I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,The Circus Animals’ Desertion, WB Yeats
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.
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.
These are the first and the last lines of one of Yeats’ last poems. The Circus Animals’ Desertion is a beautiful and sad poem written by an old man regretting his lack of inspiration and imagination. He’s tired, and he claims to have nothing left to say. Old-old-old-old-old and raving.
You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ologies of all kinds from morning to night. If there is any ology left of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name.
Mrs. Gradgrind, on her deathbed, regrets that she has raised her two children with based on a philosophy that only facts matter, and that imagination is dangerous. In Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, Louisa and Tom Gradgrind are raised on a philosophy that all decisions should be based on cold reason, and taught that an idle imagination is a bad thing for everybody, but particularly for a girl. The spark of imagination is irrepressibly present in Sissy, the daughter of a circus horse trainer, who can’t define a horse, but says she would fancy a room papered with pictures of horses on the walls and flowers on the floor.
In Yeats’ poem, his imagination is represented by circus animals. These inventions and spirits and characters of his creation kept Yeats company and inspired him through most of his life, “Winter and summer till old age began, My circus animals were all on show.” And for Louisa, the circus is a forbidden place of wonder and mystery–a break from the relentless grind of facts…
“The clashing and banging band attached to the horse-riding establishment, which had there set up its rest in a wooden pavilion, was in full bray…Phenomenon almost incredible though distinctly seen, what did he then behold but his own metallurgical Louisa, peeping with all her might through a hole in a deal board, and his own mathematical Thomas abasing himself on the ground to catch but a hoof of the graceful equestrian Tyrolean flower-act!
‘In the name of wonder, idleness, and folly!’ said Mr. Gradgrind, leading each away by a hand; ‘what do you do here?’
‘Wanted to see what it was like,’ returned Louisa, shortly.
Louisa has an unmanageable mind, as she describes it, she can’t help but wonder and imagine, and see cities in the fire.
‘Have you gone to sleep, Loo?’
‘No, Tom. I am looking at the fire.’
‘You seem to find more to look at in it than ever I could find,’ said Tom. ‘Another of the advantages, I suppose, of being a girl. … Except that it is a fire,’ said Tom, ‘it looks to me as stupid and blank as everything else looks. What do you see in it? Not a circus?’
‘I don’t see anything in it, Tom, particularly. But since I have been looking at it, I have been wondering about you and me, grown up.’
‘Wondering again!’ said Tom.
‘I have such unmanageable thoughts,’ returned his sister, ‘that they will wonder.’
But after a lifetime of being discouraged to register anything but facts, her thoughts come out twisted and malformed. She’s tired and frustrated with herself, with everything. She talks about the garden she should have in her heart, “‘How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? …What have you done with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?’ Said louisa as she touched her heart.”
Yeats has spent a lifetime in the circus of his imaginings, so that the creatures he’s dreamed up become more than real to him. They are inspired by his friends and loves, and they become his friends and loves. They take all of his love. But now he’s tired, too. Mythology, allegory, dreams, have all left him. He’s lost his ladder, and now lies where all the ladders start, in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
It’s strange to me to think about what Louisa would have been like if she’d been allowed to let her restless imagination loose. If, as a child, she’d been allowed to cultivate the garden within her, and been encouraged to wonder and question, she might not have been so twisted, stunted and hopeless. As a girl in Victorian times there’s only so far her curiosity could have taken her, but she might have written wild and beautiful prose and poetry like the Brontes or Emily Dickinson. Or she might have at least made decisions about her life using her heart as well as her cold reason. If she’d been born a boy she might have built the city in the fire into something as full of life and light and as real as Yeats’ circus.
And it’s strange to think about Yeats YEATS feeling tired and discouraged and lacking in imagination. Of course the world he creates to describe his lack of imagination is the most frighteningly beautiful and inspired lament to loss of beauty and inspiration I can imagine. Because he may have lost the mythology and the lofty imagery, but he hasn’t lost the love or the language, he’s just brought them down to earth. He’s using them to make the ordinary beautiful–rags, bones, broken bottles. And things as extraordinarily ordinary as aging, as remembering. He must be satisfied with his heart.