I think what is fascinating here, and very worth a discussion, is not Perl's
conventional reading of Yeats (with a somewhat quirky and not very
convincing twist on Yeats as simply egaged in evasion--Arthur Symons's
key book partly DEFINED symbolism by Yeats, and symbolists were all
pretty aware of reality which is why they disliked it) but his rather amazing
"therefore." One poem will hardly tell us what "modernism" is and one poet
hardly will either. But whether the contradictions so explicit in Yeats and
no doubt key to modernism were or could be resolved in any synthesis is a
major question about both modernism and Eliot.
Date sent: Wed, 8 Aug 2001 10:10:10 EDT
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Subject: A bit off topic, but better than nothing
I've been listening to a six-hour taped lecture series on Modernism
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
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
At the risk of being too off-Eliot-topic, a part of the tapes that I
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
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,
-- 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
First, Yeats says, he brought us sea-rider Oisin and a series of
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,
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'
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
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 ennobling them.
If the Symbolist poet, on the one hand, evaded the rag-and-bone shop,
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
"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