'The Circus Animals' Desertion' by William Butler Yeats

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Last Poems1938-1939II 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.IIWhat 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 intetvened 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.IIIThose 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.

Editor 1 Interpretation

"The Circus Animals' Desertion" by William Butler Yeats: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Have you ever felt like you've lost touch with yourself? Like you're wandering aimlessly, trying to find something that feels like home? If you have, you're not alone. William Butler Yeats explores this universal human experience in his poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion."

In this 24-verse poem, Yeats reflects on his life and the many roles he has played as a writer. He imagines a circus ring filled with animals, each representing a different phase of his creative life. As he watches the animals leave the ring one by one, he confronts the fact that he has exhausted all of his traditional sources of inspiration. He must now look inward to find something new.

The poem's structure is complex, with each verse composed of three lines. The first two lines are written in iambic pentameter, while the third is shorter and irregular. This structure gives the poem a sense of rhythm and flow while also creating a feeling of tension and uncertainty.

Let's dive deeper into the poem and explore some of its key themes and literary devices.

The Search for Inspiration

One of the most prominent themes in "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is the search for inspiration. Yeats begins the poem by describing the circus animals as "troubled forms" that represent the "tattered coat upon a stick." This image suggests that Yeats's previous sources of inspiration, such as mythology and folklore, have become worn out and ineffective.

As the animals leave the circus ring, Yeats realizes that he must find a new source of inspiration. He reflects on his past works and acknowledges that he has reached a point where he "can no longer hear / The savage...drum." This admission shows that Yeats is aware of his creative limitations and is willing to push beyond them.

The Role of Memory

Throughout the poem, Yeats uses memories and images from his past works to reflect on his creative journey. He references characters from his plays and poems, such as "Cuchulainn...and his starlit image" and "the heron-priest / With his bronze-brown...mask."

These references serve to remind Yeats of his past successes and failures. They also suggest that the act of remembering can be a source of inspiration in itself. By revisiting his past works, Yeats is able to draw upon his own experiences and emotions to create something new.

The Power of Imagination

Another key theme in the poem is the power of imagination. Yeats describes the circus animals as "images that yet, / Fresh images beget." This suggests that even though Yeats's traditional sources of inspiration have become exhausted, he can still rely on his imagination to create something new.

As Yeats continues to reflect on his creative journey, he realizes that his imagination is the only thing he truly possesses. He writes, "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." This powerful image suggests that Yeats must now look within himself to find the inspiration he needs.

The Use of Symbolism

Yeats employs a variety of symbols throughout the poem to explore its themes. One of the most notable is the circus ring itself, which represents Yeats's creative life. The animals leaving the ring symbolize Yeats's exhaustion of traditional sources of inspiration, while the empty ring at the end of the poem suggests that Yeats has yet to find something new.

Another important symbol is the heron-priest, which represents Yeats's search for spirituality. The heron-priest is described as having a "bronze-brown...mask," which suggests that he is both a spiritual and earthly figure. Yeats's inclusion of the heron-priest in the poem suggests that he is seeking a deeper connection to the divine.

The Importance of Self-Reflection

Ultimately, "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is a poem about the importance of self-reflection. Yeats recognizes that he has exhausted his traditional sources of inspiration and must now look within himself to find something new. He uses memories and imagination to reflect on his past works and experiences, ultimately realizing that his creativity comes from within.

As readers, we can learn a lot from Yeats's journey. We too can become stuck in ruts and feel like we've lost touch with ourselves. But by taking the time to reflect on our past experiences and draw upon our own imaginations, we can find inspiration in unexpected places.


"The Circus Animals' Desertion" is a powerful and complex poem that explores the universal human experience of searching for inspiration. Through its use of symbolism, imagery, and structure, the poem takes us on a journey of self-discovery as Yeats reflects on his creative life and searches for something new.

As we reflect on the poem ourselves, we can learn from Yeats's journey and apply its lessons to our own lives. By taking the time to look within ourselves and rely on our own imaginations, we can find inspiration and create something new and beautiful.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Circus Animals' Desertion: A Masterpiece of Poetic Imagination

William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet and playwright, is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. His works are known for their rich symbolism, mythological allusions, and profound insights into the human condition. Among his many masterpieces, "The Circus Animals' Desertion" stands out as a powerful meditation on the nature of creativity, the role of the artist, and the search for meaning in a world that seems to have lost its magic.

Written in 1939, near the end of Yeats's life, "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is a complex and deeply personal poem that reflects the poet's own struggles with aging, disillusionment, and the loss of his creative powers. The poem is structured as a series of 24 quatrains, each consisting of four lines of iambic pentameter, with a rhyme scheme of ABAB. The language is rich and musical, with a mix of archaic and modern words, and a rhythm that echoes the movement of a circus.

The poem begins with the speaker, presumably Yeats himself, reflecting on his life as a poet and the various images and symbols that have inspired him over the years. He describes how he has "sought a theme and sought for it in vain" and how he has "fed on the dreams of every beast and bird" in his search for inspiration. He then goes on to list a series of images and symbols that have appeared in his poetry, including "the dancing-masters" and "the harlotry of the streets."

As the poem progresses, however, the speaker becomes increasingly disillusioned with these images and symbols, which he sees as mere "make-believe" and "foppery." He realizes that he has been "cheated by the world" and that his poetry has been nothing but a "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." He feels that he has lost touch with the true sources of inspiration and that he has become a "master of the still image" rather than a true poet.

In the final stanza of the poem, the speaker turns to the image of the circus animals, who have deserted their cages and are wandering aimlessly in the desert. He sees in these animals a reflection of his own state of mind, as he too feels lost and abandoned in a world that no longer makes sense to him. He longs to join the animals and to escape from the constraints of his own imagination, to find a new source of inspiration and a new way of seeing the world.

"The Circus Animals' Desertion" is a deeply personal and introspective poem that reflects Yeats's own struggles with aging, disillusionment, and the loss of his creative powers. It is a powerful meditation on the nature of creativity, the role of the artist, and the search for meaning in a world that seems to have lost its magic. The poem is rich in symbolism and imagery, with a musical language that echoes the movement of a circus. It is a masterpiece of poetic imagination that continues to inspire and challenge readers today.

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