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Studies on W.B. Yeats

Jacqueline Genet

Meeting Places of Life, Poetry and Theatre: 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'

Katharine Worth

Texte intégral

1'The Circus Animals' Desertion' is a poem about the intertwining of life and art: the ageing poet, in his seventies, looks back at work written in his twenties and in early middle age, scrutinising it to see how much of his real life went into it. The poem was published (in journals) in January 1939, the month in which Yeats died, so has the poignancy of last words. But it offers another special fascination; the impression it gives us of being taken behind the scenes, shown the play from the perspective of its author, allowed to see what he chose to extract from his life experience and turn into theatre and – even more interestingly – what he left out. It is a poem about gaps and omissions; also it seems to me, about the poetic energy released by the painful process of identifying them.

2I have used the word play figuratively but I think there is a special appropriateness in looking at this poem from a dramatic angle, which is what I want to do. This is not just because two of the early works Yeats selects for revaluation are plays, though there is significance in that. Both The Countess Cathleen and On Baile's Strand were written for performance and The Wanderings of Oisin, though far too diffuse to be dramatic, makes moves in that direction (Oisin's long monologue is set in a framework of a dialogue with St. Patrick, who cuts in from time to time, almost as if in a play). There is too the powerful initiating imagery of the circus, striking a theatrical note from the start.

3My main reason for focussing on the theatricality in the poem, however, is the final stanza. The vision of the "foul rag and bone shop" which Yeats's re-experiencing of his past has drawn out of him is intensely dramatic. His passion as he confronts the awful reality of the mounds of refuse, the broken cans, seems about to explode – almost, it could be, into a new play. I am reminded of the closing sequence of Beckett's novel, The Unnamable, when one of the voices reaches a pitch of agitation (having called out earlier "not I") that seems to demand what it was given later by its author; the chance to become, in the play, Not I, a real mouth on a real stage, writhing and raging in a real stage dark.

4Beckett will occasionally make his way in to this discussion. The poem draws us sometimes in his direction and the thought of his writings casts a strong backward light on those of Yeats. If I may introduce a more personal note, Beckett's presence in this paper has also been prompted by meeting with him earlier in the day on which I arrived in Caen. I believe the participants in the colloque and others will be pleased and touched to know that Beckett's love of Yeats's poetry was expressed in his good wishes for the success of this occasion. It is certainly a great pleasure to me to be conveying his greetings and sympathetic interest to those of us here –admirers of Yeats all – from his great Irish successor.

5Yeats's poem is structured so as to remind us of different kinds of self-expression and invite us into the revaluation the poet is making of it. It is a re-run of high dramatic moments. But they are all rendered now in the poet's own voice, the actors can no longer speak for themselves. It is a meaningful reversal of the essential principle involved in dramatising, which is precisely to cut the characters free of their author, give them independent life, their separate voices. The dramatist is not to be identified in his play. He has created a world which can only be held up and kept in being by his personae.

6Yeats loved the idea of this independent journeying of the personae. He wrote revealingly in an article published in The United Irishman at the time his play, Where There is Nothing, was published by that journal (in 1902):

  • 1 (1) The Freedom of the Theatre'. Reprinted in Uncollected Prose by W.B. Yeats, vol. 2, ed. John P. (...)

So far as I am a dramatist, so far as I have made these people alive, I watch them with wonder and pity, and I do not even ask myself were they right to go upon that journey1.

7But in 'The Circus Animals' Desertion' he pulls his characters back to himself, scrutinises them as projections of his own hidden feelings, does implicitly ask the question: "were they right to go upon that journey?" Or perhaps it should be phrased: "was I right to send them on that journey rather than some other journey I was making in my mind?"

8Yeats's introduction in The United Irishman includes an allusion to The Countess Cathleen The plays in this group, he said, were all concerned with types of religious passion.

Ireland was more religious than any other European country, which was perhaps why I, who have been bred and born here, can hardly write at all unless I write about religious ideas.

9There had been spectacular reinforcement for his view of the grip of religion on Irish minds three years earlier, in 1899, when The Countess Cathleen was performed in Dublin. It was judged to be "dangerous and demoralising" and unpatriotic too, because, said Yeats "I pictured Irish men and women selling their souls to keep death from their houses". Those scandalised by the Countess' bargaining with devils could not accept that her act – motivated by her passionate urge to save her poor tenants from damnation – had anything saintly about it. Yeats himself, in his article of 1902, had hinted at reservations of his own about her conduct. She was "intoxicated with passion", he said; and, "the commandment of mercy is followed to the forgetting of all else". The words convey a sense of dangerous extremes, though extremes of virtue. Yet the final scene of the play endorses the Countess' act. After her death (for she cannot live without a soul), the poet in the play has a vision which shows her being received into heaven by angels, one of whom pronounces benign judgement:

The Light of Lights
Looks always on the motive, not the deed,
The Shadow of Shadows on the deed alone.

