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The Circus Animal’s Desertion is a poem by William Butler Yeats, published in 1939 as part of his final poetry collection, The Winding Stair and Other Poems. It is often seen as Yeats’s reflection on the creative process and his legacy as a poet. It represents a turning away from the ethereal, mythic, and symbol-laden poetry of his earlier years and a turning toward a more direct confrontation with reality as he experienced it in his later life. The poem is noted for its candid introspection and deeply personal nature, serving as a fitting coda to Yeats’s long and varied career in poetry.


The poem begins with the speaker lamenting his inability to find inspiration for his poetry. He compares himself to a circus performer who, having exhausted all his tricks, is left with nothing but the memory of past glories. He mentions characters and settings from his mythology and earlier poems, such as the gyres, the beast of The Second Coming, and figures from his plays like Cuchulain and Fergus. Yeats expresses a sense of disillusionment with these grand symbols and mythologies that he once found so inspiring. He refers to these fancier creations as the circus animals that have deserted him, implying that he can no longer summon the same grandeur or passion in his work as he could in his youth.

The speaker acknowledges that his poetry has been shaped by his experiences and the people he has known. He mentions various figures from his past, including lovers, friends, and enemies, who have influenced his writing in different ways. However, he realises that these influences are fleeting and transient, like the shifting scenes of a circus. He then turns inward, contemplating the foul rag and bone shop of the heart where his journey for poetic themes must now begin. This phrase suggests that he must delve into the more sordid, mundane aspects of human experience – the raw emotions and basic traits of humanity – to find authentic poetic inspiration.

In the final stanza, the speaker reflects on the passage of time and the inevitability of change. He acknowledges that his poetic inspiration has waned in his old age, leaving him feeling lost and adrift. He must now grapple with a more stripped-down conception of truth and poetry, drawing from the less romantic, more ordinary parts of his consciousness. He longs to return to the innocence and wonder of his youth, when the world was filled with endless possibilities and his imagination knew no bounds.

Exploration of Artistic Inspiration

The Circus Animal’s Desertion is often seen as a critique of Yeats’s artistic journey and the artificial constructs in his earlier works. It’s a kind of self-evaluation and a poet’s existential inquiry into the sources of inspiration and the authenticity of the creative process. Yeats portrays the speaker as a poet who, in his old age, struggles to find the same level of creative inspiration that fueled his earlier works. Through the metaphor of the circus performer and his abandoned animals, Yeats explores the idea of the artist’s search for new sources of inspiration as old ones fade away.

Symbolism and Imagery

The poem is rich in symbolism and imagery, with the circus serving as a metaphor for the world of artistic creation. The image of the circus animals abandoned by their performer symbolises the poet’s sense of loss and disillusionment as his creative powers wane. Yeats employs vivid and evocative language to create an atmosphere and mood, drawing readers into the speaker’s world of introspection and contemplation.

Autobiographical Elements

The Circus Animal’s Desertion is often interpreted as reflecting Yeats’s struggles with artistic inspiration in his later years. The poet, who was in his seventies when he wrote the poem, grapples with the challenges of ageing and feeling disconnected from his creative muse. The poem can be seen as a deeply personal meditation on Yeats’s artistic legacy and the legacy of his poetic career.

Artistic Evolution

The poem marks Yeats’s shift from the grandiose and the mythological to the personal and the authentic. This represents an evolution in his thinking —an acknowledgement that the true essence of human experience is not always found in lofty ideals but in the rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

Metafictional Elements

The poem contains metafictional elements as the speaker reflects on the various images and symbols that have inspired his poetry over the years. Through this self-reflexive approach, Yeats invites readers to consider the relationship between art and life and how the poet’s experiences and imagination shape his work.

Universal Themes

Despite its autobiographical elements, The Circus Animal’s Desertion addresses universal themes of ageing, disillusionment, and the search for meaning. The poem resonates with readers of all ages and backgrounds, as it speaks to the universal human experience of grappling with the passage of time and the challenges of finding purpose and inspiration in a constantly changing world.

The Structure of Reflection

Critics appreciate the poem’s structure, moving from reflecting on past themes and symbols to a more profound existential contemplation. The movement is mirrored in the progression of the poem’s stanzas, leading from external imagery to internal consciousness.

Linguistic Mastery

As always, Yeats’s command of language is evident in the poem. The use of phrases like the foul rag and bone shop of the heart showcases his ability to blend beauty and coarseness in language, creating a powerful and haunting effect.

The Circus Animal’s Desertion is not only a reflection on the later stages of Yeats’s career but also serves as a meditation on the creative act itself, making it a subject of enduring critical study and appreciation. Through its exploration of artistic inspiration, ageing, and the passage of time, the poem offers a profound meditation on the nature of creativity and the enduring power of the artist’s imagination.