“When You Are Old” is a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. In the poem, which is published in Yeats’s second collection, The Rose (1893), the speaker asks someone to think ahead to old age, strongly suggesting that the addressee will eventually regret being unwilling to return the speaker’s love. Most critics agree that the poem is about Yeats’s relationship with Maud Gonne, an Irish actress and nationalist. Though the poem is one of the best-loved of Yeats’s works, many people don’t realize that it is based on a much earlier sonnet by Pierre de Ronsard, a 16th century French Renaissance poet.
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.