Yeats & The Circus Mind in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion”

Robert Frost was a poised author that was obsessed with the idea of creating tension in his poetry. He is family for the ascending or descending to a breaking point of human action and then watching something dissolve, crumble, or recover. Later, the class learned that William Butler Yeats acted as a contrary to Robert Frost. Yeats, we learned, believes that poems are quarrels between the realms of wholeness and brokenness; there is always that fine line that separates the two. He is concerned with the deep human struggle that many individuals on this earth face. With his writing, you learn that there is always a connection between wholeness, peace, and beauty. In Yeats’s mind, there is a confidence that people can go to a new wholesome place. His mind is concerned with struggles and trying to determine whether or not wholeness (that makes humans feel complete finally) is out of reach or not fully enough like we think it might be. In many of his poems, there is a sense of yearning, and this makes his poetry very relatable to audiences that feel vulnerable, depressed, or confused about life itself. In The Circus Animals’ Desertion, William Butler Yeats does not stray from his usual thematic representation of the human condition facing an internal struggle. He references much of his previous literary works, including “Those Stilted Boys,” The Unicorn form the Stars, “The Second Coming,” The Wanderings of Oisin, and On Baile’s Strand. He responds to other works including Thomas Mann’s essay “Public Speech and Private Speech in Poetry”. In the poem, there is a sense of recollection, remembrance, and reevaluation at work. This is partly because Yeats references such a wide variety of literary works. With each stanza, Yeats demonstrates his abilities as a poet to reveal a struggle that feels very personal.

Within the first stanza, there is a lot of setting up happening. The first thing the reader might notice is the narrator’s use of the pronoun “I” to indicate this passage is first person, which could indicate this poem is directly from Yeats’s mind himself talking to the audience. He incorporates the use of repetition through the word, “sought” three times in an anaphora on the first two lines to demonstrate some sort of inner-journey of looking for a, “theme […] in vain” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 142). The anaphora could represent the mind of Yeats trying to determine a theme or idea to pursue for over six weeks. He has proven unsuccessful as determined by the use of the word “vain” to reveal a sense of desperation at work. Over these six weeks, there has been a struggle or yearning to find a theme that accurately fits what Yeats wants. This journey or struggle could be a sort of writer’s block, which is something many poets, like Yeats experience in their career. However, as the passage unfolds, the reader may stop and wonder whether or not this poem is actually Yeats speaking to the reader. The third line may make the reader question whether or not it is actually Yeats writing in the perspective of himself in third person or another person when he uses the phrase “At last […] but a broken man” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 142). This poem was available in 1939 which is the year Yeats died. This fact alone might make the reader wonder if the successful Yeats is at a low point in his career that innovation is lost, and he is now settling. Saying “At last” could signify the end of a long road, journey, or life. As the stanza progresses, Yeats decides to be satisfied with his heart and his work that he has accomplished over so many years. Yeats is forcing himself to hang his hat on acknowledging his career when he uses the word “must” on line four. Following this on the next line, Yeats discusses how winter and summer have an impact on his old age. This reference to different seasons could mean that old age turns into a cycle like the seasons. The circus animals described in the following line may serve as a metaphor for the speaker’s creativity, poetry, and characters of his poetic stages. Yeats alludes in the last lines of this stanza to the ancient Irish heroes of his early work called “Those Stilted Boys,” the gilded carriage of his play The Unicorn from the Stars, and the lion that is present in “The Second Coming.” The Lion, woman, and Lord mentioned in the final line of this stanza are all different and thus, represent the diversity and slight nostalgia in Yeats’s most memorable images.

In the second stanza, the speaker is looking back on their past and all of the various themes they use to write about. It seems that reminiscing on the old themes and old works is all that consumes the speaker’s mind at this given moment. Oisin, from The Wanderings of Oisin, is discussed as the first dream, or thought, the speaker has. Because of this specific reference and memory recall, it is safe to assume that this poem is most definitely in the voice of Yeats. The mention of the islands in these dreams could give off a slight nod to the transportation of thought to Byzantium, which is not a country for “old men” as once previously described by Yeats (Sailing to Byzantium, 126). There is repetition of the word “vain” three times in the line that reads, “Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 142). This repetition could mark the cycle of how the previous works and themes in Yeats’s work was a journey of festivity, battle, and stillness. The embittered heart in all of Yeats is due to the vainness in everything. It is almost as if maybe things once were elegant and exciting, but now things are not as special as they once used to be. The human struggle theme is relevant to this idea of a human, or poet, trying to find the light of things. By the end of the stanza, the speaker craves, through a sensual style of writing, how they long for the breast or chest of a fairy bride. This desire of the fairy is interesting and descriptive. The fairy is just another character in the play of Yeats’s past stages of poetry.

