‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ by W.B. Yeats is a five stanza poem that has been separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Each of these octaves follows the rhyming pattern of ababacc, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. This particular rhyme scheme, matched with the fact that the lines are written in iambic pentameter, conform to the poetic form of ottava rima. This form is of Italian origin, known first through its use by Giovanni Boccaccio, the author of The Decameron.
A reader should also take note of iambic pentameter and how it impacts the way the lines are read. It is present when a line is made of five metrical feet, or sets of beats. The first is a short unstressed syllable which is followed by a long stressed syllable.
The poem has also been divided into three distinct sections. The first section contains one stanza the second, three, and the third, one.
Summary of The Circus Animals’ Desertion
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he has had a hard time of late figuring out what to write about. He feels as if he has exhausted all of his themes and is going to be forced to turn to his own “heart” and emotions for inspiration.
In the next sections, the speaker goes through myths and plays he has experimented with and how each time he dedicates himself to something he becomes obsessed. His subjects are more real, and more pleasing to him, than his own life. It is due to this, and his own need for new material, that he is going to dig down to the bottom of his heart and figure out what it is he truly wants to write about.
Analysis of The Circus Animals’ Desertion
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.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by stating that he has been searching, in “vain” for something to write about. There are no “theme[s]” which comes into his mind that seems to satisfy the longing he has to write good poetry. This quest has been an ongoing one. For “six weeks or so” he has been doing everything he can to inspire himself.
After all this time trying to find inspiration outside of himself, he has decided to turn inward. He must be “satisfied” with his own heart, and his own emotions. These will be his new muses. Although he has been forced to make this change now, previously he never needed to work to find inspiration. It came to him— and his poems were composed easily. It was like he was a circus master in control of all of his animals. In this case, the animals are the poem and through their writing and publication he is putting them “on show.”
In the final two lines of this section, the speaker gives an example of the diversity of his past subject matter. There were “stilted boys” and “Lion and woman and Lord knows what.” There have been so many different characters he has written about over the years that he can’t even remember them, or be bothered to try.
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 fairy bride.
In the second stanza the speaker, still worried over his present inability to write, considers the fact that maybe he only has “old themes” to fall back on. He is going to be “enumerat[ing],” or cataloging everything he has written about in an effort to see where he should go next.
The first theme of the past the speaker introduces to the reader is that of the “sea-rider Oisin.” This figure comes from Irish folk legend, a subject which was of great importance to Yeats. The character of “Oisin” actually appears within Yeats’ own work in the piece, ‘The Wanderings of Oisin.’ He is regarded in Irish mythology as a warrior and the greatest poet of Ireland. Oisin is spoken of by the poet as having lived a life filled with “allegorical dreams” around “enchanted islands.” These are themes that appear within Yeats’ other works as well.
Yeats’ speaker, who is becoming more and more likely to be the poet himself, describes this work, and others he has written as containing “Themes of the embittered heart.” These are emotions that might have “adorn[ed] old songs or courtly shows.” He has pulled inspiration from traditional poetic works to inspire his own.
In the concluding couplet of this section, he speaks of his own desire for his “fairy bride.” It seems as if, contrary to what the speaker said before, his own emotions have been getting into his poems all along. He has a longing for a relationship like that which Oisin was involved in.
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.
In the next stanza, the speaker moves onto another theme he has written on. This stanza revolves around a play which was titled, ‘The Countess Cathleen.’ This was in fact a play written by Yeats. In the story, Cathleen gave her “soul away.” She sold it to the devil in order to save the needy. Rather than it fall into the hands of the devil, “Heaven…intervened” and saved it.
The speaker became so infatuated with this character that she had all of his “thought and love.” He fell in love with a character he created or the idea of what a woman could be. He had to separate himself from the dream in order to return to life.
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.
The fourth stanza contains another allusion to a myth Yeats wrote about in the past. This time it is referencing the “Fool and Blind Man.” This character also appears within Irish folklore in the legend of Cuchulain. He was a famed warrior from a young age who might have been a reincarnation of his father, a god. Cuchulain is said to have fought the “ungovernable,” or uncontrollable, “sea.”
The poet knows there are “mysteries” contained in his writing. While the legend was important to the speaker, when “all is said” the “dream” of this person and the world they lived in were enchanting him. It was the idea of myth which he was interested in. The characters, just like the speaker, are “isolated.”
In the final lines, the speaker is realizing how easy it is to become trapped in one’s own stories. He felt the desire to escape there and lose all connections to the present. The “Players and painted stage” of theatre and myth “took all” of his love from reality.
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.
In the last stanza of ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion,’ the speaker contemplates what it was that inspired him to write about these characters. He is asking himself where did they come from? And, how did they come from his mind?
The next lines give a few examples of what it was that might have been which brought these thoughts into his head. The stories could’ve spawned from “A mound of refuse” or from the trash in the streets. They could even have been brought forward by the “raving slut / Who keeps the till.” The speaker repeats the word “old” six times in this section. A technique known as anaphora.
The myths he is referencing are old, but now the speaker is also seeing his way of working as old. It is time for him to move past the used-up stories of his previous poems.
The final lines state that the speaker has resigned himself to “lie down…in the foul rag and bone shop.” This is a reference to a junk shop of the 19th century. It is a place where old things congregate and where his heart can be found. The speaker’s plan is to dig his way down into the depths of his own heart and start over. He will begin writing again as if he had never done it before.