I’m not a critic. Never have been. When it comes to journalism, my thing is writing stories. Let the stories speak for themselves, you know? But that’s not to say that I don’t enjoy critiquing; that I don’t go over things in my head — song lyrics, an actor’s mannerisms on screen, brushstrokes from a Rothko painting — and think about why I believe those things are good, bad, terrible or profound.
With that in mind, I want to share with you a poem that I like; one that I long ago memorized and feel is far superior to many others. The poem is William Butler Yeats’ “When You Are Old.” Now, I can’t say when I first came across this poem, but I can say that I remember being awed by its crushing beauty. I want to share something that I like best about the poem with you, but first, without further ado:
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.
In addition to the incredible way Yeats mixes melancholy ideas and images ⎯ love fleeing, a quick, sorrowful expression ⎯ with those that are happier ⎯ a photo album, the comfort of a fire place ⎯ to evoke a feeling of pure nostalgia (a mixture, mind, you, that is quite effective. After all, why do you think that the Beatles song “In My Life” is so popular? It, too, melds sadness with happiness with heartbreak and hope, four feelings that for the most part mark our lives on earth and characterize our relationships with each other), there is something else at play in “When You Are Old.”
The way in which certain words rhyme — or sort of don’t rhyme — in the poem, which was written in 1892 for the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne, a woman Yeats loved but who would never marry him, is reminiscent of one of life’s truths.
Read the first line of the first paragraph. You see how it ends at the word “sleep”? O.K., now read the first paragraph’s last line. You see how it ends at the word “deep”? These two words rhyme, of course. But had you realized that while reading the poem?
If you’re like me, you read the word “sleep” at the end of that first line, thought — because, after all, this is a poem — that you were soon to read a word that rhymed with “sleep,” like “beep” or “creep” or, even, why, yes, “deep.” However, by the time you actually reached “deep” at the end of the fourth line, you’d totally forgotten that there was a word at the beginning of the stanza that shared that “ee” vowel sound, and were no longer anticipating the rhyme. The rhyme, so to speak, had been lost.
Nevertheless, it must be mentioned ⎯ and I think you’ll agree if you read the poem a second time ⎯ that a relationship still exists between “sleep” and “deep,” just as a relationship exists between “grace” and “face” and “bars” and “stars” even though these words don’t seem to rhyme when the entire poem is read in one shot.
In other words, even though the rhyme “isn’t” there, it sort of is, in a very slight, almost hardly traceable way.
So what’s the meaning behind all this? Well, here’s where the critic part comes in.
We all know that poetry is all about expression; that poets don’t only use words to express meaning, they also use meter, rhyme, punctuation, even the appearance of the words on the page. Yeats, in “When You Are Old,” does this non-rhyme rhyme, this echo-of-a-rhyme technique, for a reason.
He wants to emphasis that nothing in life is eternal and the poignant sadness of such a fact. By making sure in the poem that that rhyme is lost, or gets lost, he wants to draw attention to the way the things we love in life leave us or become less a part of us.
Think of it this way: When we recall all that we love in life ⎯ the beautiful things, the things rich with meaning, with poignancy ⎯ they arrive in our consciences in a powerful way. But for how long will ⎯ can? ⎯ these memories be so powerfully felt? Furthermore, how long will we have the opportunity to love the people we love or experience things that are meaningful? It might feel like forever sometimes because life, especially in the moment, can feel quite rich.
But time marches on. And we can’t escape, nor should we forget, time’s eroding powers. Furthermore, we should never forget how time has the power to transform our consciousnesses and snatch people and opportunities from us. Time erodes life, no matter how poignant life seems sometimes.
Yeats reminds us of this fact through his poetry.
Through that lost rhyme, the one that almost vanishes on the way from the last word of each stanza’s first line to the last word of each stanza’s last line, Yeats reminds us. Even though something beautiful exists, it is eventually lost. The rhyme itself erodes to the point of near extinction. Only a faint echo exists when we arrive at the last word of each stanza. Similarly, only a faint echo of the things we love might exist at the end of life, no matter how rich or beautiful or saturated we believed them to be or how intensely we once felt them.
Although this idea is sad, it’s also natural. Life passes and time erodes things. Eventually, we’ll turn around to look at the things we love and, though it’s no fault of our own, they’ll hardly be there. Just an echo of it all.
It’s like walking out onto a narrow walkway made of rock with someone you love. It’s sundown and the two of you walk out on this path, one that extends from a high bluff, hundreds of feet above a crashing sea. And then, for some reason, you walk ahead of your partner; perhaps something strikes your fancy and you just walk ahead. The sun is beautiful and warm and casts a bronze glow on the rocks and the water and the grass. And you’re absorbing the view and enjoying it, and you turn to mention something to your love, perhaps some sweet remark. But when you turn, you see your love is gone; that you’re standing out there on that pathway alone. Just you and the hardly perceptible essence of something that had been there only moments ago.