Poetry Friday: Our farewell to W. B. Yeats

William Butler Yeats, one of the giants of early 20th Century poetry, has been one of Poetry Friday’s constant companions since I started doing poetry from the year of the Pulitzer-winning novel I’m reading, back in 1918 (the year of the novel, not when I started this blog, obviously).  I’ve shared a wide range of his poetry—sweet words spoken to his daughter, mystical verse on the Virgin Mary, musings on old age and death.  Last week I shared a poem by W. H. Auden about Yeats’s passing in 1939, and so this week I feel it’s a nice coda to add the last poem published by Yeats, posthumously appearing in a collection of his poetry released in 1939.  It is his look back over his career and an attempt to give some image of what it means to be a poet: he titles it “The Circus Animals’ Desertion“:

I

I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
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.

II

What can I but enumerate old themes,
First that 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;
But what cared I that set him on to ride,
I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride.

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.
I thought my dear must her own soul destroy
So did fanaticism and hate enslave it,
And this brought forth a dream and soon enough
This dream itself had all my thought and love.

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

III

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.

I won’t pretend to understand every word of what Yeats is after here, but it’s clear enough at times to make me feel a kinship with him.  Part I is a release of poetry’s gift, it seems—an admission that the old fire is dying out, and that the words do not come as they used to.  Everyone who writes feels this way at times, wrestling with writer’s block, but there’s an added weariness to the lines here that makes me think Yeats is breathing out for the last time, and accepting that his best work is behind him now.  The use of circus images is curious and intriguing—is he making light of his work, self-deprecatingly, as though it was all gloss and silliness?  Or is he describing how it felt to ride that wave when the poem came, the riot of emotion and passion that erupts inside when a really wonderful image or idea strikes, and suddenly the pen cannot move fast enough to keep pace with the mind?  The circus animals (given their presence in the poem’s title) are clearly a part of the origins of his art, but are they the poems themselves, or only the heralds of poetry?  I don’t think Part I is precise enough to make me certain.

Part II is the most elusive for me—Yeats is reminiscing about poems of his that clearly meant the most to him, but to be honest none of them are the works of his that speak most to me.  I find his language about them very evocative, though.  He is sympathetic to his poor figures—Oisin who, at Yeats’s behest, was forced through all sorts of peril because Yeats was “starved for the bosom of his faery bride” (what a great line!).  Cathleen who, due to Yeats’s turmoil, destroys her soul.  Cuchulain at war with the “ungovernable sea”.  All of them mythical figures, which I think is important—these aren’t the creatures of his own invention (like Crazy Jane, for example), but folk he inherited from the distant past of his people.  It feels a little like Yeats as a medium, calling the spirits back out to dance.  There’s something like ambivalence here about his motives, for me—I feel like Yeats is a little shy about having dragged them into his art.  But maybe I’m over-examining his phrases.

The strength in this poem, in my opinion, arrives in Part III—Yeats’s last words to us, and some of his best.  A lauded poet, respected by his contemporaries and emulated by the generation who followed, he accepts that his work was “masterful”, but he turns our attention to the fallow ground from which these seeds grew—the darkness and the earthy smells that surround a thing coming to life.  The pageantry of the circus animals, the wonder of these mythic beings and their adventures, all begins with a climb out of the muck in which we all begin.  I don’t know exactly how to allegorize all these images—who to cast in the role of the raving slut, or what significance to assign to the old cans.  I know only that I, and all of us, have been there in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart—picking over the cast-offs of memories past and moments that never lingered as long as we wished.  I know a little about the exhilaration of climbing the ladder up and out, but much more about the long wait in the shadows when the ladder is gone.  I am struck by the power of Yeats’s bluntness about where beauty comes from, and what we endure to get it.  If we had been left nothing else by him, this alone would be a thought worth saving.

And what does it mean that he lies down there, where the ladders start?  Is he waiting for one more climb?  Or is he admitting defeat and taking up citizenship there in the slums of his psyche?  I am of both minds.  And I hope that, if you come to any musings about the poem yourself, that you’ll share them below.  May the circus animals find you, wherever you are.

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4 comments on “Poetry Friday: Our farewell to W. B. Yeats

  1. Amy says:

    “Now that my ladder’s gone,
    I must lie down where all the ladders start”

    I found these lines so moving. They put me in mind of the idea that the end of life is very much like the beginning. We enter this phase of existence helpless, and possessing nothing; and that is how we face the next phase, whatever we believe it may be.

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      I really like the way you read those lines, Amy—I was toying with how to connect them with Yeats’s acceptance of his death, but I hadn’t picked up on the birth/rebirth angle, and I think it definitely adds to my connection to the poem. Thanks for sharing!

  2. bonniegayle says:

    He’s very hard on himself. It makes me sad to see. No one should look back on their life’s work, and minimize it as he does. To say he only enumerated old themes, cared only for the play, and not what it was about, calls himself all sorts of names, and so on. It’s sad to me that he’s gotten to the end of his career, and this is what he thinks of it.

    I’m also thinking about his use of the heart in both the first and last stanzas, as metaphor…but metaphor for what?

  3. […] Poetry Friday: Our farewell to W. B. Yeats (followingpulitzer.wordpress.com) […]

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