William Butler Yeats, “When You Are Old” / “Peggy Sue Got Married”

peggy sue collage

Part three of my personal tribute to Yeats and his 150th anniversary.

I remember a scene or two from the 1986 film “Peggy Sue Got Married” (directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Kathleen Turner) in which Yeats’s poetry was mentioned. In case you haven’t seen this movie: Peggy Sue Bodell is an unhappily married, forty-something woman who attends her high school reunion and wonders what her life would have been like if she’d just made some different choices.

She finds out soon enough, when she faints at the reunion and time-travels back to her senior year of high school.

PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, Kathleen Turner, Kevin J. O'Connor, 1986, (c) TriStar
PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, Kathleen Turner, Kevin J. O’Connor, 1986, (c) TriStar

About midway through the story, Peggy Sue takes a late-night motorcycle ride into the countryside with Michael, a mysterious beatnik whom she never really knew in high school. The two of them smoke pot, and when Michael confesses that he wants to be a writer, Peggy Sue asks him to read one of his poems.

MICHAEL
Okay. Here’s a new one. It’s called ‘Tenderness.’
(beat)
I couldn’t sleep so I thought I’d
scream
Betrayed by a kiss, sucking pods of
bitterness.
In the madhouse of Dr. Dread
Razor shreds of rat puke fall
On my bare arms…

I’m sorry. I guess I was trying to impress you.
(kisses her)

PEGGY
Michael… you’re as good as you looked.

MICHAEL
I’ll respect you for eternity.
(reciting tenderly)
“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…”
(beat)
I didn’t write that. That’s Yeats.

PEGGY
I envy you. You have your whole life ahead of you and you know exactly what you want to do.
(beat)
But forget the rat puke; write something beautiful.

[At the end of the film, Peggy Sue time-travels back to adulthood and wakes up in the hospital. Her husband is waiting at her side, with flowers from friends and a special gift.]

CHARLIE
And here’s a book, by that guy from high school, Michael Fitzsimmons. He dedicated it to you.

Charlie returns to Peggy’s bedside and opens the front cover of the book.

ANGLE ON BOOK: The front page bears the title “The Pilgrim Soul” and the dedication reads, “To Peggy Sue and a Starry Night.”

Peggy smiles but shakes her head.

PEGGY
It couldn’t be me. I hardly knew him.

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Here is the complete text of Yeats’s poem.

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.

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3 thoughts on “William Butler Yeats, “When You Are Old” / “Peggy Sue Got Married”

  1. It’s actually the second quatrain, not the first, that Michael quotes in the scene.

    Glad you enjoyed this wonderful film, as I have.

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