The Circus Animals' Desertion
by William Butler Yeats
Section I Summary
Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
- Talk about dedication. What we've got here, folks, is a pretty serious case of writer's block. Our speaker is trying to find something – anything – that he can still write about. And let's face it – six weeks is an awful long time to go without inspiration. You try it sometime.
- Notice the parallelism of the first two lines? "I sought" appears twice, which helps hammer in the point that this quest has not necessarily been an easy one for our speaker.
- Try reading these lines aloud to yourself. Do you hear anything? Are your toes tapping? We hope so, because these lines are written in iambic pentameter, one of the most important meters in the English language. For more on this, see our handy section on "Form and Meter."
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
- Remember how your mother (or your kindergarten teacher) told you to always be true to yourself? Well, it seems like our speaker is learning that lesson a bit late in life. After all of the searching for outlandish themes in all kinds of places (for six weeks, no less), it turns out his own feelings and experiences might just be the best place to start.
- Why does the speaker refer to himself as a broken man? Well, that's an interesting question. After all, the speaker is a poet… like Yeats. And a man at the end of his career… like Yeats. And Yeats, as it turns out, was a ridiculously successful man. You might call him the most famous poet of the 20th century. (Want to see what we have to say about the similarities? Check out our section on the poem's "Speaker.")
- As it turns out, though, success and emotional well-being don't always go hand in hand. In fact, if you pay attention to tabloids, you might be inclined to say that they tend to cancel each other out. Maybe that's why our speaker is trying to get away from the themes that once served him so well.
- There's just one more thing we'll draw your attention to before we move right along to the next few lines: rhyme. "Man," rhymes with "vain," or at least it kind of does (this is what we call a slant rhyme), and "although" rhymes with "so." Keep your eye out for more rhymes as you read; they just might tell us something about this poem's form.
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.
- You see, the problem is, once upon a time, our speaker didn't have to fall back on the matters of the heart for poetic fodder. He was a regular circus master, professionally marching all of his "animals" (or, um, his poems) out on display.
- How do we know that the circus animals are actually a metaphor for his creative works? Well, for one thing, he begins this section with a reference to the "themes" he needs in order to do his work.
- And since Yeats himself wasn't actually a circus conductor, we're guessing that this particular image is actually a metaphor for the types of poetry Yeats used to create – poems full of lions and women and, well, "Lord knows what."
- Come to think of it, our speaker doesn't seem all that interested in the show that his former works used to put on. After all, he can't even be bothered to remember all of the characters that once graced his stage.
- That doesn't mean he won't still describe them with all the glitter and glow he once used to make them shine – his chariots are still "burnished" – but he's willing to dismiss them for the place fillers they now seem to be.
- Now that we have a whole stanza under our belts, let's revisit this whole rhyme business. In the first six lines of the poem, we've got alternating rhymes: "vain," "man," and "began"; and "so," "although," and "show." But then we have these pesky last two lines. "Chariot" and "what" rhyme with each other, but they don't rhyme with anything else in the stanza. So we can go ahead and write this rhyme scheme as ABABABCC.
- Wouldn't you know it, a stanza of eight lines of iambic pentameter in this exact rhyme scheme is a particular form. We call this ottava rima. Check out "Form and Meter" for more.