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Posted by on Sep 21, 2009

Circus Animal’s Desertion by Yeats and constructive language

Yeats‘ poem as presented below is illustrative of the constructive nature of discourse (and what is poetry aside from a complex discourse at the very least with one’s soul); language both describes and constructs reality. A quick read one time through is a pleasant stroll (I endlessly admire Yeats for being one of the last proxy-Romantics, concerned with meter, rhyme, cadence).

The Circus Animals’ Desertion

I

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

II

What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that sea-rider Oisin led by the nose
Through three enchanted islands, allegorical dreams,
Vain gaiety, vain battle, vain repose,
Themes of the embittered heart, or so it seems,
That might adorn old songs or courtly shows;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

And then a counter-truth filled out its play,
‘The Countess Cathleen’ was the name I gave it;
She, pity-crazed, had given her soul away,
But masterful Heaven had intervened to save it.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;
Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

III

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Besides that beautiful ending of “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (evocative and just brilliant, Yeats always peaked at the very end), the line that is most interesting for matters of constructive discourse is the following:

Heart-mysteries there, and yet when all is said
It was the dream itself enchanted me:
Character isolated by a deed
To engross the present and dominate memory.
Players and painted stage took all my love,
And not those things that they were emblems of.

There is this notion that the stories, the myths and the metaphors were all designed to describe something best explained in parallel to something else. A direct explanation would prove insufficient for transporting the emotional magnitude of the object in context. So metaphors, allegories, indirect explanations are created to serve as symbolic representations of the object. As Yeats observed, one becomes enamored with the stories themselves, the beauty and starkness of their presentation. Yeats didn’t care about Oisin, Arthur as historical figures, but rather the beauty of their stories. In this case, the players and painted stage take on a life of their own; they become the object of discussion and not an allusion to something else.

In short, they live on their own.

So, language constructs reality as it has in this case. Someone will pilfer the line “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” (as they have already-myself included) and apply to it a different context and some will realize that it has resonance on its own. Like all poetry, it tugs at someplace primordial, it tunes our discord, our friction, it soothes thought and deed. Well, at least it should.

Either way, it constructs reality through language as well as describes it. Poetry, like all language, multitasks. Lets see Yeats rhyme multitasks with something evocative. As in, the creature lurches towards New York City waiting to multitask. Which reminds me, I need to catch an early train to the city for meetings. So much for poetic balance and perfect cadence. Off to Penn Station, a place that any writer worth their salt would quickly liken to Dante’s daydream. I couldn’t bring myself to liken Penn Station to Hell, only Purgatorio. Hell is reserved for Times Square.

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