  • 2 (2) I am indebted to Deirdre Toomey for information about reviews of Florence Farr's performance wh (...)

10This climax seems like an acceptance of the Countess' idealistic self-sacrifice by the poet who wrote the play, as does his calm summing up in his 1902 article. The Countess is included among those early characters of his whom he sees "with wonder and pity", not even asking himself "were they right to go upon that journey". Could it really have been like this? At the time he wrote the play, had Yeats been able to view this particular "journey" with that remote and untormented gaze? It is hard to believe so. We know how obsessively he revised the play, how close he felt to it, how he wrote himself into it as the poet Aleel who loves the Countess with the same hopelessness Yeats himself suffered in his love for the fanatical Maud Gonne. The play was not quite the rounded off, complete experience those comments of 1902 might suggest. Its performance history points to some camouflaging of the passion that had gone into its conception. Florence Farr as Aleel drew enthusiastic plaudits2 which it is rather hard to account for now unless we envisage the production as aesthetically muted and stylised, one that avoided realism and strong passion. The actress cannot but have played down the virility of Aleel, the force of his sexual frustration.

11Thirty and more years later, in "The Circus Animals' Desertion,' Yeats was to offer a very different perspective on his feelings about The Countess Cathleen. We will return to that question: at this point I want simply to register that for an informed reader of Yeats, someone who knew about his personal situation, a rather curious gap could already have been apparent in 1902 between the play and the life.

12Turning now to the poem, we observe that it opens on a note of real life. The poet bewails a situation familiar to anyone who tries to write:

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.

13A bad case of writer's block. But this is also, of course, a literary convention, one much used, for example, by a poet who was often in Yeats's thoughts; Sir Philip Sidney. The opening sonnet in the Astrophel and Stella sequence is taken up for most of its length with the painful writer's block he is suffering from. He tells how he has tried to deal with it, "oft turning others' leaves" to see if literature would inspire his "sun-burned" brain. But he is not looking in the right place: "Fool, said my Muse to me. Look in thy heart and write". Once he realises that immersion in real life is needed, he is able to start.

14Of course it cannot be guaranteed that Sidney or any other particular writer would spring to the mind of all readers of 'The Circus Animals' Desertion'. The poem is not dependent on our catching all its possible echoes. It does invite us to be aware of echoes, however, by constantly looking outside itself to Yeats's own earlier work and even to his commentaries upon it and to our knowledge of his life. Intertextuality is the medium in which this poem operates – and also its subject. If we do look out to Sidney's poem, we will bring to our reading of Yeats's an extra layer of piquancy, when considering his curious use of the word heart. For Sidney, the heart is the source of inspiration: he turns to it with relief. For Yeats it is a very different matter. The blockage he is enduring connects with old age and, as he puts it, with the need to settle for the heart:

Maybe, at last, being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart, although

15I have broken off at this awkward point because the obtrusive rhyme ("although/so") invites it. This is a moment of decisive contrast One the one hand we have the heart – grudgingly accepted as something to be settled for in old age. On the other – Crash, bang, the sound of drums and cymbals – in they come; the circus animals:

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.

16This unexpected, bold, brassy, enigmatic image obviously sets up the sharpest possible contrast with the physical depletion and frustration communicated at the start of the poem. We feel the force of the poet's longing for the seemingly endless supply of energy in his circus time; the physical virtuosity, the exhilarating danger. The imagery of stilt-walking and circus fascinated Yeats in this late period, as the poem 'High Talk' reminds us with its assertive opening line, "Processions that lack high stilts have nothing that catches the eye". The imagery sets up many trains of thought but I want to focus for the moment on a particular aspect, the peculiar nature of the theatricality Yeats conjures up. His circus is a very incomplete, even shabby sort of show: it has a lion (only one?), a woman (ditto) and everything else to match, to judge from the amused mockery of "and the Lord knows what". Perhaps it is not to be taken too seriously; it is only a circus, maybe in the idiomatic usage of something far from finished or satisfactory. There is a puzzle here, as there is in the tide, 'The Circus Animals' Desertion', with its ambiguous possessive case. Who has deserted whom? Has the poet complete control over his show or has it in some way taken him over? Beckett comes to mind here, irresistibly, with his great circus image; Pozzo swaggering onto the stage in Waiting for Godot, cracking a whip and driving Lucky by a rope. Lucky is in a way his circus animal: he carries the luggage like a wretched donkey and performs to order – the dance, the think. He seems to belong body and soul to Pozzo, yet in the second act positions are reversed when the rope attaching master and slave becomes the rope blind Pozzo needs Lucky to guide him by. Yeats's imagery too hints at the possibility of being controlled by the inventions of one's own mind; the theme is a deep preoccupation of both these great Irish poets.

