Yeats – The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1939)

This is one of the most depressing titles in poetry, and most of the poem is similarly so. It is a late poem (literally the last poem in Last Poems). In it Yeats paints a sobering portrait of an aging artist (the ring leader and Yeats himself) profoundly disenchanted with his trade. The central problem revolves around his inability to forge a work of art (the performance or, for Yeats, a poem) out of the characters and tropes at his disposal: circus animals, stilted boys, burnished chariots, “lion and woman and Lord knows what…” Yeats was always anxious about his poetic symbolism–look at the short poem “The Coat” to see how he renounces “old mythologies” and decides that “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” I think it’s crucial while reading this poem to imagine Yeats himself looking back at his own oeuvre, questioning the deployment of his own constellation of characters and tropes. Read in this way, the poem is thoroughly post-modern, a poem about writing poems.

I was most impressed by the closing strophe of this poem, but I’m posting the whole thing–it’s not too long, and it’s necessary if one is going to fully appreciate the stunning finale.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion

I

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought 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.

II

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 faery bride.

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.

III

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 the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I only recently discovered that Yeats wrote that last line, even though it’s quite famous. I became acquainted with it while working at Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris, where it is inscribed above one of the door frames. I think Allen Ginsberg called S&Co. “the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” A great image. Anyway, back to the poem…

In the first section, the ringmaster, “being but a broken man,” is struggling between sticking to his trade (seeking a theme) or being “satisfied with [his] heart.” The second section opens with a depressing revelation: “What can I but enumerate old things.” I don’t believe this means that he has run dry of creativity; rather, much more darkly, he is wondering whether he has ever produced anything truly original. After recalling the themes which have defined his career (by the way, these stanzas make direct references to Yeats’s early work), a kernel of self-knowledge comes in the third stanza of the second section:

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.

The ringmaster is questioning the validity of the abstract ideals he has represented with the “players and painted stage.” Having become enchanted by “the dream,” his art became disconnected with reality to the degree that its relevance and potency waned. It had become hollow, a play of masks symbolizing nothing. That said, there is beauty in the representation:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

A bit of back-patting on the part of Yeats (calling his poetry “masterful”) before asking a question that has been asked many, many times by many, many poets. Where does poetry come from? Or, What is the source of inspiration? For Yeats, who has just described the emptiness of a poetic system committed to the abstract and ethereal, the answer is thoroughly anti-Romantic. No fountains of knowledge, no vague notions of genius, no imagination “bodying forth.” What is the origin of poetry?

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.

Where are the sweeping vistas of the Lake District? Where are the existential crises of Hamlet? Where are the gods? Where is the Muse? Where are the fatefully beautiful women? Where are the warriors? Where is the impossible love? Where is the innocent child? Without them, what is the poet to do?

Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

I suppose this final retreat into the self is somewhat Romantic–but Yeats’s portrait of the artist’s interior is not at all. Deprived of access to the ethereal realms (the ladder is gone), he must finally be “satisfied with [his] heart”–here described as a foul rag and bone shop.

I like to think of this as a response to a goal Yeats set for himself earlier in his career in “The Fisherman.” Speaking of the eponymous character, he cries,

‘Before I am old
I shall have written him one
Poem maybe as cold
And passionate as the dawn.’

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