“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” By William Butler Yeats
About The Poet
William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865. His father – a portrait painter moved the family to London when Yeats was just two years old and William spent much of his childhood moving between the cold urban landscape of the metropolis and the congenial countryside of County Sligo, Ireland where his mother’s parents lived an estate. Even as a boy yeats began writing very early and published his first work in the year 1885. Yeats lived during a tumultuous time in Ireland during the political rise and fall of Charles Stuart Parnell, the Irish revival and the Civil War. He quickly rose to literary prominence and helped to found the Abbey Theatre – one of the most important cultural institutions in Ireland at which he worked with such luminaries as Augusta Gregory and the playwright Johnson Synge. In 1923 Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and died in 1939 at the age of 73.
Writing most of his greatest poems from the crushing power of the Tavor to the yearning mysticism of the last poems in the years after he won the Nobel Prize stands as a testament to the force and commitment with which he devoted himself to transforming his inner life into poetry. Indeed he wrote great poems in every decade of his life and his influence has doubled over the past six decades.
Yeats’ goal was always to arrive at personal truth and in that sense despite his profound individuality, he remains one of the most universal writers ever to have lived. Today he is generally regarded as the greatest poet of the 20th century.
Stanza Wise Summary
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” was written in the last year of Yeats’s life, and it serves as a kind of final survey of his career, a map of his imagery and thinking, and a declaration about the source of his art. The “circus animals” are, of course, the images that Yeats has used throughout his poetic life, during that “winter and summer till old age began” It builds upon the ironic representation of work held dear—shows and stilts, wild animals and screaming women—and adopts a nonchalant tone for deeply serious matters. “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” begins with the terror of searching for lost poetic matter and imaginative energy, and concludes with a sense of walking naked before experience. Tentative titles—”Despair,” “On the Lack of a Theme”—indicate that initially at least, it was to be Yeats’s, Dejection Ode. In the insouciant litany of his “masterful images,” Yeats admits–a bit sadly, one might feel–that it was the images themselves that finally enchanted him, not “those things they were the emblems of.”
Yet the man it describes is recognizable from both the impressions of others and his own “first principle” as one for whom personal history is the history of artifice:
“When all is said / it was the dream itself enchanted me.”
The details of his dream are likely to be obscure to most readers nowadays; few of us have seen his plays about Countess Cathleen or Cuchulain or read the epic Orderings of Ossin. Nevertheless, the dreamer of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” is someone we can recognize too. The poet Yeats remembers being is above all a lover (‘players and painted stage took all my love”), and his enchantment begins with the story of a “faery bride.”
Section I (1-8) starts with frustration (‘sought . . .sought…sought”), moves through reluctant resignation, and ends with an invocation of past images almost contemptuous in its dismissive informality. Yeats enumerates these images and themes from his earlier work which, in this poem, he says have deserted him, so that he must use his own “heart,” or self, for the theme. They are again the “stilted boys” of his imagination: Oisin, Niamh, Countess Cathleen, Cuchulain, the various faces of Maud Gonne, “Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
Stilted boys: Oisin, Fergus, and other figures of Celtic legend.
Lion and woman: the sphinx of The Double Vision of Michael Robartes (the Grecian image of the female Sphinx (physical and intellectual powers combined. with the latter ascendant),
Section II (9-32) “enumerate old themes.” In this section, the poet shows how, from the beginning, it was indeed the heart or self that he had meant to make his theme all along, but always in the past, the dream, or symbolic world of the poem, has managed to engross his attention rather than “those things that they were emblems of.”
9-16–Oisin, “that sea-rider… led by the nose,” is treated with the affectionate raillery. His three centuries of “dalliance with a demon thing” remind Yeats of the sexual yearning and frustration in which his first major poem was completed: “But what cared I that set him on to ride, / I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?” The whole section rehearses a rich and deliberate confusion of life and art, friends and imaginings.
16–faery bride: The faery bride is a familiar part of the “phantasmagoria” of English romanticism, particularly in Keats and Shelley. For Yeats, the “last romantic,” she is a Belle Dame who was both imaginary and real, the Maud Gonne of the love lyrics that, of all his works, have had the most immediate and lasting appeal. Without Maud, the poet who “might have been content to live” implies, there would have been no poetry. Yet it would be more accurate to say that without the Poetry there would have been no Maud Gonne. Yeats’s lifelong obsession with a woman who was capable of returning his passion in only the most ephemeral and ambiguous ways suggests issues at stake that transcend sexual desire or personal affection. As the “my dear” who inspired The Countess Cathleen and innumerable lyrics besides, she was not Yeats’s mistress but his muse; his need for her was equivalent to his mysterious need to “remake” himself.
