Sunday, September 26, 2010

Yeats' "foul rag and bone shop of the heart"

Here is the poem, "The Circus Animals' Desertion" (1939) which that image concludes:

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 animal were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

What can I do 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, of 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.

This is one of the last poems that Yeats wrote. Looking back over a brilliant  career, as perhaps the last  romantic poet, and one of the greatest, he is inclined to be dismissive of what now strikes him as mere theatricality: 

Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animal were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.

As if he had somehow gotten it all wrong and confused dreams, images, metaphors with reality:

Players and painted stage took all my love
And not those things that they were emblems of.

What's left?  Maybe now, "being but a broken man, I must be satisfied with my heart," which sounds promising: isn't that what all poetry, or at least all romantic poetry, is about? But what does it mean to be "satisfied" with one's heart? The heart is an ambiguous organ in some religions and is at least as likely to lead you astray, or tell you what you want to hear but shouldn't, as to put you back in touch with reality. Still, Yeats' meaning here is plain enough: the heart is where a poem starts. What's stunning is Yeats' way of characterizing that place as a junk shop, and not just any junk shop, but a place jammed with the debris of used-up lives, down at the bottom of the economic food-chain, where the only customers are the poorest of the poor and the proprietor—or at least the creature who runs the place—is nothing but a "raving slut." Who but the lowest of the low would want to run—or even enter— such a place?

No one starts out with such a heart; Yeats is talking about something that happens to us all, including poets, as we age: our hearts, like our houses, fill up with junk: worn out ideas, feelings, thoughts, theories, griefs and grievances. And it gets harder and harder to turn this stuff into poetry—to imagine how that might be done, or the price one might have to pay "that raving slut who keeps the till": the heart doesn't give up its secrets for nothing. Its currency is pain, the pain of remembering what one might prefer to forget but can't, the words one wishes one had never said or should have, the failures that can never be undone; remembered pain.

It takes imagination to turn such pain into poetry. That's the trick that Yeats pulls off here, near—very near—the end of his life. I like what William Pritchard has to say about these lines in his wonderful book, Lives of The Modern Poets:

"The final lines from Yeats's very late poem, 'The Circus Animals Desertion' are often quoted as evidence that here, at last, the poet sees through his own enchantment with dreams and images, and after a long career of pursuing them now turns in a radically new direction—inwards, to a more humanly gritty response to the world. But has there ever been a more sensational promise to lie down? We all have hearts, presumably, but only Yeats can call up a 'foul rag-and-bone shop' of one at the very instant when he claims to be bidding farewell to "masterful images." It was a fitting way to end his career of not lying down."


  1. I just used that same 'alms' quote to name a wordpress blog (nothing on it yet). I'll have to find another name.

  2. I love this poem and was thinking about it recently when I came across your post. I enjoyed your insightful comments. Like any great work, "Circus Animals" can be read many ways. To me the foul rag and bone shop of the heart also always seemed like Yeats' way of describing what's left when everything else is gone or no longer has meaning: fame, youth, beauty, belief in one's own creativity, uniqueness, fabulousness. When you are simply thrown back on the most basic elements of being human, of being mortal. I am not describing this very well, which I guess is the point. A great metaphor is not subject to facile summary.

  3. Piers:
    I'm a writer, former teacher, author of The Shakespeare Novels--texts of his great plays in prose format so students could read them alongside the originals and better appreciate them--for which I was pilloried by academics in my contention, to quote you: "The world doesn't need another book ABOUT Shakespeare",
    what Solzhenitsyn calls "secondary literature."

    I'm friends with a few of my former students, clever, original, creative and sensitive people
    who these days are suffering depression and its related anxieties, and exhausted at having to put on acceptable personae for the dumbed-down world at large. One young woman, perhaps the most brilliant I ever taught in 26 years,
    undergoing an anguished personal crisis as she works on yet another credential, a PhD in psychology which will please her parents yet which she hates working on.
    I sent her some Yeats quotations to help cheer her up and perhaps start seeing her life from more of an offstage point of view. Along with "body bruised to pleasure soul", I suggested that it was time for her to "lie down where all ladders start/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." I sent her the link to your blog so she could read the poem
    and your commentary.

    I remembered the poem from my final year of university once I read it over. Thanks for reminding me (your blog was first in Google
    under Foul rag and bone shop of the heart, by the way). I read your bio with excitement and no small amount of admiration for your shift away from "academia" in spite of impressive credentials. You've given me hope and encouragement to do something of the same thing myself. I know my student will be inspired to see some light, and that The Circus Animals' Desertion will become the basis
    of further communication, learning and healing as she strives to recover from body (and mind) bruises and find her Soul.
    Paul Illidge