Poetry Friday: When You Are Old

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone lucky enough to have a bit of Ireland in them, and to everyone who is Irish just for a day! My grandmother was proudly, fiercely Irish, a Roman Catholic from Northern Ireland – she used to tell my English father that she didn’t hold his heritage against him, since it wasn’t really his fault he was born English! My mum was only half Irish, but she grew up surrounded by her mother’s large Irish immigrant family, which essentially colonised a Toronto suburb in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I’m only 1/4 Irish (though like most Europeans I’m probably far more mixed than that), but on St. Patrick’s Day I’m happy to embrace that quarter for all it’s worth, and to celebrate my Irish heritage.

My Irish grandmother Anne Herbsen (born Anne Devlin), with two of her three daughters (my mum is the taller girl) and her son in their Sunday best. 

The Irish are a poetic people with a long and proud literary tradition, and they have produced some of Europe’s best-known and most beloved poets. In honour of this most Irish of days, here is one of my favourite poems, from the incomparable Irish poet and statesman 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.

18 thoughts on “Poetry Friday: When You Are Old

    1. Isn’t it just wonderful? I love the melancholy beauty of this poem, one of my all-time favourites.

      The nice thing about being a bit of a mixed bag is that you have lots of different heritages to celebrate! 😉

    1. Thank you for visiting! Isn’t the poem just wonderful? You can always depend on good old Yeats!

  1. Happy St. Patrick’s Day, Jane. I love hearing about your mother and the picture. I was just talking with someone the other day about the excitement of a new Easter hat! The poem is lovely we all know, like a hug from a family member, right? “and dream of the soft look” is a favorite line.

    1. Oh yes, I absolutely agree, such a beautiful poem, and one I always remember. Such gentleness and melancholy in each line.

      I think I might just need to treat myself to a new Easter bonnet, or maybe a new Easter hairband anyway! 😉

    1. Great minds think alike, especially when it comes to celebrating great Irish poetry! 🙂

  2. Love the poem you shared. I was captured with that first line – “When you are old and grey and full of sleep.” And the pic of your mum, siblings, and grandmother all decked out in their Sunday best is priceless. Thanks for sharing this pic of your Irish grandmother!

  3. Jane!

    What a fun description of embracing your Irish Quarter! I’m pretty much the same mix–give or take. My sister sent in for DNA testing a few years ago….results… 3/4 Irish and 1/4 mixed European. LOL. It’s fun on St. Paddy’s Day.

    Thank you for this poem. What a gorgeous poem to put in the beginning of a tribute scrapbook or book for a loved one. And, it fits the photo of your family so perfectly. I’ve come into a cache of family photos and need to tackle the job of sorting, archiving, weeding and preserving. It’s a tough job when each one is so precious.

    Happy St. Paddy’s to ye….wishing you some extra lucky green this week.

    1. Good old mixed-European! I think we’re all a lot more mixed than we might think, which really is a wonderful thing!

      I just adore looking through old photos and imagining what each person might have been like, and how they saw their world. It’s amazing to look at photos of my grandparents as young people, and to think of them as a young couple, with their whole lives ahead of them, full of hopes and dreams – it’s easy to forget that people are just people, no matter their generation! I think it’s the poet (and history student) in me!

      Thanks so much for stopping by! 🙂

    1. Isn’t it just wonderful? I’ve known it for years, but never tire of it. Always a favourite, with its bittersweet air.

  4. I’m proud of my smidge of Irish, too, no idea of proportions. One thing I like about the Irish, their culture survives — fun, charm, magic — it’s a hard combination to compete with, which the English discovered, as many English peers moved to Ireland, and became Irish. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.