Pilgrim Soul

Pilgrim Soul

This week’s poem is “When You Are Old” by William Butler Yeats which is short but beautiful.

But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face

William Butler Yeats (1865—1939)

Poem 165. 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.

I think I first encountered this poem as an epigraph to the Nevil Shute book “A Town Like Alice”—Shute uses the middle stanza to evoke the spirit of Jean Paget, the woman at the centre of the novel.

The poem is rather wistful and sad but I think it’s beautiful nonetheless. It is written like a dedication at the front of a book presented by a man to his love—a love that he expects to lose, perhaps because he is facing death himself: maybe he is a soldier posted to a savage theatre of war.

The first stanza gives us the idea that the verse is written in a book, but also tells us about an elderly woman selecting the book and opening it to the first pages and remembering her youthful looks.

In the second stanza we hear more of her beauty and of her many admirers (and false friends) but more especially of the one man who truly loved her even at the worst moments.

The last stanza returns us to the warm, comfortable room where the old lady bending over the fire mutters to herself and thinks of this man and how their love ended. The last line I think is the most touching: “And hid his face amid a crowd of stars”.

The poem, like Walter de la Mare’s “The Listeners”, poses more questions than it answers but I think that makes the poem more globally apt to any pair of lovers. It certainly seems appropriate to the two people at the heart of Shute’s novel.


  • Read about “A Town Like Alice” at Wikipedia.