What is the main theme of William Butler Yeats' poem "When You Are Old"?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

William Butler Yeats' poem "When You Are Old," despite its surface simplicity, is thematically complex. The first theme revolves around poetry itself, how it functions, and how it is read. The narrator (who stands in for Yeats himself) is asking the addressee (actress and Irish activist Maud Gonne who turned down several marriage proposals from Yeats):

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book ...
This introduces a theme found in several poems by Yeats that associate youth with poetic inspiration and old age as a time of reading and composing poetry and reflection on poems and their sources. 
A second theme is the fleeting nature of life and love. He contrasts the most superficial love, that of those who loved the addressee for her beauty, with his own deeper and more spiritual love: 
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face ...
In the final stanza, both these themes join together in a suggestion that when she is old, as she reads these poems which express the deeper form of love, she will regret her earlier choices, for now, in old age, she will have the wisdom to see the difference between the two. 
gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The main themes of this poem examine the concepts of love, loss, and regret. As was mentioned in the previous post, Yeats was infatuated with an actress named Maud Gonne who refused to marry him several times. In the poem, the speaker (Yeats) urges an older woman (Maud) to read from a book and reminisce on her youthful appearance. In the second stanza, the speaker encourages the woman to recall the numerous men who loved her for her beauty and grace. The speaker then confesses his unconditional love by commenting that he loved her for her "pilgrim soul," not just her appearance. Yeats is essentially telling Maud that his love is not superficial, like the others who admire her. In the last stanza, the speaker tells the older woman to look into the "glowing bars," which refers to the gates of Maud's fireplace, and murmur sadly that love fled. He then compares his love to the heavens, which reflect his pure devotion to her. Yeats's poem illustrates his rejected love and reminds Maud that in the future she will regret not marrying him.

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