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Posted by on Oct 4, 2007

Yeats and Circus Animals

Not surprisingly after seeing the Yeats’ collection at the National Library in Dublin, I feel compelled to present one of my favorite poems of his. This poem is full of quotables, but beyond that, it is full of the wonderful observations that Yeats made entering into adulthood and middle age. This period of his career is often overlooked and that is sad, but understandable. Youth and romance are always the center of the playground of poetry; they entice and inspire. This type of poetry, poetry built on reflection, understanding, on the knowledge that stems from brutal experience, this is the poetry that advances humanity. It puts into words truths we often cannot speak, they are so seemingly complex.

The middle stanzas are Yeats recalling his themes, mostly Irish ones, and lamenting how themes and symbols overtook meaning in his heart. A parallel might be someone saying they are in love with someone when in actuality they are in love with being in love, the thought of being love.

Circus Animals’ Desertion
by W.B. Yeats

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.

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.

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.

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