Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 entire section is 425 words.)