Saturday, 16 March 2013

"Where All the Ladders Start": Yeats's 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'

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.



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.


  1. Your reflections on rethinking the idea that perhaps some works belong to one's poetic past really struck a chord with me. Along with the thought that some things are so woven into one's life that they are now more subconscious than conscious. This is a subject I tend to consider quite often these days. I tend to associate certain authors and works with particular periods in my life, now past, and I wonder if those periods may not be resurrected, to a new kind of life but containing the old within them. This is what I think as I pass my bookshelves and greet books read long ago, but to which I have a kind of expectant hankering to return.

    1. I feel similarly. It's very unusual for me to leave something behind entirely - music, films, but especially literature. I don't really forget about people, either, even if occasionally I want to! I relate to what you say about "containing the old." I've never really been able to understand it when people say things like "oh, I used to like that band, but it totally embarrasses me now that I was a fan of theirs." I don't necessarily read all the same books or listen to all the same music now, but it seldom embarrasses me to look back. Perhaps I've always had good taste. ;) But it just seems as though everything I've cared about gets woven into a pattern which is still present in my life, so that even if it's not actively in my life the way it used to be (or not to the same extent), I can still see how it influences me in some way, or how it led me in a certain direction, and so on.