Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

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That poets find inspiration in chaotic life is not a new theme for Yeats. In fact, the whole poem can be seen as a new occasion to “enumerate old themes.” As early as “Adam’s Curse,” Yeats was noting the distinction between art (and artifice) and life. In that poem he speaks of lovers who worked hard at love, turning it into a work of art, but “now it seems an idle trade enough.” The work of love is too exhausting to sustain; the lovers weary of it.

Much later, in “Sailing to Byzantium,” an old man seeks to leave the messy world which celebrates “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.” In contrast to that all-too-human life is the city of Byzantium, symbol of eternal and unchanging art. That symbol is developed further in “Byzantium,” where the world of art “disdains/ All that man is,/ All mere complexities,/ The fury and the mire of human veins.” In these poems the world of art, because organized, unchanging, and eternal, seems superior to mere humanity and mutable human feeling. Yet there is ambiguity throughout. Lovers become tired with the art of love. The golden bird in “Sailing to Byzantium” sings only of events from the world of nature that was left behind. Images of death pervade “Byzantium.”

“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” addresses this ambiguity directly and seeks to reconcile it in a balance between messy human feeling and idealized, unchanging art. Yeats explains what happened to him in the process of creating three works. In each instance, he began with real human feelings. For example, when he began The Countess Cathleen, he was genuinely concerned that Maud Gonne was destroying herself in her political work on behalf of the Irish peasants. He hoped to warn her of the dangers of such self-sacrifice. From that source in human feeling, however, the play emerged as something quite different.

The works of art are thus removed from life and human feeling. The very process of creation forces this removal: “Players and painted stage took all my love/ And not those things that they were emblems of.” The contradiction is resolved in the final stanza, when Yeats recognizes the creation of art requires a continually repeated process of returning to chaotic human feelings. The heart, the symbol for those feelings, must finally be recognized as the source for art. Art is not generated by the intellect; one cannot merely seek a theme. The feelings of the heart, no matter how sordid, chaotic, messy, and unartistic, are the only source for poetry.