17In Yeats's poem witty ambiguities invite the reader to carry forward the circus – with all its mixed associations – into the discussion of the early writings that takes up the following three stanzas. "Stilted boys" is one such ambiguity; it suggests real performers, possibly clowns on stilts. But as the poem 'High Talk' assures us, this is above all an image: "All metaphor, Malachi, stilts and all". Stilted can mean the opposite of a virtuoso performance; it can refer to verbal expression that is not really expressive, whether because too formal or too inhibited, or in some way false. The "burnished chariot" which is only just at home in the circus (high talk for a circus car perhaps) certainly belongs to Yeats's stage world of Oisin and Baile, as well as in the more mundane scene where such a property specifically occurs, The Unicorn from the Stars. The thrust of all this is to assign some rather showy theatrical props – with the slight suggestion of vulgarity as well as virtuosity about them – to the early works at which Yeats is now going to take his new look.

18All three belong within the same short period: The Wanderings of Oisin, 1889; The Countess Cathleen, 1892; On Baile's Strand, not produced till 1904 but started in 1901, its theme being handled even earlier. Yeats's retrospective is an extremely active one. He deconstructs the three works, revealing expressive gaps and omissions and so opening them up to new readings. Finally he reconstructs by incorporating revised perspectives in the old works, or inviting the reader to do so. We engage with him in shaping new responses and in the process changing the works to which we are responding.

19The first work revalued in this way, The Wanderings of Oisin, is prefaced by the weary question from the old poet: "What can I but enumerate old themes?" The languor and depletion of the opening lines is recalled, "I sought a theme and sought for it in vain". But the circus animals have given him a charge of energy. Something new certainly comes into his clever precis of the long-ago narrative:

First the 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;

20The sea-rider, the enchanted islands, the dreams – all this belongs to the original; the tale of the hero, wandering in a supernatural space and time with the fairy woman, Niamh, who plucks him out of his human life, to take him on a love journey that lasts for hundreds of years of earth time. But what of the colloquialism, "led by the nose"? Was this in the original? Probably few people will know The Wanderings of Oisin well enough to be sure whether or not the attitude expressed in the phrase is somehow part of the poem. An uneasiness is set up; we may feel a need to go outside the poem we are reading, back to the narrative that is being so enigmatically summarised. The work of deconstruction has begun and we are drawn into it by curiosity and (possibly) imperfect memory.

21Whatever we do or don't remember of the early poem, we are bound to realise, from the verbal incongruity of "led by the nose" in the stately context, that contradictory attitudes to the story are being brought into collision. A romantic view predominates. The poem's themes are said to spring from an "embittered heart" but the bitterness leads back into romance; "old songs or courtly shows". On the other hand, the hero has been led by the nose; somehow cheated or conned; this sounds more like realism than romance. Our confidence in our ability to read The Wanderings of Oisin is unsettled. Then comes the undermining blast that sets the whole edifice trembling; the unexpected question:

But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride?

22The poet has in one breath detached himself from his persona (this was only a character he "set on" a journey) and identified himself with him: they are at one in their infatuation with the fairy bride. And a gulf opens up: the feeling Yeats did not put into the poem pours out. He is surely relying on his readers to supply the missing name, Maud Gonne, and to draw the contrast between the sexual fulfilment achieved by the lover in the poem and the denial of it the poet experienced in actuality. Once these connections between the life and the art have been wrily exposed, we cannot help but take them into our reading – of the old poem as well as the new. Yeats is moving in and out of his personae with a mercurial lightness which reminds me again of Beckett and those narrators in his trilogy; the Molloys and Morans and Malones who invent each other, wear each other's hats, tell each other's stories, discard each other as the narration becomes increasingly self-conscious and ends with the Unnamable's claim to have invented all the others. Everything is provisional, fluid: the story can never be thought of as complete. So it is with Yeats's narrative. The gap between the fable and the newly revealed feeling behind it creates a similar sense of provisionality; both unnerving and full of possibility.

