When You Are Old: Projecting Age in Petrarch's "Se la Mia Vita Da L'aspro Tormento," Ronsard's "Quand Vous Serez Bien Vieille" and Yeats's "When You Are Old"

Article excerpt

It is well-known that W.B. Yeats modeled his 1891 poem "When You Are Old" on the sixteenth-century French poet Pierre de Ronsard's "Quand vous serez bien vieille." The poems share the theme of projecting the beloved into a future of old age and regret, a theme inspired by Petrarch's "Se la mia vita da l'aspro tormento." Each of the three love poets develops this theme distinctly, varying the speaker's approach of the beloved, his own self-portrayal, and the treatment of regret.


Francesco Petrarch died in 1374, but his poetic model of unrequited love for an unresponsive muse remains influential across national boundaries. Petrarch's influence on the sixteenth-century poet Pierre de Ronsard is well documented; since Olivier de Magny first titled him "le Petrarque Vandomois" in 1554, Ronsard has often been called the "French Petrarch" (Sturm-Maddox 1). The influence of Ronsard is evident in the work of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. Yeats's poem "When You are Old" (1891) is so closely based on Ronsard's "Quand vous serez bien vieille" (1552) that it is sometimes mistakenly interpreted as a translation. The twelfth sonnet in Petrarch's Canzoniere influenced these two poems; each projects the poem's youthful addressee into an imagined future of faded beauty and regret.

As part of the Pleiade, a group of sixteenth-century poets and scholars named for a constellation, Ronsard looked to classical literature and the literature of the Italian Renaissance for ways to enrich the French language and its literature. Ronsard's first collection of love poetry, Les Amours de Cassandre (1552), draws heavily from the Petrarchan style, and his use of Petrarchan sonnet forms was "fundamental in establishing the sonnet cycle in French poetry, as well as in fixing the technical rules governing the regular French sonnet" (Quainton and Vinestock xxiv). His frequent application of the Apollo/Daphne myth and his exaltation of Cassandre, Marie, and Helene show conscious imitation of Petrarch's praise of Laura. Sara Sturm-Maddox describes Ronsard's relationship with Petrarch as "a rivalry and a challenge whose nature may be cast in the agonistic terms of a textual conflict" (5). Petrarch served as both a model and an adversary for Ronsard, who strove not only to emulate his poetry of love, but also to exceed it. In several poems, Ronsard expresses his longing to break free from the Petrarchan tradition of love, which was for him both a model and "an oppressive cultural inheritance" (Braden 113). In "Quand vous serez bien vieille," Ronsard uses his precursor's theme of projecting his beloved into old age, but develops the theme in a manner distinctly his own. Petrarch's poem maintains a tone of praise and respectful distance toward the addressee; he suggests that Laura's beauty intimidates the poetic persona into silence (Braden 110). In his projection of the beloved's future, Ronsard's addressee, not her admirer's hesitation, holds the blame for rejecting the possibility of romance. This divergence leads to differences in the handling of topics such as the following: the speaker's approach of the beloved, the development of the theme of regret, the use of disclosure, and Ronsard's application of the carpe diem theme.

A letter dated February 7, 1904 establishes a direct link between Petrarch and Yeats (Collected Letters 545). In a letter to Agnes Tobin, Yeats writes enthusiastically about her book of Petrarch translations, Love's Crucifix: "I have read it over & over. It is full of wise delight--a thing of tears & ecstacy" [sic] (545-46). Although he does not say so in the letter, Yeats surely recognized himself in the Italian poet. For both, the object of their decades-long romantic obsession pervades their poetry, often through mythological allusions and poems of praise. And like Petrarch, Yeats frequently plays with the name of his beloved within his poetry without directly stating it (Ramazani 25). …