Trace the Modern features in Yeats's "The Circus Animal Desertion" and "The Second Coming."

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In articulating the essence of Modern features in consciousness, Virginia Woolf speaks of a shift in thinking.  Woolf argues that this construction is the essence of Modern thought:  "All human relations shifted... and when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature."  Both of Yeats's poems articulate such a shift, helping to highlight the modern features within each.

Woolf speaks of how a "change" in literature and art becomes one of the essential aspects of Modern thought. This idea forms the basis of Yeats's thought in "The Circus Animal Desertion."  The opening lines of the poem subvert the image of the poet as an endless fountain of themes and creation: "I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/ I sought it daily for six weeks or so."  This image is a Modern shift in how the artist might not be all encompassing.  In contrast to the Romantic construction of the artist who interacts with the world and is never short of a theme or an idea, Yeats's opening brings out the Modern reality in which the artist lack the ability to construct.  The only way in which creation is possible is through reimagining that which has already been done, helping to emphasize that another shift is evident in that which is new is impossible.  What is seen as "new" is simply reimagining that which has already passed.  The Modern view of the author or artists is one of limitation, reflecting the world around them: "Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of.”  For Yeats', this is not the world of the Romantic construction of the artist, a setting where creative powers are boundless.  The modern world is one where creative energy is subverted.  In being able to "lie down where all the ladders start," Yeats articulates the shift towards something new, but also emphasizes the Modern idea that what was will never be what is.

The same type of shift that Woolf sees as intrinsic to Modernist thought can be seen in "The Second Coming."  The world that Yeats describes is one in total shifting.  The poem's exposition is comprised of a world shifted from what it once was.  The falcon unable to hear the falconer is matched with a widening gyre of consciousness.  The traditional notion of righteousness and justice has been silenced while malevolence is the only voice which can be accurately heard ("The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.")  These images help to illuminate how Yeats sees the modern setting.  This shift is further enhanced with the inversion of "The Second Coming."  The shift in the Modern element of the poem highlights how this is not a force of redemption that "slouches towards Bethlehem," as much as it one of destruction with a "pitiless gaze" that strikes Yeats as blank.  In the world constructed in the poem, there is a complete shift within the Modern setting.  Both poems highlights Woolf's construction of Modern elements as representing a world where everything has "shifted" and forever changed.

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