23The second stanza continues in the same vein. Another fable swims into view, seeming at first remarkably complete, almost as if all Yeats had to do was find a name for it:

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.

24Up to this point the play is still the play he described in 1902 (with a sharper edge on the Countess who is now crazed with pity). But in the second half of the stanza an immense gap opens up:

I thought my dear must her own soul destroy,
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it.

  • 3 (3) See A. Norman Jeffares, A Commentary on the Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. London and Basingsto (...)

25A. Norman Jeffares has commented3 that Cathleen is not easily identified with Maud Gonne, since no such fanaticism and hate as Yeats alludes to is seen to enslave the character of the play. It is true; and this is exactly the gap Yeats is deliberately opening up for us in the poem of his old age. In the spaces between the fable and the feeling now admitted to, a second drama emerges; the drama of the poet's relationship with his characters. We are invited to take a near-Pirandellian perspective on the incompleteness of the story those characters presented. We see how certain bitter thoughts did not find their way in; that the Countess was idealised in a way which only partly expressed Yeats's feeling about sacrificial acts of a lofty, impersonal kind. We can understand how the part of Aleel could be played by a woman; how Florence Farr's femininity could be a concealing mask for the more fierce and virile frustration the situation of Aleel seems to require.

26This is the only stanza in the poem where the word heart is not used. Yet it has the most heart in it, in the sense of tender feeling: there is a world of tenderness in that "my dear". The play curiously gains in feeling, from the more complex, ravaged context Yeats provides for it in the poem. The retrospective sows doubt, and in doing so casts a sombre but richer light back on the original, making it fuller, more interesting. We are drawn ever more closely into a sense of collaboration with the poet in his re-making of his youthful works.

27The stanza ends with a return to the young poet, beguiled by dreams:

And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

28Dreams crowd into the centre of the scene in the third stanza of the retrospect section, to be recognised by the poet as having displaced a large part of reality. The play conjured up in the opening lines, On Baile's Strand, is summarised in a terse two lines:

And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread
Cuchulain fought the ungovernable sea;

29Yeats is evidently relying on his readers here to fill in the rest of the play from his gnomic account of its tragic climax. Doubtless he was right in his assumption that it would be a work well enough known for the process to work; this was a play people might well have seen on stage as well as read. For those who had enjoyed that experience (and also for those who read with imagination alert) there would be no forgetting the haunting last moments, when the emphasis comes to rest, not on the stricken, off-stage hero, driven to his crazy battle with the waves by his discovery that he has killed his only son, but on the unheroic, even squalid figures of the Fool and Blind Man. While the hero is performing his high act, they are preparing for their low one; to creep into houses left empty in all the excitement, and steal bread or what they can find. The curtain line is their exulting, "We will put our hands into the ovens".

30The poem invites us to think about the oddity of this deliberate anti-climax in the light of all our knowledge – not just of the play itself but of Yeats's own comments upon it. He knew well by the time he wrote 'The Circus Animals' Desertion' that he could take many of his readers with him in these flights of retrospect and oblique allusion. In his last play, The Death of Cuchulain (1939), he mischievously requires of his audience, through the Old Man who addresses them in a prologue, to bring to this new play their knowledge of other works: "the old epics and Mr. Yeats' plays about them".

  • 4 (4) The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954, p. 424.

31Fifty years after his death, even more readers may be expected to have even more knowledge of the life material surrounding Yeats's poem, including the rich stores of self-revelation in his letters. They will be likely to know, for example, the letter he wrote in 1904 to Frank Fay, the actor who played Cuchulain, explaining his thinking about the characterisation in On Baile's Strand4. It is a letter worth knowing, for it casts a very sharp light on Yeats's closeness to his persona, Cuchulain – and offers a hint for our reading of the poem that was to be written so many years later.

32Cuchulain's age in the play was pinned down for Fay with pernickety exactness: "about 40, not less than 35 or 36 and not more than 45 or 46".Yeats's own age at the time was 38. Cuchulain had put away illusions and dreams – "that make young men a woman's servant" – and become a deliberate lover who can never really surrender himself, a little hard, a man who left the people about him "a little repelled". Perhaps, says Yeats, with a rush of deep intuition, the young man to whom he is instinctively drawn (though he must fight and kill him) could have given him the thing he was most in need of – affection. For all this, Cuchulain is a glamorous figure: "repellent yet alluring". With this letter in mind, we, as readers of the poem, might be tempted by Yeats's emphases in letter and poem to view the Cuchulain figure as a supreme kind of performer, a circus animal. But the letter also reminds us that he casts a darker, less glamorous shadow which is incorporated in the play in the chorus character of the Fool. Yeats puts it very directly; Cuchulain "is the fool – wandering, passive, houseless and almost loveless".

