William Butler Yeats was on the poetic scene for a long, long, long time. He kept company with Victorians, Modernists, and Postmodernists. That's some serious staying power. In the early 20th century, while contemporary poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were busting wide open the entire history of poetic form, jamming all sorts of forms together into wacky poems like "The Waste Land", Yeats was busy sticking to the classics. He returned again and again to age-old traditional forms, like ballads or Irish folk tales or even, in the case of "The Circus Animals' Desertion," ottava rima. Hey, if it ain't broke, why fix it?
Yeats wasn't just an old curmudgeon, though. He truly believed in the ability of old forms to adapt to the new challenges and possibilities of his modern world. Born in Ireland, Yeats spent much of his youth surrounded by – and participating in – the Irish rebellions at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His poems followed his political leanings, reviving Irish legends to help him puzzle through some seriously tricky political questions. By the time of the 1916 Easter Rebellion, however, the hard-headedness of some of the leaders of the revolution made Yeats less easy with violence.
Folks in his day seemed to respect Yeats for his attention to poetic tradition. He wrote most of his famous work (including this poem) after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. In fact, he was just a young'un when the top literary prize committee in the world decided he was their man. He continued to write poetry for almost two decades after winning the Nobel, and his reputation only grew. "The Circus Animals' Desertion" is one of Yeats' last (and best-known) poems. At 70 years of age, when Yeats wrote this poem, he had begun considering all the things that made his previous poetry so popular – and all of the problems of fitting that poetry to the modern age. Those dilemmas are just what this 1939 poem is about.
If the ridiculous popularity of self-help books and newsstand magazines is any indication, most folks today are in the market for ways to make themselves smarter, thinner, prettier, nicer, and all-around better. We're in the self-improvement business these days – and believe us, business is good.
If you've listened to Oprah's gospel, you'll know that the first step toward a better you is facing the illusions and delusions that have dogged you in the past. That's precisely what's going on in this poem. It's a knock-down drag-out fight between Yeats's desires and his quest for the truth. Old dreams, old loves, and old desires all figure into these stanzas, and what results is a no-holds-barred exposé of Yeats's deepest fears. If you want an action-packed melodrama, you've come to the right place.
Of course, if you're a fan of poetry and literature, this is also a good poem for you. It's wavering between Modernist optimism and Postmodern realism. Imagine an old, shattered glass that's still half-full. That's Modernism. Now imagine a glass shattered to smithereens. That's Postmodernism. Where does Yeats come down? Well, you'll have to read it yourself to see.