When you are old and gray 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;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true;
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face.
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead,
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
The painful loss of love that fled, abandoning a sad and bitter lover, hums like a quiet elegy through this brief poetic gem by the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats. What I always find surprising when I read it is the poet’s way of telling us how the lover demonstrates his sadness over his beloved who has rejected him: instead of admitting his pain at being abandoned directly, he imagines himself in his youth instructing the one he loves to open “this book” – perhaps a book of poems he dedicated to or wrote about his beloved – in the waning years of old age, to remember how much he loved that person. He is the “one man who loved the pilgrim soul in you and loved the sorrows of your changing face.”
Only recently have I come to understand how profoundly Yeats’ masterful use of indirectness and understatement expresses the lover’s bitter sense of rejection After asking his beloved who rejected him to remember his devotion that was not reciprocated, the lover tells that person to “murmur, a little sadly, how love fled” and became lost. He is telling this person whom he loved but who did not love him back, “Years from now, as you roam nostalgically through this book I gave you, I hope you’ll think with at least a bit of sadness about the impermanence of our romance; though, I doubt you’ll think too sadly about it, having lost track of it over the mountains and in the stars.” The intensity of the lover’s raw feelings is made even greater by its contrast with the warm, soft old-age scene in which his beloved appears many years after the break-up of the relationship.
Among all the lines of this poem, the one that intrigues me the most describes the depth of his love for his beloved. Everyone else loved her, or pretended to love her, because of her beauty and charm. He loved her pilgrim soul and the sorrows of her changing face. A pilgrim soul might be understood in both senses of the word, pilgrim. A pilgrim is a religious devotee who goes on a journey to a holy place. In the word’s more archaic sense, a pilgrim is simply one who wanders. Yeats might be saying, “What I loved about you is inside of you: your restless spirit that drives you on an endless spiritual journey which constitutes your deeper beauty.” Yeats may have been writing to his lover, Maud Gonne, who repeatedly rejected his proposals of marriage. The greatness of poems like his is their ability to transcend the poet’s time and place, and to speak to us about love found and lost that we all experience.
In a manner entirely different from Yeats, the biblical book, Song Of Songs, which we chant during Pesach, contains two lovers’ rhapsodic songs of love over much more than the pilgrim soul each finds in the other. The two lovers are devastated by their separation, and if they express any bitterness, it is over not being able to be together. Here is a small portion of the second chapter in which the woman speaks about her lover:
Hark! My beloved!
There he comes,
Leaping over mountains,
Bounding over hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
Or like a young stag…
My beloved spoke thus to me,
“Arise my darling;
My fair one, come away!
For now the winter is past,
The rains are over and gone…
Arise, my darling,
My fair one, come away!
Listen to the music of constant movement in this passage. These two lovers go way beyond loving each others’ pilgrim souls, because they are both pilgrim souls –romantic wanderers – on a quest for the holy space defined entirely by the consummation of their love. This very heady love poetry spares no imagery or emotional intensity to underscore just how much these lovers’ desires for each other fuel their desire to be constantly on the move. Their love doesn’t flee and pace above them and the mountains overhead, getting lost amid a crowd of stars. It leaps with the two of them over those mountains.
The standard rabbinic analogy for Song Of Songs compares the two lovers of the book to God and the Jewish people. This is why the book is chanted on Pesach, which celebrates God taking us from Egypt in order to make us God’s beloved people. Yet, that analogy alone is static, and it begs more consideration. Commenting on the opening words of the book, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth,” the rabbis ask, “Heikhan ne-em-rah?” where and by whom was Song of Songs first chanted? They then move through Jewish time and space, to offer a variety of answers. The Jews chanted it at the Red Sea during the redemption; on Mount Sinai during the Torah’s revelation; in the desert sanctuary after Moses built it; the ministering angels chanted it; God chanted it; Shekhinah, God’s presence wandering with the people, chanted it. All of these answers make poetic and religious sense, for they emphasize who we and God have always tried to be: pilgrim souls, wrestling with and loving one another, and constantly on the move in our quest for a holy place in which to be together. (See Song Of Songs Rabbah on chapter 1:2.)
No love relationship can be lived with pilgrim soul intensity, “24/7,” without burning out. Life in the romantic fast lane must alternate with settling into the prosaic preoccupations of living together: raising the kids, paying the mortgage, making dinner. Politically, we Jews need and have created places of stable refuge like Israel and American Judaism which allow us to breathe safely in one place, to try to be like everyone else, simply living. Spiritually, we and God need to remind ourselves periodically that we started out as pilgrim souls, always wandering with one another to something greater that would make the world holier. Song Of Songs reminds us and God that we must preserve some element of that pilgrim soul love, so that we can protect this love affair of Judaism from becoming dull, unreflective, and spiritless. May God continue to kiss us with the kisses of God’s mouth.