A Short Analysis of W. B. Yeats’s ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’

By Dr Oliver Tearle

‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ stands, in many ways, as W. B. Yeats’s swansong. It was the final major poem published in his last volume of poems, which appeared the year before he died in 1939. But what is ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ about? The poem doesn’t offer its meaning or meanings up to us easily, so it requires some close analysis to unpick.


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 fairy 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.

Does a poet come to a point in their career when they’ve said everything there is to say? Many poets undoubtedly feel they have started repeating themselves. T. S. Eliot addressed this directly in his Four Quartets, while William Empson gave up writing poetry because he noticed he had started to parody himself and refused to publish work which was substandard.

What is ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ about? It is partly about poetic inspiration and the drive to write. In the first section, Yeats tells us that ‘I sought a theme and sought for it in vain’. This is a poet in search of something to write about, who throughout his life – until old age arrived – never had to look too far to find something to write about. His imagination was crowded with images and ideas, like the animals in a circus.

But in the second section, we realise that such inspiration has now largely deserted the poet as he enters old age. Now he can only reiterate things he has already said, and goes on to cite examples from Irish legend (such as the figure of Oisin; one of Yeats’s earlier volumes of poetry was called The Wanderings of Oisin) and ‘The Countess Cathleen’, the title of one of Yeats’s plays. Cuchulain, by the way, is a hero from Irish mythology; Yeats’s friend, Augusta, Lady Gregory, retold a number of legends of Cú Chulainn in her 1902 book Cuchulain of Muirthemn. (Yeats wrote an introduction to Lady Gregory’s book and also wrote a poem, ‘Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea’ (1892), which is the poem he is directly alluding to here.

The awkward syntactical structure of the lines which open the poem’s final stanza and section suggests a drying up of poetic ability because everything has been said, and an uncertainty and lack of confidence about the very nature of poetic inspiration:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?

Yeats likes questions: his poems ‘Leda and the Swan’ and ‘The Second Coming’ both end with questions. Here, the question is perhaps the question for poets: where do they get their ideas from? What inspires or motivates them? It’s the kind of question that a poet bombarded with great ideas is unlikely to stop and ask himself; it’s only when those ideas dry up that he will start wondering how he ever got so many in the first place.

The poem’s final lines argue that great poetry comes out of the ugly, the ordinary, the downtrodden, and that this is where the poet must return to find new inspiration: ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ suggests that beautiful poetry springs from unbeautiful origins, from the curious bric-a-brac of everyday experience. In the last analysis, ‘The Circus Animals’ Desertion’ is about poetry itself: that, and the raw materials that go into the making of a poem. But what the poem cannot predict is whether returning to ‘the foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ will give Yeats the inspiration he needs in his final years.

About W. B. Yeats


William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.

His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).

Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

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