This being the year of William Butler Yeats’ 150th birth, one of the great poets of this era, I thought I’d take a look at one of this last poems, written in the last year of his life, when he knew he was dying.
From his youth he was what nowadays we refer to as a spiritual seeker. He regularly read and discussed The Upanishads, the ancient Hindu books of wisdom. I have seen a photograph of him with Jiddu Krishnamurti. His lifelong interest in spiritual matters is well documented.
Any interpretation I have seen of this poem describes it as Yeats lamenting the loss of his creative streak and being depressed by this. I have to wonder if what he is saying in it isn’t something else – a description of his of spiritual awakening – the loss of his sense of self. This is a condition well documented in spiritual literature, and Yeats was undoubtedly familiar with this idea or possibility for a human.
The Circus Animals’ Desertion
by WB 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 fairy 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.
“My circus animals were all on show,” By “circus animals” I take it to mean the contents of the mind. He enumerates the contents of his mind under various classes – mythology, politics, ideals, romance, and so on.
“It was the dream itself enchanted me” Being lost in the dream of life is the root problem of all human suffering. We have become identified with the dream, thereby having lost awareness with the source (“but out of what began?) of our dreaming and our essential selves. This is the core message of The Upanishads.
As a result of this loss of connection to our inner self we mistake the contents of the mind and the mind itself for something real whereas they are “emblems” arising from a deeper source.
“And not those things that they were emblems of”. We have taken these ideas, beliefs etc as
“Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start”
When the mind is seen through, the root of all beliefs, mythologies and so on are seen as having arisen from our conditioning by the world, and enchantment with it. The ego collapses.
Buddha’s comment on this conditions is:“Seeking but not finding the house builder, I traveled through the round of countless births. Oh, painful is birth ever and again! House builder you have now been seen. You shall not build the house again. Your rafters have been broken down; your ridge-pole is demolished too. My mind has now attained the unformed nibbana and reached the end of every kind of craving.” (Dh. 153-54)
Perhaps this or something like it is what Yeats was saying in this poem and not lamenting the loss of his creative faculty, but seeing it for what it is.
He is now facing is death, and this is well known to be the vital step in the final collapse of the ego.
I wonder if there are others who might see the same interpretation in it.