The idea of love and loss is present within the next stanza of this poem. This stanza is rather straightforward because it starts to dive deep into the personal side of Yeats’s love life. Suddenly, Yeats compares his potential lover to the Countess Cathleen who sells her soul to the Devil during a famine to buy food for the starving Irish poor. When she is (somewhat) surprisingly taken into Heaven. The reason she was taken into was due to the fact that her motives justified her deeds. His lover, Maud Gonne’s soul was taken into custody by mania and hate. Apparently her soul, and their relationship) was consumed in the process and possibly damaged. Therefore, Yeats later describes that this act facilitated a dream, and that dream devoured his thoughts and desire. It seems like Yeats has found the theme he had been chasing after. Maud Gonne, and the idea of love, seem to have the power to make poets like Yeats become instantly inspired. Therefore, this newfound inspiration is enigmatic, yet also interesting because it goes deep into the mind of what Yeats was thinking at this point in his life. It seems as if Yeats finds a wholeness when he thinks of Maud. Thus, Yeats is searching for wholeness in love, but his mind is stuck somewhere in a quarrel between his heart, his mind, and his dream.

Eventually, Yeats begins to describe a “Fool and Blind Man,” which is an interesting description because their names are capitalized, thus giving them some sort of importance (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 142). They steal and Yeats’s mind runs to his legendary warrior Cuchulain from his play called On Baile’s Strand. This referral to another character cements the idea that this poem acts as a circus for all of Yeats’s poetic stages and characters. The dream of this, in Yeats’s eyes, was very powerful and moving. In the following lines, Yeats is admiring his character development. By this point, this speaker has been able to keep his mind preoccupied on a certain theme from the past. However, this probes the questions as to whether or not Yeats wants to find inspiration from his past or if he wants to find brand-new inspiration and use it for good. Meanwhile, the speaker says the character is isolated by a deed, while Yeats is isolated in a trance of thought. Later he writes, “Players and painted stage took all my love” which could be a confession that earlier in his life he was so focused on how he should appear, how to look, how to be judged by others, that it consumed his life too much and stole every ounce of love within him (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 143).. This revelation shows that Yeats is vulnerable and admitting his past faults he can no longer go back and fix. It shows that maybe when Yeats suffered the most, that was when his writing improved and was its best. Yeats is reminiscing to older times as he has been throughout the poem.

With the very last stanza, Yeats develops a question as to whether or not the images that he created were developed for the right reason meaning that he developed so many wonderful images and themes throughout his career, but Yeats is asking himself if all of these great things came from something dark. These images did not come from Heaven, but a place of suffering. Later in the stanza, Yeats writes the line that reads, “old kettles, old bottles, and a broken cane, / Old iron, old bones, old rags,” which is interesting because it is very similar to the very first two lines of this poem (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 143). There is the repetition of the word “old” and also an anaphora with the word “old” which sticks out in the reader’s eyes. Yeats in emphasizing and creating a metaphor for the idea of sweepings in a street being very similar to his cluttered thoughts. There is a sense from this section of the last stanza that there is a brokenness, oldness, and almost, worthlessness to all the old thoughts in his head. These old things may also represent the ideas that he used so much that they are now worn down. He calls the old things “a raving slut / who keeps the till.” Which may indicate Yeats frustration with his work (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 143). He could potentially be calling these past times a slut because of how these poetic themes have been with him for so long, that it is similar to a promiscuous man or woman that has been laying with him for quite some time. The reader can get a real sense of the brokenness happening in his mind. This is very similar to Yeats’s poem “Byzantium” where the speaker goes to new locations and places and discovers that he looks back to the old days when he was younger – Yeats is doing that here. Also, in “Among School Children,” Yeats emphasizes how images in the head can have a true impact on a human being. Eventually, Yeats claims that he “must lie down where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion, 143). At first look, lying down could symbolize death or it could symbolize a reset of peace to find wholeness once again. From these final lines, it seems as if Yeats needs to take a step back and reevaluate everything from the start of his heart. This process for Yeats is (most likely) not going to be an easy one to accomplish. One may also notice that this poem was published in the final year of his life, 1939. This idea makes the reader feel a sense of how Yeats had to desert his poetic stages and characters in order to move onto the next phase of his life: death.

This poem is very unique and does a very interesting job at making the reader go through an experience where their mind is taken through a variety of past Yeats ideas. The title of this poem almost reflects its own type of circus in the mind. There is a circus of poetic characters, or animals, that are all distinct from one another and serve as a vital part to the circus of Yeats’s mind. This recollection of memories reminds me, the reader, of a person’s final moments on earth when they see their life flash before their eyes – I feel that is what Yeats is doing here. He is trying to find this sense of wholeness from his work and is having trouble with it almost. There is a beauty in the madness of a poetic because there are so many ideas in their mind going different directions, and I think it is Yeats who tries to maintain or embrace these wild thoughts like the ring leader of circus. All in all, this poem takes the reader on a journey of human struggle to find a new place of wholeness, or peace, and Yeats has yet to achieve that part of his mind yet. Yeats needs to escape these thoughts but he is trapped in his mind. This interpretation of this poem could all be incorrect, but I think Yeats could agree with my interpretation that attempts to find wholeness in his work. At the end of it all, Yeats explores a channel of wholeness through his old works trying to find a sense of wholeness, yet fails to come to a cohesive thought, thus embodying the true theme of Yeats’s work: exploration of mind. The circus of this poem is the destination Yeats is thrust into.