Aug 9, 2010

Yeats, "When You are Old" and "Lamentation of the Old Pensioner"

















I hope this isn't too dreary a post for a Monday in the dog days of August, when we all might be feeling just a bit old and worn.

Maybe you remember "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," an early Yeats poem (an idyll?) that I posted here July 25, 2010. Yeats lived from 1865-1939, so he wrote in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as both a Victorian and modern poet. Most students of his work find the mature Yeats superior--tougher, more sinewy and more complex, as both thinker and craftsman.

However, I've heard quite a few people over the years mention with great fondness "When You Are Old." I'm adding "The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner" because, as an unheralded Yeats poem, it caught me by surprise when I was a young grad student. Although I'd never argue that it's the equal of "Sailing to Byzantium" or "The Second Coming," for example, I've never stopped liking "Lamentation." After two calmly plaintive stanzas, the surprise of the turn to hissing and impotent fury in the final two lines strike me as an honest urgency, desperation, earned bitterness. I still marvel that a young Yeats could be so convincing about old age, or that the poem spoke so forcefully to me as a young man.

Does that make it a better poem than the better known, more widely loved "When You Are Old"?

When You are Old- Poets.org - Poetry, Poems, Bios & More

The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner, by William Butler Yeats


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13 comments:

altadenahiker said...

I think when poetry or poets reach a certain level, we can stop quantifying and measuring as to who and which is best.

Or is that possible?

There's nothing more beautiful than the first poem. Nothing.

Barbaro said...

"Nothing" is a big place, AH. Of course it's all subjective, but I could name several dozen poems more beautiful than the first.

In any case, I think I like "When You Are Old" better simply b/c the not-quite-a-ballad structure of "Lamentation" distracts me from the content. It's hard to make any meaningful comparison or criticism, because "When..." is the poem we'd all like to be the subject of.

altadenahiker said...

All right, so name your poison, Barbaro.

BANJO52 said...

I'm hiding under the kitchen table till the loud noises go away. Oooh, found a pork rind.

altadenahiker said...

B52, I adore you, in a thousand mile-away kind of way.

Where's my cuzin?

Barbaro said...

When I Have Fears, Chapman's Homer, Ode to Nightingale, Ode on Urn, This Living Hand (Keats); Poem in Beowulf (Borges); To Earthward, Death of Hired Man, Birches (Frost); My Life Closed Twice (Dickinson); Kubla Khan (Coleridge); Tyger, Poison Tree, Chimney Sweeper (Blake); The Colonel (Forche); Daddy (Plath); When Lilacs, Song of Myself (Whitman); Little by Little, Twelve Lies (Rumi), Ode to Cat (Neruda); Blackbird (Stevens); Our Century's Decline, Hatred (Szymborska); More Light (Hecht); since feeling is first (cummings)... if I go on much further, I'll have to get my own blog. Oh wait, I already have one: http://hardsleeper43.blogspot.com/ but I usually leave the poetry to Banjo.

BANJO52 said...

AH, how come girls get to say stuff like that? But I will take that as a good thing. (My real name is Tom Waits).

Yeah, I wonder about your cuz, too. Still catching up on sleep after insomnia at her place?

Barbaro, that's a lot of poison. Where I might be with you: Nightingale, Kubla Khan, Birches, and since feeling is first. Others--I don't know 'em or disagree. I've never seen the charm of Blackbird (13 Ways, right?).

Also, I've had my own insomnia since SOMEBODY called Gatsby a novella.

Go get him, Hiker.

Paula said...

Oh, you English majors, you're a fiesty lot!

I don't care about the other poems just right now, I just like where "When You Are Old" took me. I've been married a long time and I believe that's the way my husband feels about me (mostly), which is comforting in a very deep way. It's not easy growing old you know...

BANJO52 said...

Paula, I hear. But I'm venturing no comment. Don't want to spoil the moment.

altadenahiker said...

No, Bandit; this isn’t an argument. Just a matter of taste.

I liked the romantics, but they finally wore on me. The plethora of compliments, and the hail to thee’s -- too frantic, too cluttered, too desperate. Kind of like someone telling you he loves your eyes, and then starts mumbling sweet things about your elbows, and finally ends up somewhere near your toes.

I respect an adventurous and enthusiastic response to this blink of eternity we each lucked into, but also need some reasoned stoicism and bravery, even when it's sad. Because then I believe it.

And that was the Yeats poem for me.

altadenahiker said...

You scamp. I think I wrote Bandit instead of Banjo, but you don't let use erase.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Whew, found my way back, feeling just a bit old and worn.

Yeats poem has always been my favorite. My first true love (when I was 30) shared the poem with me. I can still hear him reading it to me - the expressions in his voice, his face, his hands. He has since died (cancer, you evil thief), but the poem is forever etched in my heart. A lovely, lovely etching that no one can steal.

Yeats could visualize 'old age' in a way that captures what we all hope/fear.

"Lamentation" was one he would read, too. I would deny, deny, deny every WORD in that poem as he read it. We would never be like that! Instead, we never got the chance.
"The fury" is an excellent description, Banjomyn.

I love turning to your posts and escaping the reality of place for a moment. I appreciate you and AH not giving up on me!



OK.

BANJO52 said...

Brenda, a very, very touching story. And I can relate.

And everybody, I wonder if I know of a single other poem (of worth) that elicits so much sense of connection from so many people. Maybe all readers over a certain age (30? 20? 50?) have lived the poem's experience.

On the other hand, going way back, I don't remember a single such comment from a male. I've heard plenty of sad love stories from males, but never a reference to Yeats' poem. Maybe that makes Brenda's story all the more poignant.

Lovers' Lane