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Fire, from "When You Are Old," a poem by William Butler Yeats

Subthemes: Home Heating and Lighting, Cooking, Fuels, Astronomical Heat

“When You Are Old,” by William Butler Yeats, serenely and poignantly evokes how old age banks the fires of life. With sadness, suggesting a long-ago widowhood, it refers to how Love fled, but the lines of the poem have blown gently on the embers of remembered admiration and love. The glow has greyed, but the feelings have not been completely extinguished. A few other subthemes of Fire arise.

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;

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.

Home Heating and Lighting: The elderly woman in the poem sleepily basks before a fireplace, mostly for pleasure, not for extra heat or light as people did for millenia past. As much as 1.5 million years ago, humans began tending campfires. At some point, the campfires were brought inside caves and huts. The oldest arrangement was a central fire and a roof opening for smoke to escape. What warmth was available in homes dissipated weakly from those meager hearths. Fast forward. In 1874 Nelson Bundy invented the first popular cast iron radiator. By the next decade, cast iron sectional radiators spread widely. Now, modern buildings circulate warmed air. As to lighting in homes, tapers, candles, and torches burned along with fireplaces to provide dim illumination at night. Eventually, the glow of incandescence lit the world.

Cooking: Aside from heating and lighting, fire’s major contribution in homes has been cooking food. Humans have devised uncountable numbers of ways to heat food for eating. The history of cooking fills volumes and is still being discovered; indeed, even now chefs and households devise new techniques. As of this writing, in addition to open fires, people use ovens, stoves, hot plates, grills, spits, wrapped leaves, boilers, poachers, crock pots, and other means to turn produce and meats into hot dishes. Plus, the accoutrement for cooking are equally numerous: oven mitts, hot pads, trivets, cleaners, cooking thermometers, timers, exhausts, tongs, spatulas, pots and pans, and on and on. Kitchens store all these tools that tame the fires for meals.

Fuels: The fireplace of Yeats’ poem burned logs and kindling, but many other substances generate heat when they burn: coal, peat, natural gas, propane, oils, paper, firelogs, Sterno-type cans, and radioactive materials, among them. Combustion (burning) is the general term for a chemical process that creates thermal energy from oxidation of these substances. Nearly 20 percent of U.S. homes generate some heat from burning wood, although only four percent of households rely on wood as the main fuel for their heat. When most homes relied on wood-burning, vast tracts were deforested by the incessant quest for firewood. We might also mention the fiery temperatures within the earth’s mantle that create magma and geo-thermal energy.

Astronomical Heat: The poem closes with reference to a crowd of stars. Stars, however, do not burn as a chemical combustion, but instead release vast amounts of energy (heat) as they fuse lighter elements into heavier elements. Owing to the colossal hydrogen bombs exploding continuously, the temperature at the surface of the Sun is about 10,000 °F. But that is positively frigid compared to the hellish center where the solar furnace rages at about 27,000,000 °F. Only upon the detonation of a nuclear device do we on Earth even slightly approach such incinerating heat as stars prodigiously produce.

 

Yeats softly touches on old age and bitter-sweet memories of past loves. Over time, the fires of the heart, the lust of the loins, and the beauty in the eye burn low and even blink out. An aged beauty musing before the warmth of a fireplace’s logs recaptures her past heart-felt emotions.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Fire, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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