When You Are Old
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.
by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
Polysyndeton is a rhetorical device consisting of the repetition of conjuctions such as “and,” “but” and “or.” The obvious function of polysyndeton is to join units of language (words, clauses, etc.) together, but it is also a stylistic feature that can affect the rhythm and pace of both poetry and prose.
This poem by Yeats—the first stanza in particular—is rife with polysyndeton. Note that the poem is written in iambic pentameter, and that the conjunctions always serve as unaccented syllables to aid in the rhythm.
Next, look closely at the poem’s punctuation: the only period occurs at the end of the poem. This makes it read as though it were one uninterrupted succession of thoughts and actions. Alongside his punctuation choices, Yeat’s use of polysyndeton helps him achieve this effect.
Finally, polysyndeton works to speed up the pace of the poem, giving the reader less of a breath between pauses.