The Circus Animals' Desertion
This poem appeared in Yeats' final collection and can be described as a detached critique of the poet's career. The poem's title sees Circus Animals symbolising the characters created by Yeats, throughout his literary career.
The word "desertion" suggests a loss of poetic inspiration and the poet begins in the opening stanza by admitting to this loss. He is preoccupied with his inability to create. "I sought a theme and sought for it in vain, I sought it daily for six weeks or so." In line 3, an air of acceptance is evident "Maybe at last being but a broken man, I must be satisfied with my heart". The words, broken and heart, are important, representing old, aged, the scarecrow image, but also perhaps a man psychologically broken. Now in his old age, recognising the failure of his intellect as well as the decrepitude. The word heart, symbolises feelings, a proximity to reality, the alter-ego of the intellect. Yeats' admission is that his previous work has been created solely from the intellect and now faced with its loss, he must try to create from the heart. He recognises that the intellect served him well throughout his career "Although Winter and Summer till old age began, my circus animals were all on show". The final 2 lines of the stanza contain a clear criticism of those previous creations "Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot, Lion and woman and the Lord knows what". The figures in these lines are represented as circus acts, stilt walkers, charioteers and perhaps trapeeze artists. The words stilted and burnished, demonstrate the air of unreality he associates with him, the stilted boys represent the young lovers of his early plays and poems, unreal creations of his intellect, unnatural in their movements - figments of a poetic imagination. The word 'burnished' means polished and the burnished chariot is a reference to the chariot of Cú Chulainn, a popular character of Yeats' early career, he now recognises that the Cú Chulainn portrayed by him in his earlier plays and poems was an unreal creation, a polished or burnished version of the original. In the final line his references to 'lion' and 'woman', may literally convey the image of a lion and lion-tamer within a circus ring. However, there is a deeper meaning attached. In his poem, The Second Coming, her refers to Maude Gonne as half-lion, half-child - a sphinx-like creature. Here is an admission by Yeats that perhaps the Maude Gonne portrayed by him in his words was not the real woman but an imaginary creation.
In stanza 2, Yeats concentrates his mind on his famous poem, The Wanderings of Óisin, written in 1899. He begins the stanza by recognising that, bereft of inspiration, he has little choice but to rework old themes in order to create new poetry. He describes Óisin (a symbol for himself) as a man "Led by the nose, through three inchanted islands, allegorical dreams, vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose". The suggestion is that Óisin didn't act of his own free will - perhaps Yeats now feels that his own career was not directed by his own feelings. The three islands alluded to, represent Tír na nÓg, The Isle of Forgetfullness and The Isle of Dreams. But on deeper level represent the three stages of his poetic career. The gaiety of his youth when he was enchanted by Celtic Legends, the battles of his mid-career and his preoccupation with Maud Gonne and the vain repose of his old age where he is unwilling to accept his condition and is critical of what he has done in the past.
Home : W.B. Yeats (1865 - 1939) : Among School Children : No Second Troy : Sailing to Byzantium : The Fisherman : September 1913