W.B. Yeats’ Classic Poem “When You Are Old” Gets Adapted Into a Beautiful Short Film

W.B. Yeats’ 1891 poem “When You Are Old” is wide­ly con­sid­ered a com­men­tary on his unre­quit­ed life­long pas­sion for actress, Irish Repub­li­can and suf­fragette Maud Gonne.

Yeats first met Gonne in 1889 (a meet­ing which Yeats was lat­er to describe in his mem­oirs as the day ‘the trou­bling of my life began’) and he remained in love with her for much of his life, propos­ing mar­riage at least four times. Gonne became his muse, and he drew on his tor­tured love for her, albeit unnamed, as the inspi­ra­tion for many of his works, includ­ing most notably the poem, “When You Are Old.”

Freely based on a son­net by Pierre de Ron­sard, which first appeared in Le Sec­ond Livre Des Son­nets Pour Hélène in 1578, “When You Are Old” enjoins the object of an unre­turned love to reflect–in years to come–on a love reject­ed, to remem­ber one who ‘loved your moments of glad grace’, and who ‘loved the pil­grim soul in you, And loved the sor­rows of your chang­ing face.’

Although Yeats’s poet­ry is often very dense and rich in allu­sion to mythol­o­gy, the occult and his­to­ry, in “When You Are Old” the pain and bit­ter­sweet nature of a spurned love is all too appar­ent.

Aus­tralian play­wright Jes­si­ca Bel­lamy drew on the poem and her love of W.B. Yeats’ work when writ­ing the the­atre mono­logue “Lit­tle Love,” which she then adapt­ed with direc­tor Damien Pow­er to cre­ate the short film Bat Eyes. Watch it above.

In Bat Eyes, Adam and Jen­ny (‘Bat Eyes’) Bar­rett are brought togeth­er through an inci­dent of class­room bul­ly­ing. Through the metaphor of visu­al impair­ment and an eye exam­i­na­tion under­gone by an adult Adam, Bel­lamy and Pow­er explore the poem’s themes of long­ing, insight, rev­e­la­tion and regret, and poet­ry’s capac­i­ty to pro­vide solace and awak­en empa­thy in every­day life. The script of this beau­ti­ful short film con­sists prin­ci­pal­ly of the text of the poem, with the film’s two young leads repeat­ing Yeats’ words back and forth to each oth­er, as the sto­ry flips back and forth in time, the mean­ing of the lines becom­ing more tan­gi­ble and res­o­nant with each recita­tion.

Says Jes­si­ca Bel­lamy:

‘Yeats writes about ancient mythol­o­gy and the his­to­ry of his time, but you don’t have to under­stand all that to get the feel­ing of what he has to say. There are lines, there are moments that, as a read­er, you just get and you think: I’m not alone in this world and that some­one else has felt these things as well. I hope view­ers will hear the truth of what this poem is say­ing, and that they’ll see the film as an ode to love, rela­tion­ships and to poet­ry itself.

Gonne, who died in 1953, out­lived Yeats by 14 years. She was pho­tographed by Life mag­a­zine in Octo­ber 1948, old and grey, sit­ting by a fire and read­ing Yeats poet­ry.

You can watch the orig­i­nal mono­logue, “Lit­tle Love,” here:

And read and lis­ten to the text of “When You Are Old” here. There’s also a ver­sion read by Col­in Far­rell. Find it below.

Dan Prichard is an online film and web­series pro­duc­er, based in Syd­ney, whose work explores iden­ti­ty, place, and the space between film and per­for­mance in the dig­i­tal are­na. Vis­it his web­site here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Rare 1930s Audio: W.B. Yeats Reads Four of His Poems

Aleis­ter Crow­ley & William But­ler Yeats Get into an Occult Bat­tle, Pit­ting White Mag­ic Against Black Mag­ic (1900)

T.S. Eliot’s Clas­sic Poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” Gets Adapt­ed into a Hip Mod­ern Film

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  • Michelle Payette-Daoust says:

    Thank you.
    This is exquis­ite.
    And a love­ly way to start my Mon­day and my week.
    I’d been research­ing the theme of mem­o­ry, with thoughts espe­cial­ly of love and loss.
    This gor­geous film has moved me to the brink of tears and filled me with some­thing beau­ti­ful and sad.
    I’ve been mov­ing through the bar­ren land­scape of a long and fruit­ful mariage that has lsow­ly withered…because of every­thing that life has thrown at it, and because my hus­band and I have lost sight of each oth­er.
    Yeats’ poem has remind­ed me that there is anoth­er path, and anoth­er way of see­ing.
    The pos­si­bil­i­ties of youth–and the wast­ing of these– cause me occa­sion­al pain, but not bit­ter­ness.

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