I've been listening to a six-hour taped lecture series on Modernism that
may be of interest to the list. It's by Dr. Jeffery Perl and it's called
"Literary Modernism -- The Struggle for Modern History". The tapes are
offered by "The Teaching Company". The can be purchased by phone:
1-800-TEACH12, or at www.teachco.com, course #PA292, $39.95.
Dr. Perl has a lot of interesting things to say about Eliot and Modernism,
and I'm trying to find the time to paraphrase and/or transcribe some of his
arguments for list discussion. Until then, I'd like to post a shorter piece
from the tapes to see if there's interest in discussing larger sections.
At the risk of being too off-Eliot-topic, a part of the tapes that I found
very interesting was a discussion of a poem Yeats wrote shortly before he
died called "The Circus Animals' Desertion". I'm ashamed to say I had never
heard of the poem, which I have since learned from my academic friends is a
standard in a Yeats course.
I feel Dr. Perl's analysis makes an important point about the poet's
personal life directly inspiring his/her work. I know we have had many
on-list discussions as to the extent that Eliot's personal life influenced
his poetry. Perhaps this Yeats poem can be considered as part of the
discussion on the use of personal material in how poets choose topics and
I'm posting the poem first, followed by an abridged transcription of Dr.
Perl's analysis. For those reading the poem for the first time, it may help
to know that in the poem Yeats refers to characters he wrote about throughout
his career, including Oisin, Cathleen, the Fool, the Blind man, and Cuchulain.
-- Steve --
THE CIRCUS ANIMALS' DESERTION
--William Butler 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.
Dr. Jeffery Perl:
Here is the old theme: The old theme for Yeats is the relation of
experience to what Mallarmé, the major theorist of the symbolist movement
called "poésie pure", 'pure poetry' -- the relation of pure poetry to the
artist's experience. But this time, Yeats calls up his whole menagerie of
poetic images, Oisin, Cathleen, the Fool, the Blind man, Cuchulain, all his
major characters, only in order to confess, as no symbolist poet should, that
"poésie pure", 'pure poetry' arises from the mess that is the poet's life.
That's where "poésie pure" comes from, in other words, it's 'impure poetry'.
First, Yeats says, he brought us sea-rider Oisin and a series of "enchanted
islands, allegorical dreams,", which now he labels, "vain gaiety, vain
battle, vain repose". Why 'vain'?: because 'false'. Yeats dreamed up this
Celtic twilight faeryland to assuage what he now calls his 'embittered
heart'. Embittered by a woman named Maude Gonne, the faery bride, as he says,
of this and several earlier poems, the nationalist fanatic who would not
marry Yeats, and became the model for his Countess Cathleen.
The next stanza of "The Circus Animal's Desertion" begins, "And then a
counter-truth". This is phase 2 of Yeats' career. "And then a counter-truth".
Yeats is proposing not only that there is a second phase, but that it should
be viewed as the antithesis, the 'counter-truth' of the first. Thesis,
antithesis, and he's heading in the direction of synthesis. He's proposing
the second phase of his career is the antithesis, the counter-truth to the
first phase. And a later stanza, remember, begins with the words, "And
when". "And when the Fool and Blind Man stole the bread" -- that's a third
phase in his career. And we are led to expect it's going to a synthesis of
the other two phases.
But a synthesis we do not get. What we get instead, and it's shocking, is
a comprehensive confession. Yeats is admitting that his creations in EACH
phase of his career emerged out of his private life, out of his private
trauma, and then, in an anti-social way, replaced his private life. The scary
line is: "Players and painted stage took all my love,/ And not those things
that they were emblems of." He was in love with the Countess Cathleen, not
Maude Gonne, he's now admitting.
From that perspective, the very truths and counter-truths of Yeats' career,
and let me add, by implication, Romanticism itself, Symbolism itself, Realism
itself, Modernism itself, these are all indistinct movements. These
movements, and the opposition among them, shared a single function, and that
function, for Yeats, was evasion. The function of each of these movements was
evasion. Yeats' masterful images, as he calls them, of whatever phase of his
career, began in 'mounds of refuse', he says now, in 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." What's
interesting about that catalog is that it could have come out of any realist
novel. Those are all images from Realist fiction. It could have come out of
anything by Zola. Because everyday items, low-life items, that's what those
novels consist of. And yet in this poem those items are NOT emblems of what
T.S. Eliot called "the cheery automatism of the modern world", as they would
have been in a Zola novel. There's nothing cheerful about them. No one is
If the Symbolist poet, on the one hand, evaded the rag-and-bone shop, the
everyday world, by inventing non-existent realms of fantasy, then the Realist
playwright or novelist on the other hand, avoided the rag-and-bone world by
ennobling it. Everyone is avoiding the rag-and-bone world.
In "The Circus Animals' Desertion" the rag-and-bone shop is called 'foul':
"the foul the rag-and-bone shop of the heart". Neither Symbolist at the end
of his career nor realist at the end of his career, Yeats came to examine the
foulness of his own heart, his unconscionable escape from his loved ones into
art. And finding no further skylights (that's the image at the end), finding
no further skylights from which to escape the recognition, no more ladders,
he lay down there to die.
Therefore, the word 'synthesis' does not apply to Modernism, it seems to
me. 'Synthesis' is not the preferred Modernist solution to unwanted
opposition and distinctions. Yeats never surrendered his ambivalence. Yeats
never surrendered the belief that the Cosmos is a mess of human relations,
mostly bad, and of material objects, mostly, to use his word, 'disheveled'.
On the other hand, he felt from first to last that the Cosmos is a realm of
transcendent beauty and perfection. He felt both things. A synthesis of
those irreconcilable convictions would have made Yeats into a Plato. . . a
philosophical idealist, in other words, who holds that there are two realms:
the one material and human, the other spiritual and beyond humanity. . . In
his poem "The Tower", he writes, "Death and life were not till man made up
the whole, made lock, stock, and barrel out of his bitter soul, / I, sun and
moon and star, all". In other words, both the transcendent realm and the
rag-and-bone world are inventions of humanity. "Man made up the whole . . .
I, sun and moon and star, all." No exceptions. Therefore, to the degree that
either of those realms exists, the two are indistinguishable, and finally,
therefore, they are irreconcilable.