Yeats: The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1939)

Monday, March 3rd, 2014 @ 3:30 am

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I’m in a class on Modernist literature, and just completed a close reading of a poem by Yeats, and felt pretty proud of it, so I thought I’d include it here. It’s hard to get into poetry for me, but usually upon closer inspection it’s quite rewarding, and this was one of those times.

This is one of the last poems Yeats ever wrote, as it is credited with being written in 1938 and published in January of 1939, and he died on January 28th of 1939.  It is a poignant work concerning the loss of the spark of the new idea, the desertion of the old ideas, themes or muses of his work.  The aspects that fed his work, the animals of his literary circus, have gone from him, and in his old age he is wondering about their origins, how he got to invent the things he wrote about, and what he is left with at the end.


I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought for it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

Yeats is looking back on his life, wondering if now, being unable to think of something new to write for six weeks, he must simply be content with the life he’s lived and work he’s made.  “Broken man” refers possibly to his inability to do what he does, to write.  He compares himself now to himself through his career, having always been able to show off his talents, constantly exhibiting and showing off his feats and features, his literary and poetic exploits.  He’s wondering if he’s really at the end of his writing career, since he cannot think of something new to write.


What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.

Wondering about his lost muse, he thinks about thumbing through past ideas, much as I’ve thumbed through old sketchbooks, in search of something new, some thought lost in time that might spark a new train, a new flame.  He reminisces about an old poem from 1899 called The Wanderings of Oisin which chronicles a hero’s journey, led by a fairy through the three islands of Dancing, Victories and Forgetfulness.  Yeats seems to say in this stanza that he was just a kid back then, writing what he could imagine.  He wasn’t concerned with the deeper things often read from heroic tales, he was writing out of emotion, out of lust, for adventure and excitement.  Yeats was “starved for the bosom of his fairy bride,” and yearned to imagine the story around her.  Maybe he is saying that he was simply a horny kid, or an adventure-starved kid, and writing was the thing that allowed him to explore in a way that satisfied.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
“The Countess Cathleen” was the name I gave it,
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

He talks then about something new he discovered, his counter-truth, the play that he wrote.  Maybe he was getting into deeper meanings?  Maybe a live audience meant more meaning?  Maybe live players, live event, an almost-interactive style of narrative work, at least in comparison to literature or poetry, was exciting to him.  “my dear” refers to Maude Gonne, a fiery nationalist whom Yeats loved, and the lines following may refer to an imagined love, an infatuation, Yeats found with Gonne.  He wonders briefly in this stanza also at the strength of one characteristic and its power over someone’s being.  Her fanaticism seems to have threatened to ruin her well-being, in his mind.  I do not think she was crazy, but that her fierce belief drew Yeats to adore her, and to imagine what that might be like, and to hope for it immensely.

He mentions more of his earlier work, enumerating old themes, pointing out what he was writing about, or thinking about at the time of the writing, in his mention of heart mysteries.  He brings us back to the previous stanza, mentioning the dream, and indeed back to his love of Maude Gonne, and echoes the lines following her introduction, this time in reference to Cuchulain, when he says “Character isolated by a deed, to engross the present and dominate memory.”  He is thinking about the power of characteristic to re-determine the image kept of someone cared about.  After watching him fight the sea with madness, the villagers will all talk about Cuchulain the sea-fighter, or the madman, or the sorrowful.  After her fiery nationalism, and the love he bore her, Yeats can only remember Maude Gonne as the wished-for love, the imagined romance.  He talks about the perception of someone in a moment engrossing the mood of the one perceiving, someone doing something unusual takes over their regular image, and changes the way they are perceived from then onward.  He brings us back at the end of the second stanza to the very beginning of the first, by mentioning the theater again, and ending it with love.


Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till.  Now that my ladder‘s gone
I must lie down where all ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Part three is the closer, echoing some of his concerns from the beginning, he seems more at peace with his work now, after reminiscing about it, checking to make sure he did some things he liked, approved of.  He acknowledges some complex images and ideas came from him, but asks from where inside.  He wonders at the source of inspiration, especially given how young he thinks he was during his earlier writings.  He answers somewhat with common things.  Common things found in the streets, in the home, things any creative mind could attach a story to, or infer a story from.  Old worn objects, characters that seem too vivid to be real or boring, things which his adventure-starved mind could pick up and run wild with.  And finally he mentions ladders.  He lived in a tower, and I imagine there were ladders inside, and we know from earlier works that he walked the top of it to think, ladders are objects which allow us to see from a new vantage point, often farther, clearer, with new sense of self or context, as the futurists discussed.  “The foul rag and bone of shop the heart” I am not sure about, although I love the line.  Someone mentioned on Wikipedia that it might be the paper on which the poem was written, I thought of the foul rag as something to do with cleaning up messes, maybe there is one rag in the heart’s workshop that cleans up all of the heart’s messes and by his age at the end of his life had become foul, well-used.

I was searching for a poem to write about, and thought at first maybe The Coat, in part because it had no footnotes to interrupt the flow and interpretation of the reading.  I found in others that those broke the rhythm and I’d have to pick it up again from before, taking much longer to read the poem.  But something stuck out of this one, the discussion of inspiration is something that I write a bit and think a lot about, and the wondering about personal context in relation to ones’ work, ones’ world and ones’ life story.  The negotiation of the aspects of self is heavily present in this, as it’s retrospective, and wondering about the nature of Yeats’ legacy, maybe of his worth as a writer, maybe about whether or not he can write at all.  And yet he is writing this poem, while wondering if he can write a poem.  He wrote about the inability to write, and quite endearingly at that.  I’d forgotten that this was a poem by him and was simply reading it as something written about him, about his thoughts nearing the end of his life, whether he knew it was that time or not.  In some ways it is encouraging to know that even Yeats was still curious after so long a career about what this stuff he was doing was all about, and where it came from, that despite the adventures he was able to take himself on, the mystery persisted, and the quest was never over.


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