33This is a poignant analysis: almost more poignant than the dramatic action which is meant to embody it. Yeats takes pains to hedge it round with cautions: the analysis may be wrong, he tells Fay, for the character was created out of instinct and it is the instinct that must be trusted. Yet the impression remains that the analysis is true, this is a play of the heart: that uncomfortable, troublesome heart which in the poem has up to now been associated with bitterness and decay. The play itself, even though committed to high talk and high-wire ways, gives us at least one moment of painful, low key tenderness. It is a moment of silence, when Cuchulain, sitting between the Fool and Blind Man, learns from their gossip that it is his son he has slain – and we feel what it means to him through the shaking of the bench where they are sitting. "It is Cuchulain who is trembling", the Fool tells the Blind Man, "It is Cuchulain who is shaking the bench". A moment bereft of words which is more telling by far – in terms of human feeling – than the torrent of words the hero finds when he rushes to his revenge; his absurd revenge on the forces of the sea.

34The old poet looking back knows well there were "heart-mysteries" there; painful ones, to do with ageing ("not more than 45 or 46"), lack of a certain kind of affection. But he turned from them, he tells us now (as Cuchulain in the play breaks his moving silence with a return to the high talk of the flamboyant self):

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.

35The retrospect is over and in the final stanza of the poem the poet faces head-on the opposition of heart and circus that has been suggesting itself throughout. First he pays tribute to the images created by his youthful imagination:

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

36"Masterful images"? Yes, they have power, we must agree: certainly for the poet – and for us too, since he has made us take them into our reading of his poetry. The plays have even, to some extent, cut themselves free from the matrix, been revived from time to time on the public stage, an acid test for independent holding-power. But were they ever complete, would that be possible for anything that grew in the mystic state called "pure mind"? The concept of completeness, of full expression, is one the poem has been subtly undermining throughout. Now the poet faces the paradox the work of deconstruction has brought him to; a work forced on him by the ravages of time but – and this is where Yeats's greatness shows – embraced by him as a way in to a fuller math.

37He answers that question, "out of what began?" with a violent outpouring of squalid imagery:

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.

38Enervation is totally dispersed as he confronts this horrid reality. The circus animals may have deserted the poet but he is also deserting them. By admitting into the works of his youth truths that could not find expression then, in those dream structures. In doing so, he has found the vitality to shape a new world, an extraordinarily vivid if repulsive one. It is made up of debris and leavings but it is not quiescent. The figure of the raving slut who keeps the till looms over the refuse and broken cans with the promise – or threat – of potent action. This enigmatic figure, with her hand on the till, seems to have sprung from the depths of the unconscious, where the most secret, perhaps shameful accounts of profit and loss are kept. The poem does not have to be taken as a bitterly resigned acceptance of old age and the death of imagination. It is not that, any more than Beckett's "Fail again. Fail better" is a statement about the failure of some particular work.

39The poet may have lost the ladder that let him climb high up above the discordant litter of life. To lie down among the old cans looks a grim alternative. But the dynamic energy that has rushed into the poem is the best illustration of the poet's reminder – to himself as well as to us – that the foul rag and bone shop is the place where all the ladders start. We surely end our reading in a state of active curiosity, not passive melancholy. What might not grow out of this harsh reality, what new drama might not already be shaping itself around the menacing figure of the raving slut who keeps the till? Like Beckett, whose characters must all venture down among "the trash" in order to find their right way, Yeats in this poem goes lower only to find new ways of climbing higher.


1 (1) The Freedom of the Theatre'. Reprinted in Uncollected Prose by W.B. Yeats, vol. 2, ed. John P. Frayne and C. Johnson, London and Basingstoke, Macmillan Press, 1975, p. 298-299.

2 (2) I am indebted to Deirdre Toomey for information about reviews of Florence Farr's performance which will appear in Volume 2 of the Collected Letters.

3 (3) See A. Norman Jeffares, A Commentary on the Collected Plays of W.B. Yeats. London and Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1975, p. 6.

4 (4) The Letters of W.B. Yeats, ed. Allan Wade, London, Rupert Hart-Davis, 1954, p. 424.


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