In The Wandering of Oisin (1889), an earlier poem in which Yeats describes a legendary Irish hero who wandered in fairyland for 150 years.
The Wanderings of Oisin, a poem, makes hirn think of The Countess Cathleen, a play which does provide a sort of counter-truth as the Countess elects sacrifice, character, and responsibility (the values, later, of Soul) while Oisin chose fulfilment, personality, and dream (the virtues of Self). The recollection is of the play and of Maud Gonne, the figure for whom it was written who informs and is informed by it:
The pronouns are tricky. Is “this” (23) the play or the person? Which dream is “this dream” (24)? Is “dream” mere compensation or wish-fulfilment or, more usually the case with Yeats, “a kind of vision of reality which satisfies the whole being?”
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” insists upon the simultaneous presence of a fiction, pity-crazed Cathleen, and a figure, fanatical Maud; upon the inseparability of personal pain and artistic achievement, the accident of life and the completion of poetry.
The stanza is also a counter-truth because the reflex of the first stanza of Section II is from art (“Oisin”) to life (sexual starvation) while the reflex of the second is from life (Maud) to art (The Countess Cathleen).
The Countess Cathleen Title of. play (1892, dedicated to Maud Gonne) in which the countess is saved by Heaven after having sold her soul to the devil in exchange for food for the poor. The figure of Cathleen comes up frequently in Yeats’s work and is often taken as a personification of nationalist Ireland
my dear: Maud Gonne. Yeats alludes to his old quarrel with her about her immersion in political activity. He thus accounts for his writing The Countess Cathleen, in which she acted the title role. Here too “the dream, itself” took over his attention
25-32--The third stanza seems to complete the government, to register the triumph of art over life, but with Yeats, it is never that simple or that comfortable. It recollects On Baile’s Strand, a play which juxtaposes sordid degradation and overwhelming passion: The dream enchants because Yeats is a poet for whom writing it down and getting it right is the supreme fact of life. But the dream is defined as “character isolated by a deed,” exactly the achievement of some late poems, plays, and Dramatis Personae, the long section of Autobiographies completed in I935. Its function is “To engross the present and dominate memory,” art as a mode of action, the poet speaking as he had said about some favourite models, “sword in hand,” playing his part “in a unique drama . . . with the whole soul.” The opposition of “players” and “things” is not a symbolist contrast between transcendent art and dreary life but animated art set against abstract qualities so, “when all is said,” the enchanting dream is also a deed, a way of being in the world. Even at this late date and under duress, he will not choose perfection of the life or of the work.
In On Baile’s Strand a 1904 play, Cuchulain is a Legendary Irish hero
Section III (33-40) In the final stanza, Yeats speculates, as he had so often in his earlier work, about the source of his art. And he discovers it, as we knew he must, in the “mound of refuse,” the noisy and filthy thing, that life is. No matter the heights to which imagination may climb, the ladder of vision necessarily stands planted in a mire of earth. And now that the ladder is gone, he “must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart” (39-40).
As a theory of art, the stanza is developmental and autobiographical, a proud assertion that “the bundle of accident and incoherence” has been “reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.” It is also a confession or an acknowledgement. He must accept the decrepit and occasionally muddled old man that he has become. He must accept Ireland and its fanaticism, the land of “hot-faced bargainers and money changers” along with the isle of saints and heroes. He must accept Maud Gonne and her career, the heart and its defects, the fecund ditch that “Self and Soul” had presented as the image and consequence of their relationship. Must not will; necessity rather than election.
The first stanza wonders if “maybe” he “muse be satisfied with my heart”; now there is no choice. It is a testament with more than an edge of bitterness and resignation. But Yeats often presents the tragic without despondency, even with exhilaration. The conclusion of “Among School Children” could be wistful or grim, but it is radiant. Here the lingering, sour sense of defeat, as the marvellous energy of the stanza demonstrates is overcome by delight—delight in the experience, and in surviving it and transforming it.
An excellent critic interprets Section III to mean that Yeats is in despair at the idea of lying down in his heart, at being “left to live merely, when living is most difficult, life having been used up in another case.” But this is reading Yeats’s words without considering their intonation. While the poet is disgusted for the moment with his own heart, he is well aware that this heart has engendered all these images. He pleads necessity for what he does by desire; he wants, in short, to lie down in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
At the end of the poem “Byzantium,” Yeats, having described the miraculous creations which are produced in art, suddenly recalls the flood of time from which they come, and sees the time-world as made up of passionate images too: “Those images that yet / Fresh images beget, / That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.”
We have been asked to believe that these lines express Yeats’s revulsion from the welter of experience when clearly they imply that even from the vantage point of Byzantium that swelter is fascinating.
