The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 615 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.