The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water
by William Butler Yeats
I heard the old, old men say,
And one by one we drop away.’
They had hands like claws, and their knees
Were twisted like the old thorn-trees
By the waters.
‘All that’s beautiful drifts away
Like the waters.’
I have a few New Years resolutions regarding Poem Elf. The first and easiest is what you have here—out with the old. Yeats’ “The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water” should have been posted last year, back in November when I taped it to a branch overhanging a little stream. The fact that the poem is old (1903), is about old people, and is old relative to my usual turn-around time on Poem Elf posts, points to the universe’s less-than-subtle commentary on my unproductive end to 2021.
The second half of out-with-the-old is that my next few posts will cover poets who died in 2021. I made a similar tribute for poets who died in 2020, so this is officially an annual series.
In with the new is the second resolution, and that involves undoing the last time I tried something new on this blog. Frankly, this new format, however much I like the aesthetics of it, is not working well. It’s confusing. This particular template makes it hard to know what the latest post is. It’s also hard to navigate and find old posts. My goal in the next month or two is to switch over to something more reader-friendly, which had been my goal in the first place. So please bear with me!
Back to Yeats and his old men.
We can’t speak of a man admiring himself in the water without raising the specter of Narcissus, the beautiful young man of Greek myth who fell in love with his own reflection. He stared at his image in a pond until he died of starvation.
If the poem wasn’t titled as it is, that is, if the body of the poem existed without the title, you’d think these old men are well aware of the folly of vanity. Everything alters, is the first thing the poem’s speaker overhears the old men say. But the title tells us they are indeed admiring themselves, as Narcissus did.
It’s hard to know exactly what they’re thinking. The speaker paints an ugly picture of the men—clawed and gnarly. Are they blind to their aging, as some vain men are? Or are they remembering themselves as they were, once young, once beautiful?
I go back to the word alters. It’s a gentle word. So is drifts, as in, All that’s beautiful drifts away. Alters signifies a small shift. Drifting is a slow process. The old men see change but perhaps not the disfigurement the speaker does. We all console ourselves as best we can. Passing by a mirror, I crane my neck so the crepe-y lines disappear, and I smile to erase the wrinkles above my lip.
Yeats’ poem reminds me of the silliness of such efforts, but also the humanity. I might have sneered at these men in my thirties, the age Yeats was when he wrote the poem, but now I want to stand with the old fellas and marvel at their reflections. Then I’d say, with a light laugh and a wink, Well, look at you, still so handsome, and sturdy, like a tree!
Here’s a bio of Yeats from a previous post:
Born in Dublin in 1865 to a Protestant family, William Butler Yeats spent much of his childhood in London. Nonetheless, Yeats supported Irish independence. He loved and collected Irish folklore, was a key figure in the Irish Literary Revival, and helped found Dublin’s Abbey Theater. He was the first Irishman to win the Nobel Prize, and served for six years as an Irish senator.
For much of his life Yeats was obsessed with Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary and famous beauty. He proposed to her four times over many years. Like Pip’s love for Estella, Scarlett’s for Ashley, Yeats’ unrequited love for the six-foot tall, red-haired Gonne shaped his life. She drew Yeats into her political causes and awakened his nationalistic feelings. He wrote a play for her to star in. He even, after Maud’s final rejection, proposed to her daughter. With her permission. (She had other boundary issues with mating and mothering—she had sex on her infant son’s grave in the hope of conceiving his reincarnation.)
At age 52 Yeats married for the first time to a woman half his age. Theirs was a happy marriage but not a monogamous one, at least on his part. He died in Paris in 1939.