. Yeats has the subject of the poem 'bending down beside the glowing bars' as if inspecting a passionate love they had once known.

Here's the poem in its entirety. Can you spot any further symbolism? I'd love to know!

  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
Anonymous Profile
Anonymous answered
The idea of "nodding by the fire" can be  transformed into an idea of impending death.

Another symbol could be when she bends "down beside the glowing bars" of the fire, perhaps seeking warmth or comfort - suggesting the desire and need for the fiery love she once rejected.

Hope that helps.

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