The Circus Animals’ Desertion
by W. B. Yeats


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.








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.








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.



Oisin — pronounced “Uh-Sheen” (approximately equal stress on both syllables); Oisin (also called Ossian) is a legendary Celtic warrior-poet about whom Yeats wrote one of his Celtic Revival poems.  In the poem, Oisin tells St. Patrick how he was taken to faery-land by Niamh (pronounced “nee-AHV”), an immortal faery who had fallen in love with his poetry. They spend a happy 100 years together there. Oisin grows sad for lack of purpose, so Niamh takes him to another island, where they find a woman held prisoner by a demon. Oisin battles the demon repeatedly for a century, finally winning her freedom. Oisin and Niamh then travel to a third island, where a race of giants who no longer loved the world slept, and Oisin and Niamh sleep and dream togther for another century. Then Oisin, who has not aged in all this time, expresses a desire to go back to Ireland; Niamh allows him to go back, but warns him that if he touches the ground, he will never see her again. When he arrives in Ireland, he finds all of his people dead, his own pagan faith replaced by Christianity, and the people weak and unhappy. When he sees two men struggling with a sack of sand, he helps them by reaching down and flinging it five yards with one hand, but in the process the strap that holds his saddle on his horse snaps, he falls to the ground, and he instantly becomes three hundred years older. He then tells Patrick he will wander the country, seeking the places his people used to live, until he dies.
‘The Countess Cathleen’ — The name of one of Yeats’s Noh-style (meaning they were inspired by classical Japanese Noh drama) plays and its heroine.  Set during the famine, the play tells how agents of the devil come to Ireland offering to buy the starving peasants’ souls for gold. Cathleen — who was played on stage by Maud Gonne — sells her possessions to buy food for her people and then is willing to sell her soul (over the objections of a poet) to ensure their survival.  At the end of the play she dies, and angels come down from heaven to save her because her sacrifice was meant to save her people. The play was extremely controversial and condemned by the Catholic church, which argued that no number of mortal lives was worth the sacrifice of an immortal soul, that no Irish woman would ever make such a choice, and that God would not intervene to save one who had.  Still, the play was a success, and is still performed.
Cuchulain — pronounced “kuh-HOO-lin”; another legendary Celtic hero, leader of the Knights of the Red Branch, also called The Hound of Ulster. Yeats wrote of him in the 1892 poem “The Death of Cuchulain,” and re-wrote the poem in 1925 “Cuchulain’s Fight with the Sea.”  He also told Cuchulain’s story in the play On Baile’s Strand, in which the Fool and the Blind Man are also characters.
rag and bone shop — a junk shop, quite common in England and Ireland at that time, where you could buy and sell rags and other used items.