Echo of Gerontological Consciousness Representing the Angst: A Study of W.B Yeats’s Poems

Ramanuj Mahato, Chitta Mahato Memorial College, Purulia

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This is the first thing
I have understood:
Time is the echo of an axe
Within a wood.                     
–Philip Larkin

Every Cinema enthusiast, especially the children, will remember Satyajit Ray’s famous film ‘Goopy Bagha Phire Elo’  where Ray consciously implies the secret fear of the mind for growing old through two staple characters – Goopy  and Bagha who cries before ‘Bhooter Raja’ expressing their anxiety about aging and are easily trapped by a promise that they would be young again. This romantic craving for youth and vitality is well expressed in Cinematic symbolism. Connecting this gerontophobic angst with W.B Yeats’ poetry and his personal life, a new aspect of gerontological psyche of the poet is revealed. In this context, Simone de Beauvoir says “… it is old age rather than death that is to be contrasted with life. Old age is life’s parody.”(539:1996)) Actually old age and the process of aging furnishes the fear in the mind that is to be associated with ‘decline’ whether physical or psychological and both. Yeats himself states his fear, anger and anxiety:

“I am tired and in a rage at being old. I am all I ever was and much more, but an enemy has bound me and twisted me.” (17:1978)

It is not death rather this fear of getting declined or perished leads W.B Yeats to express his angst and gerascophobic freakishness.

Unlike other Romantics, William Butler Yeats was intensely motivated by the themes of old age and aging because his major poetry came after the age of fifty. His unrequited love for Maud Gonne kindled that gerontological angst during the last decade of Nineties. Finally, Maud Gonne’s marriage with John MacBride in 1903 smashed all his hopes and expectations and constituted a tomb over his romantic love. Sailing to Byzantium (1927) and The Tower (1928) are two major works of Yeats that evoke the anxiety of ‘biological ageing’ and ‘psychological ageing’ through metaphorical depiction of his own sufferings and illness. In his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” Yeats writes, ‘That is no country for old men’ symbolizing the direct discarding of the features of old age. The conscious mind of Yeats is always pricked by this sense that he is moving to his old age, a stage when a person is incapable of fulfilling his dreams and lives with his ‘tattered coats’ on bonny structure:

                                    An aged man is but a paltry thing,

                                    A tattered coat upon stick, unless

                                    Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing

                                    For every tatter in its mortal dress.  (CP:1956)

Hence, Yeats expresses his plea for the emancipation of old age. In the poem “The Tower” (1928) Yeats compares old age with ‘a sort of battered kettle at the heel’ and constantly uses the recurring image and symbol of ‘ageing’. In the poem “Broken Dream” Yeats also expresses his anxiety of being unfulfilled in his love with Maud Gonne and he also thinks that he becomes old now and she (Maud Gonne) also becomes old and all her beauty has been faded away:

                             There is grey in your hair.

                                Young men no longer suddenly catch their breath

                               When you are passing; (CP:1956)

Yeats’ unrequited love for Maud Gonne also led him to say about her mortal beauty that it only survives in memories now:

                             Your beauty can but leave among us

                               Vague memories, nothing but memories. (CP:1956)

Though Yeats writes in Essays and Introduction that Blake was great poet and has heroic soul to mark a triumph over the frailty of old age and adds:

‘I have been very near the gates of death,’ Blake wrote in one of his last letters, and have returned very weak and an old man, feeble and tottering, but not in spirit and life, not in the real man, the imagination, which liveth forever. In that I am stronger and stronger as this foolish body decay’. (138)

His complaint regarding perishable impact of old age is conspicuous even in most of the earlier poems. In early collection of poems, the poem “When You are Old” (1893) Yeats draws the dull and decaying features of old age:

                                   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; (CP:1956)

Thus Yeats’ psychic angst on ageing process recurs in his poems repetitively either through realistic and imagist painting or through symbolic representation of life. Here ‘grey’, ‘full of sleep’ and ‘slowly read’ are symbolic of physical decay and psychological passivity. Even the impact of oldness upon life is so painful and matter of ravaging that in Yeats’ words – “There’s not a woman turns her face” to like him as stated in the poem “The Lamentation of the Old Pensioner”. Drawing metaphorically the analogy of Prufrokian anxiety, Yeats himself feels scared of his own ageing process:

                                    My contemplations are of Time

                                    That has transfigured me. (CP:1956)

In the poem “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in Water” (1903) Yeats anticipates the terrible features of oldness:

                                    They had hands like claws, and their knees

                                    Were twisted like the old thorn trees

                                    By the waters. (CP:1956)

This psychic angst regarding gerontolgy also left a tremendous impact in Yeats’ personal life and it led him to propose to the daughter of Maud Gonne, Iseult Gonne. Yeats asked her to marry him in 1916 and in 1917 when he was staying at her mother’s house in France. The ‘ageing’ conscious soul of Yeats moved him to do so. Yeats in his poem “The Wild Swan at Coole” (1919) thinks himself as a contrast to swan which is a symbol of eternal passion and youth and he might consider that Iseult Gonne might consider him as an old man:

                                    I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,   

                                    And now my heart is sore.

                                    All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,   

                                    The first time on this shore,

                                    The bell-beat of their wings above my head,   

                                    Trod with a lighter tread. (CP:1956)

In fact, Yeats’ concern for the old age is so pervading that he has used the images and symbols incorporating the concept of ‘ageing’ in many of his poems and it focuses not only on the physical decay but also on the psychic angst regarding the ageing process itself. Contrasting to swans whose “hearts have not grown old” Yeats finds himself dull and agitated soul. Most of the times Yeats consciously uses the epithet ‘old’ to denote his mental anxiety in his several poems, such as, ‘old house’, ‘old fable’, ‘old beggar’ etc. Sometimes Yeats is reminded of the approaching old age by some threatening metaphorical words in the poem “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz”:

                                    The innocent and the beautiful

                                    Have no enemy but time; (CP;1956)

Corroborating Yeatsian gerontological concern Philip Larkin later also reflects his anxieties about ageing and expresses his deep consciousness about the floating time and decaying life; he also reminds us of Yeats’ gerascophobic mind that believes that ageing is obvious and an old man lives with his memories. In fact, Yeats generalizes his personal concern for old age and makes it a universal issue in modern social perspective.


Beauvoir, Simone de. The Coming of age. Trans. Patrick O’Brian. New York, London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996.

W.T. Currie and Graham Handly, W.B. Yeats: Selected Poetry. London: Pan Books. 1978.

Yeats, W. B. Autobiographies. New York: Macmillan,1955.

——————-.Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. New York: Macmillan, 1956.

——————-.Essays and Introductions. New York: Macmillan, 1961.

Ramanuj Mahato teaches at Chitta Mahato Memorial College, Jargo under Sidho- Kanho-Birsha University, Purulia (W.B).

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