Yeats addresses his fear of having become an aged man who has not been able to reach his best aspirations, among which are not only his poetry, but the gaining of the love of Maud. Throughout “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” he is not only forlorn at the hollowness of some of his visions, but of his lack of success with the woman he dreamed of. Throughout the poem he makes explicit references to her, stating, “I, starved for the bosom of his faery bride” and telling the reader that she had, “pity-crazed, had given her soul away.” He beings to see her not only as one of his greatest failures, but as one of his most potent imaginations or an overly-fanciful dream. He states, “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, a broken can.” He recognizes that he has lived his life according to these imaginations and this makes his old age even more frightening and horrible because he realizes too late that it more fancy than reality. Just as in many of his poems, he recognizes his age by using an image that makes the reader think of something hollow or not functional.
It is important to note, especially in terms of its meaning to this poem analysis of “The Circus Animal’s Desertion” by William Butler Yeats, the speaker calls himself a “broken man” and this is due to his recognition of his advanced age more than any physical condition. The images that flooded his youth, the many heroes and icons are now “stilted boys” with “burnished chariot” and a hopeless conglomeration of “the Lord knows what.” In his advanced age he has realized that all that he has imagined is not real or substantial, that he has aged but not been meaningful. For Yeats, this might have been the reason why aging itself was so frightening—because he could not imagine dying without meaning. This same theme is expressed in the earlier poem, “Sailing to Byzantium” as he first recognizes himself as a hollow or broken man but then attempts to reconcile this with his lust for knowledge and wisdom in the ancient land of Byzantium.
Unlike in “Sailing to Byzantium,” however, the speaker in this poem does not attempt to be a soul clapping his hands to prove his worthiness or willingness to live—he is instead a truly broken man or tattered clothing on a stick. This image resurfaces when he describes himself, saying, “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.” Even though he is discussing the worn condition of his heart (as opposed to his physical body) the image of the tattered scarecrow emerges, this time in a different form—the soul of an old man who has realized some essential truth.
For Yeats, aging was hardly a dignified process but was rather one of sadness, opportunity for regret, and of retrospection. Despite this rather grim assessment of life and the preparations for one’s death, his observations are not all fraught with anxiety, estrangement, or horror. While the reader gets the impression that Yeats wishes he could travel back in time and correct his mistakes or live again in youth, there are few, if any, comments made in any of his poetry about such a wish. Even though he may feel unfulfilled, he is content to wonder solemnly about becoming the “scarecrow” of old age and eventual death, but rarely, if ever, does he digress into long tirades about what he might have done differently. While his love of Maud Goone may not have been fulfilled and although he may have second thoughts about the poetry of his youth, he remains realistic in his acceptance of infirmity. Although this is hardly something one can reflect upon with great beauty, it is something that can be discussed with integrity, despite the tinge of sadness. Yeats may never have felt completely satisfied, but his vast collection of poetry speaks volumes about all of our fears about aging, of sinking into oblivion, or of not having achieved that one rare blessing—love.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Summary and Analysis of the Poem “Departmental” by Robert Frost • Poem Analysis of “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford • Romanticism in Poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge • An Analysis of Common Themes in Victorian Poetry • Analysis of the Poem “Daddy” by Sylvia Plath • Poetry Analysis of “Dolce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen • Poem Analysis of “Do Not Go Gently into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas • Transcendentalism and the Poetry of Walt Whitman