Back in college, I had a poetry professor who believed William Butler Yeats was the greatest poet the world had ever seen.
Dr. John A. Bernstein was one of those rare teachers who could instill a passion for the subject matter in the hearts of his students. And that suited me just fine because I was not taking the class to fulfill a major requirement or to get into grad school.
It was the early 70s. I was seeking truth, beauty and love. I was taking Dr. Bernstein’s class to immerse myself in the great poets of the English language.
We spent a lot of time with Dylan Thomas, with Yeats and with Robert Frost. I was familiar with Frost from my childhood. But Yeats was a new discovery.
Frankly, I did not share my teacher’s unbridled enthusiasm for this Irish poet. I was a spiritually promiscuous as anyone in those days, but Yeats’s forays into spiritualism and automatic writing freaked me out.
Besides that, his poetry simply did not resonate with me. Mostly. Except for his poignant poem, When You Are Old.
Almost certainly written for his lover Maud Gonne, who had rejected his proposal of marriage at least three times. It’s a fairly straightforward poem, but touching and one of my favorites.
When You Are Old
by William Butler Yeats
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.