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.)