The Circus Animal's Desertion: by W.B. Yeats - Summary & Analysis

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      (The poet as a circus showman reviews his circus animals—his poems and characters—as he is unable to find new themes in old age.)

Stanza I

      I (the poet) searched for a (fresh) subject but without any success. I searched it daily for about six weeks. As an old man I must be satisfied with my heart, although every season my circus animals (poems and plays) have been on public display. These are the stilted boys (young lovers of his early poems), that furnished chariot of Cuchulain, “the lion and woman” which refers to the Sphinx and other figures.

Stanza II

      What can I do except mentioning the old themes of my composition? My first important poem was the love adventure of Oisin to the three magic islands under the fascination of his sweetheart Niamh. The fantastic pleasures, battles and ultimate union of lovers was but an indication of the deep longing of my sad heart for the woman I love. The story might have been good enough for old songs and for courtly love. In fact it was my own beloved and not the ‘faery bride of Oisin.’

      Then I selected a different theme for my play entitled The Countess Cathleen. The heroine, symbolizing old Ireland sold away her soul to the Devil as she had a lot of pity for poor farmers; but fortunately, Providence saved her soul. I had in mind my beloved— Maud Gonne—who was about to destroy the beauty and dignity of her soul by her patriotic fanaticism and hate. The play was a sort of dream of that reality which was soon forgotten.

      Then I wrote a play—the tragic story of Cuchulain in Baile’s Strand who struggled against the mighty sea-waves. His fight was matched by the Fool and the Blind man, who driven by their hunger decided to steal bread from the empty houses. This story was derived from my own personal experience—a mystery of the heart which fascinated me. I was so much charmed by the tragic situation of the hero’s struggle that the dramatic characters seem to have over shadowed the realities of my life, of which they were just the artistic embodiments.

Stanza III

      These imaginary characters and situations so completely captured my mind that they overwhelmed the confused mass of observations and impressions of reality. The old battles, a broken can, old iron, old bones, old rags, the crazy girl who looks after the cash, the stock materials of real life—were sorted out by my imagination into a rounded whole or structure. The ladder of imagination which connected the real with the dreamy heaven is no more. On account of my old age, the mental powers have decayed. I must now rest and content myself with the raw material of poetic composition namely the foul rag-and-bone shop of my heart.

Critical Analysis


      The Circus Animal's Desertion is an apology of the poet for not being able to offer new stories and ideas due to his old age. The fountains of imagination have dried up, and now at his best, he can only recount the ideas and themes which inspired his poems and feel discontented that with the passage of time, his poetic faculties and his passion of love has abated greatly and he is almost a shadow of his former poetic self. Like a circus show-man, he reviews his animals—poems, situation and characters. Fresh compositions and new ideas are out of bounds for the poet. So he must content himself with the broken junk and bumper of his heart. This is one of his final poems and was called Despair and later on The Lack of a Theme. As the poet muses on his achievements, he notes the function of the imagination—a ladder between the real and the heavenly. Maud Gonne, his beloved, has also gone away from his life to political adventure. As such, the poet can only rest to content with “how are the mighty fallen.”

Development of Thought

      The poet has thought deeply and long for a new theme but has not been able to find one on account of old age and the lessening of his mental powers. Like an old circus-man, he must count the animals who performed for him in early years. His first great poem was The Wanderings of Oisin about the adventures of Oisin who on his quest of his sweet heart Niamh passed through legendary islands. His joys and struggles echoed the poet’s love for his beloved—Maud Gonne. Oisin’s fairy-bride stands for the poet’s beloved.

      The poet’s second great composition was the play entitled The Countess Cathleen. This was the story of the heroine of Ireland who sold her soul to the Devil, but she was fortunately saved by heaven. The heroine symbolizes Ireland. This refers to his love for his ladylove who forsook him so as to take part in political activity.

      The poet’s third great achievement was the magic tale of Cuchulain in Baile’s Strand. The hero struggled against the sea waves after the fatal fight with his son. The battle was witnessed by the fool and the blind man who was driven by hunger and so decided to steal bread (Maud-Gonne) bearing tragic spectacle to others. The poet was so much fascinated by this tragic story that the point of courage and daring of the hero was lost and only his sad fate came uppermost to his mind.

      The dramatic characters and scenes represented the realities of life which were soon forgotten.

The Function of Imagination

      The poetic faculty functions through the imagination. The raw materials of the real world are turned into the emblem of imagination and the elixir of life. The medley procession of ideas and passion takes a concrete form and structure. The old bottles, old kettles and old cans which fill the rag-and-bone shop of the heart are transmuted by the faculty of the imagination. Imagination is a ladder between the real junk-shop and the heavenly joy and transport. Take away imagination and the whole fabric of poetry falls to pieces. The other thing that sustains the poetry is the personal passion and feeling of the poet. In the case of Yeats, Maud Gonne served as the fountain of inspiration for him. His old age and love are responsible for the decay of his talent.


      This is an intensely personal poem: in three sections; Oisin’s Niamh is no other than the poet’s beloved Maud Gonne. Similarly, the Fool and the Blindman stands for MacBride who stole the bread (Maud Gonne) of the poet. The players and painted stage fascinated the poet but they were emblems of certain other things (Maud Gonne and MacBride).

      The poet’s analysis of the poetic process and the fiction of imagination is remarkable. The images have grown ‘in pure mind’ but they are derived from the ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart. Life emanates from physical existence, from the fury and mire of human veins! This real dump of refuse or junk-shop is the fountain of the characters and situations in great poetry. Imagination transmutes dross into gold. The crude images of real life take on a color and glory when they go through the imagination of the poet. Unfortunately, like physical powers, mental powers are also subject to time and decay. The poem is full of masterful images—the hushed chariot, lion and woman, faery bride, three enchanted islands, a mound of refuse, the ladder and finally the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

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