I read a message yesterday posted by a woman who is not in good health herself but is caring for her husband, who is 83 and has end-stage PC. Her devotion reminded me of a beautiful poem, “When You Are Old“, by the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats.
You might say this poem celebrates “mature love”. In it, a man is talking to a woman, who I’m presuming is his wife. He makes reference to her youth, but declares that, as she ages, she only grows more beautiful in his eyes: “I love the sorrows of your changing face”. Obviously, the husband is looking beyond the creases. He sees in his wife a singular beauty that can, perhaps, only be acquired with experience.
When the poet speaks of loving the “pilgrim soul” in his wife, (my favorite phrase of all), I don’t think he’s referring to religion or a thirst for adventure. To me, what the man is saying in plain English is this:
“I love you because you were willing to undertake the journey of life with me, not knowing where it would lead. You have been by my side as I made the transition from one phase of life to another. And you stayed the course until the very end. I do so appreciate it.”
And so that the woman doesn’t forget any of this, the man reminds his wife that he has memorialized his sentiments in a book, which is a concrete symbol of his love for her. She can take it down and read it whenever she likes.
As to the final stanza, here’s my guess: The man is saying: “I am no longer here (‘love fled’), but there is a star in the sky twinkling just for you, and it will be there for all of eternity.”
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.
—W. B. Yeats