The speaker describes searching in vain for a poetic theme: he says that he had tried to find one for “six weeks or so,” but had been unable to do so. He thinks that perhaps, now that he is “but a broken man,” he will have to be satisfied with writing about his heart, although for his entire life (“Winter and summer till old age began”) he had played with elaborate, showy poetic themes that paraded like “circus animals”: “Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot, / Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.”
What can he do, he wonders, but list his old themes in the absence of a new one? He remembers writing of a “sea-rider” named Oisin, who traveled through “three enchanted islands”; but the speaker says that as he wrote about Oisin, he was secretly “starved for the bosom of his fairy bride.” He remembers writing a play called “The Countess Cathleen,” about a “pity-crazed” woman who gave her soul away; but the speaker says that the dream inspired by a woman who was forced to destroy her own soul “had all my thought and love.” He remembers writing of the hero Cuchulain’s battle with the sea while the Fool and the Blind Man “stole the bread”; but even then, he was enchanted by the dream—the idea of “Character isolated by a deed / To engross the present and dominate memory.” He says that he loved the “players and painted stage,” and not the things they symbolized.
The speaker says that those images were masterful because they were complete. He says that they grew in pure mind, and asks out of what they began. He answers his own question: they issued from “Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut / Who keeps the till.” Now that his “ladder” is gone, the speaker says, he must lie down “where all the ladders start / In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
The five stanzas of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” are written in the same form as the stanzas of “Sailing to Byzantium”: in lines in iambic pentameter, rhymed ABABABCC. The poem is subdivided into three numerical sections (I, II, and III), with the three middle stanzas falling in section II; section I contains only the first stanza, and section III contains only the last.
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” one of the last poems Yeats completed before his death in 1939, finds him looking back over his poetic career, reinterpreting his past work and his motivations for writing it, and searching for the truths that remain when all the vanities and illusions of life have been stripped away by the decay of age and the corruptions of time. “At last,” the speaker writes, he is “but a broken man,” and his poetic faculties have abandoned him. Sickened by what he perceives to be the gaudiness and illusion of his past work, he thinks of his former poetic creations as “circus animals” that have been “on show” his entire life, and which have now deserted him.
In the three stanzas of the second section, Yeats looks back at three specific works from earlier in his life, and questions their honesty and his commitment to them. In the first stanza of section II, he looks back at The Wanderings of Oisin, a long narrative poem from 1889 in which the hero Oisin follows his beloved Niamh across a trio of magical islands; Yeats claims that his real motive for writing the poem was not a noble one—that he was simply, pathetically “starved” for “the bosom of his fairy bride.” In the second stanza of the section, he looks at a play entitled The Countess Cathleen, which was first performed (with Maude Gonne in the starring role) in 1899; in the play, the countess sells her soul to the devil to feed her starving subjects; Yeats says that his real motive for writing the play was the “dream” inspired by his belief that his “dear” “must her own soul destroy.” In the third stanza, Yeats looks back at another play, this one entitled On Bailee’s Strand, and featuring a scene in which the mythological Irish hero Cuchulain, having unknowingly killed his son in battle, commits suicide by attempting to battle the ocean; at the same time, two characters called the Fool and the Blind Man rob the ovens. Yeats says that in writing this play he was preoccupied with the theater and with the idea that character could be “isolated” by a single deed— but not with the actual symbols of the play itself.