The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is a five-stanza poem in three parts. Part 1 introduces the poet’s problem: a lack of inspiration. Part 2 explores three earlier writing experiences, and part 3 offers a solution to the problem.

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The circus animals of the title are William Butler Yeats’s earlier symbols and themes, which until now “were all on show,” but now have deserted the elderly poet. In the first stanza, the speaker bemoans that desertion: “I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,/ I sought it daily for six weeks or so.” When inspiration does not come, he blames old age.

The list of circus performers that concludes part 1 begins the references to Yeats’s earlier works which fill the poem. The “stilted boys” are probably young men suffering from unrequited love. They were like acrobats performing on stilts, and they were “stilted,” artificially formal, in their love (such as the “lovers who thought love should be/ So much compounded of high courtesy” in Yeats’s 1902 poem “Adam’s Curse”). The burnished chariot may belong to Helen of Troy or to Cuchulain, frequent subjects of Yeats’s earlier work. The lion and woman is a direct reference to the sphinxlike “rough beast” of “The Second Coming.”

Part 2 of the poem discusses three of Yeats’s major early works in specific detail. Since his inspiration is blocked, he can do nothing but “enumerate old themes.” The first of these is the narrative poem The Wanderings of Oisin (1889). In that poem, the hero Oisin tells Saint Patrick of his adventures with his fairy bride visiting three islands (which may be seen as youth, middle age, and old age).

The second early work to be recalled is the play The Countess Cathleen (1892), in which the title character offers to sell her soul to the devil in order to save the souls of the peasants on her land. Yeats explains that Maud Gonne (“my dear”) had inspired the play. Like Cathleen, Maud risked her own well-being for others in her fanatical opposition to British occupation of Ireland. Once that theme was developed into a story, however, the thought that inspired it diminished. The “dream itself had all my thought and love.”

The final work considered is the play On Baile’s Strand (1904). Just as the Fool in the play is tricked by the Blind Man, Cuchulain is tricked by Conchubar into fighting a young hero who has arrived on the shore. Cuchulain kills the young man, only to learn that the stranger was his son. In remorse, “Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea,” attempting to chop the heads from the waves until he drowned. Here again, the art itself finally took control. “Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of.”

All three of Yeats’s specific examples reveal the pattern of thought of the artist. Specific people, events, or stories may inspire him, but the act of creation, the details of the particular poem or play, quickly become the center of the artist’s attention.

Thus removed from life, the creations become complete and perfect in a way that life can never be. Part 3 of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” asks where they began. The answer comes quickly: They began in the messiness of life. In a stunning list of images of corruption and chaos, Yeats exemplifies that origin:

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 slutWho keeps the till.

This “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” is the only source available to the poet for the creation of new poems.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 394

The six stanzas of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” are written in iambic pentameter with a regular rhyme scheme: abababcc. Though Yeats wrote occasionally in blank verse (most often in his plays), his poetry usually works with traditional rhyme and meter. Within the tradition, however, Yeats felt free to experiment. He uses half-rhyme from time to time in the poem (“vain” and “man,” “enough” and “love”); the occasional use of imperfect rhymes keeps the rhyme scheme from becoming insistent.

There are also variations from the iambic meter. For example, line 8, “Lion and woman and the Lord knows what,” ends with three accented syllables following three unaccented syllables. The phrase “the Lord knows what” is thus emphasized, underlining the speaker’s frustration. Further, the emphasis of this colloquial phrase helps to create a less formal tone for the poem.

Yeats’s division of the poem into three parts provides a clear rhetorical structure. Part 1 presents the problem, part 2 examines it via specific examples, and part 3 reaches a conclusion. The conclusion—that poetic inspiration begins in the sordid chaos of the heart—is predicted from the beginning: In part 1, he suspects that “I must be satisfied with my heart.” References to the heart continue through the second part, and the poem concludes with a resounding final image of the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”

The image of the heart is such a conventional poetic symbol that readers may be tempted to ignore its significance here. In “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” Yeats does not use the heart to symbolize romantic love. Rather, “heart” here refers to the wide and confusing range of human emotions. It is clearly distinguished from thought, themes, and art. That distinction between the feelings and the art is central to the theme of the poem.

An unusual device that Yeats uses in the poem is the reference to his own earlier works. While poets regularly use allusions to other famous works of literature, they do not as often allude to their own works. There may even seem to be arrogance in the assumption that readers will have read The Wanderings of Oisin or recognize the sphinx image from “The Second Coming.” On the other hand, it seems not only appropriate but also right for an introspective poem which reflects on a lifetime of poetic work to include details of that work.

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Themes