“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.
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.
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