Appreciation of the Poem
In the poem, The Circus Animals’ Desertion Yeats reflects on his waning poetic imagination. An old man, he learns that the circus animals which belong put on a show in his poetry are no longer at his command and regrets their desertion. The poem may be considered a retrospective judgement on the vision of Ireland in his work.
The poet painfully confesses, that though he sought a theme for poetry for about six weeks, he could not find one. Being a ‘broken man’ it may be that he must be satisfied with what he can find in his own heart. All through winter and summer, until his old age, all his circus animals were on show in his poetry. But the boastful lovers, the guided chariot, the sphinx and a host of others – all have gone.
The poet realizes that the can only recall some of his old themes and characters. First, he thinks of Oisin, the great hero of his allegorical poem, who was led by Niamh the fairy, to three enchanted islands. The allegorical dreams, gaiety, battle, rest-all themes of the embittered heart which have adorned old. Songs and courtly shows flash on his mind, The poet remembers how his own heart pined for Maud Gonne, while he sang about Oisin and his love. The thoughts of Countess Cathleen now invade him. The Countess had sold her soul to the devil, for her people, but she was mercifully saved by God. He was afraid that her soul was being destroyed by fanaticism and hatred. The anxiety had stirred his imagination and led to the creation of the play, Countess Cathleen. The poet next recalls the Fool and Blind Man who figured in his play, On Baile’s Strand. When people left their homes and rushed to the shore to see Cuchulain’s enraged fight with the waves, the Fool and Blind man stole the bread from the ovens of these people. In fact, it is the dream itself-the poetic process – the faint vision from which characters take shape – that has fascinated him, rather than the things the characters embody.
All those masterful images which grew in his imagination had come from the drab, everyday objects of life, such as a mound of refuse, the sweeping of a street, old kettles, old bottles, a broken can, old iron, old bones, old rags or the raving slut that keeps the till. He could transform them into rich poetic material’ by the splendour of his imagination. But now he has lost his ladder. He must, therefore, get to the bottom of his heart where all the ladders start and from there work his way up. Expressing sorrow at the desertion of his circus animals. Yeats seems to suggest that only the deeply felt emotions can trigger a poetic imagination.
Answer each of the following questions in a paragraph.
1. What does Yeats mean by ‘circus animals’ and what animals does he enumerate in the poem?
Ans. The “circus animals” are the images that Yeats has used throughout his poetic life, during that “winter and summer till old age began”
Yeats enumerates many animals in this poem, he says these have deserted him, so that he must use his own “heart,” or self, for them. They are the “stilted boys” of his imagination: Oisin, Niamh, Countess Cathleen, Cuchulain, the various faces of Maud Gonne, “Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.
2. Who is the faery bride in the poem?
Ans. The faery bride is a Belle Dame who was both fictional and real – the Maud Gonne of all his love lyrics which have had the most immediate and enduring appeal on all his works. Without Maud Gonne, there would have been no poetry. And it would be more fitting to suggest without the Poetry there would have been no Maud Gonne.
3. What does Yeats say about the creation of Countess Cathleen?
Ans. The Countess, for her people, had sold her soul to the devil, but God rescued her mercifully. Yeats was afraid her spirit was killed by fanaticism and hatred. The anxiety stirred his imagination and led the creation of the play, Countess Cathleen
4. Who was Cuchulain? Why did he fight the sea?
Ans. Cuchulain was a warrior of Irish mythology who served under Conchubar’s rule; Emer who is the wife of Cuchulain; and the swineherd, the son of Cuchulain who is unidentified in the poem. The basic story portrayed by the poem is a reverse Oedipus tale in which Cuchulain mistakes his son and kills him, and is overcome with remorse.
Cuchulain means “Culann hound” in the Irish language. It was the usual name of the warrior hero called Setanta at birth, given to him because after he mistakenly killed it, he took the place of one of Clann’s hounds.
5. What does the ladder stand for in the poem? What does Yeats say about the source of his masterful images?
Ans. Ladder stands for progression in thought over a period of time. All the masterful images that grew in the imagination of Yeats came from the drab, everyday objects of life, like a mound of refuse, street sweeping, old kettles, old bottles, a broken can, old iron, old bones, old rags, or the raving slut that keeps the till. By the splendour of his imagination, he could turn them into rich poetic content. But he has now lost his ladder. Therefore, he must get to the bottom of his heart where all the ladders originate and work his way up from there.
6. What does Yeats say about poetic imagination?
Ans. Yeats says how the human imagination gives meaning to the struggles of life. In his writing, Yeats ‘ view of human creative force progresses from seeing the imagination as the manifestation of human desires to seeing the power of imagination to in ire others and to immortalize the creative spirit. Yeats suggests a poetic imagination can only be triggered by the deeply felt emotions.