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The Circus Animals' Desertion

The Circus Animals' Desertion


by William Butler Yeats

Section III Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-2

Those masterful images because complete

Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?

  • Now that our speaker has sifted through all of the characters that once dominated his mind, and enumerated all the themes he has tackled in his writing life, what is he left with?
  • He's left questioning the mode of his own creation. How did he get to the point of being able to dream up such fantastic stuff? Sure, it may not have been utterly truthful, but it did hold a lot of emotional power. Why did it work the way it did?
  • When you think about it, that's a pretty tricky question to pose. After all, you speak in clear sentences right now. Maybe you even use some of those super-fancy SAT words on occasion. But how did you learn to talk? When did you first figure out that sounds meant something?
  • If you can explain that clearly, you're one step ahead of us… and ahead of our speaker. Endings are easy to figure out; beginnings are much, much more complex.

Lines 3-6

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. […]

  • Our speaker is game to pose some possibilities. As our speaker figures it, the mythical creations of his poems may have lived in the celestial heavens or stormed through some mythic sea, but their birthplace was somewhere else entirely.
  • Somewhere not all that pleasant, as a matter of fact – a place of "old" things, used things, broken and disgusting and dirty things. Cuchulain may have been a hero, but he came into being on a "mound of refuse."
  • Notice how viscerally descriptive Yeats's language becomes at this point? His imagery hammers home the fact that his most glorious dreams started somewhere quite ugly. Ugly… and old. (In fact, he's so sure that things are old that he repeats the world six times, using a little thing we like to call anaphora.)
  • All of a sudden, the images also become much more precise then they've been throughout the poem thus far. Wherever this is, it's a Place. And it's not a pretty one. We can imagine a deserted alley, or even a garbage dump.
  • And what about that "raving slut"? That's some pretty strong language right there. Our speaker seems to resent this figure, because she "keeps the till."
  • But why do you think he is so bent on emphasizing the fact that all his glorious myths began in a pile of garbage? And that they're old?
  • Technically speaking, the myths of Oisin and Cuchulain are old. Really old, in fact. And the stories have been told a bunch of times before.
  • Perhaps our speaker is disgusted with the fact that his writer's block is so strong, he can only recycle old themes and old stories – ones that other writers have already tossed aside.

Lines 6-8

[…] 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.

  • "Foul rag and bone shop of the heart"? That sounds downright horrifying.
  • But as it turns out, rag and bone shops were, basically, junk shops. Back in the 19th century, men used to drive carts around town, picking up other people's waste and used goods as they went. Old clothing (rags) went into papermaking. Bones went into glue manufacturing. Everything was recycled and re-used.
  • Don't get us wrong – we're all about conservation here at Shmoop. We like reducing our carbon footprint as much as the next guy. But rag and bone shops weren't all that pleasant. They're not exactly as neat and well organized as our current system of blue bins out by the curb.
  • Rag and bone men, the dudes who went around collecting refuse, weren't the cream of society, either. They were dirty, smelly, poor men who spent their lives picking through dead animal bones. Luckily, rag and bone shops went out of style with the 19th century.
  • Which brings us to the following question: why would Yeats, writing in the 20th century, describe the heart as a "foul rag and bone shop"?
  • Well, perhaps it's because most people's emotions aren't all pure gold and fairy dust. Most people have a big jumble of feelings and desires. Some of them are messy, and some are downright unpleasant. When our speaker describes his heart as a big collection of used bits and pieces, he's trying his best to convey the feelings of a man shattered by the depth and variety of his own emotions.
  • When Yeats declares that the birthplace of poetry is in the "foul rag and bone shop of the heart," he's making a Very Big Move. Play. See, poetry had (heck, it still has) the aura of very important literary work. It was about Emotions. And Romance. And Myth.
  • It wasn't ever a space for people to talk about the petty, tawdry, dirty facts of everyday life. But that's precisely what Yeats wants to change – even if he has to reverse the direction of his entire poetic career in order to do it.
  • Why does he want to change that? Maybe it has something to do with those "ladders."
  • His ladder is gone, right? And he doesn't seem to be talking about the one he stuck in his garage. Nope, this ladder seems strictly metaphorical. But what exactly is it a metaphor for?
  • Well, if the ladder starts in the "foul rag and bone shop of the heart," and ends in Poetry-with-a-capital-P, maybe that ladder is a metaphor for, or even a symbol of poetic achievement.
  • Now that he has writer's block, all his poetic achievement – his ladder – has fallen by the wayside. He'll have to start fresh at the bottom of the ladder, where all poems begin – in the heart.
  • Not a bad plan, Yeats. Not a bad plan at all.

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