When I started writing this blog in 2011, my second entry (and the first entry on a specific poem) was about W B Yeats's 'At Algeciras - A Meditation Upon Death'. In it, I mentioned that although Yeats would always be one of my most significant poetic loves, he was in some respects a part of my past, because I no longer read him to the degree I once did.
Having subsequently seen the number of times I have written about Yeats or at least made reference to him, I tend to think that I was wrong about that. Many of Yeats's poems are woven into my life so deeply that it's now more subconscious than conscious, but no less important for that. I think that I may start reading him more again, as well. There are many poems that I never came to grips with, and those which would probably now have an altered or additional meaning for me.
'The Circus Animals' Desertion' makes me think of this significant role that Yeats's work has played in my life. As with the Byzantium poems, or 'Meditations in Time of Civil War', or 'Under Ben Bulben', it is one of his epic works, with the added poignancy of its self-reflection on what the poet sees in advancing age as the gradual loss of his powers. It might in the crudest terms be called a recap of his career, but who could do this like Yeats? Ever conscious of the links between the personal and the universal, he points out how the people and situations in his life represented broader themes and truths, but that the personal has his deepest affection ("Players and painted stage took all my love,/And not those things that they were emblems of.") This is, I think, a great commentary on the importance of poetry in our lives and in various spheres. What is also remarkable is the fact that he creates such an extraordinary poem while apparently mourning the loss of his creative ability.
The interwoven nature of past, present and future, memories, dreams and obsessions, and the teleological manner in which Yeats focuses these, reminds me of the way my own mind works; if only I could do with my thought patterns what Yeats did with his.
THE CIRCUS ANIMALS' DESERTION (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.