Yeats wrote “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” in 1939, shortly before the end of his life. The poem was published first in Dublin and then included in the collection Last Poems and Two Plays (1939). This poem has grown in reputation and interest within Yeats’s studies, surpassing “Under Ben Bulben” as the poet’s final statement about his artistic life.
The poem has five stanzas of eight lines each. In addition, Yeats divides the poem into three parts: part one comprises stanza one; part two comprises stanzas two through four; and part three comprises the last stanza. Like “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poem follows a regular rhyme scheme of abababcc and is entirely composed in iambic pentameter.
In this poem, Yeats laments that he has lost his gift for poetry, although, paradoxically, this might be one his finest poems. In the first stanza, he tells the reader that he has unsuccessfully “sought a theme” daily for about six weeks. He calls himself a “broken man” who must be “satisfied with [his] heart.” He next refers to his “circus animals,” a metaphor for the stylistic tricks and techniques of his early poetry. In other words, Yeats suggests that his earlier work was for show, and that the images, metaphors, and symbols that impress his readers are no more than animals trained to do tricks for people. Now, however, as an old man, all he has left is his heart, without pretense and without masks.
In the next three stanzas, Yeats elaborates on earlier periods of his literary career. Because he has been unable to identify a new theme for himself, he must “enumerate old themes.” He first mentions “that sea rider Oisin.” The title poem of one of Yeats’s earliest collections, published in 1889, was “The Wanderings of Oisin,” which recounted the adventures of the mythic and historic Irish hero, Oisin. “The Wanderings of Oisin” can be identified with Yeats’s Celtic Twilight period, when he mined pre-Christian Celtic folklore for subject matter.
In stanza three, Yeats turns to his play The Countess Cathleen (pb. 1892, pr. 1899). Yeats dedicated this play to Maud Gonne, who also acted in it. His love for her and for her political activism became the “dream” Yeats writes of in the final line of the stanza. Tellingly, Yeats writes that the “dream itself had all my thought and love,” implying that it was the dream, rather than reality, that occupied his mind and heart.
Likewise, in stanza four, Yeats refers to his play On Baile’s Strand (pr. 1904, pb. 1905). He writes in the final two lines of the stanza, “Players and painted stage took all my love,/ and not those things that they were emblem of.” Yeats here comes to the realization that figurative language, images, wordplay, and all of the trappings of poetry and literature are what he has loved and created. He has not, however, loved what such language stands in for.
In the final stanza, Yeats reveals himself in the months before his death to be deeply concerned with the concrete reality of life. As he nears death, he understands that all of the “masterful images” have their origins in the sometimes ugly real world. The heart does not exist in isolation from physical reality, nor does poetry spring from abstraction. Rather, the heart exists in the “foul rag-and-bone shop,” a metaphor for the fleshly body.
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