Monday, April 19, 2010

Yeats and Materialism

As I was reading the biographical information regarding Yeats, he seems to be soundly against materialism, but "The Circus Animal's Desertion," one of his later poems, seems to question both his success as an author as well as his stance against materialism. The metaphor of circus animals as literary works lends a highly commercial feel to Yeats' career. Circus animals, or freaks, are spectacles that people pay money to see; they are entertainment. If Yeats' literature is a circus animal, is it not just another material entertainment? And how does this relate to his anti-materialistic views? Perhaps because this is a reflection on his career he realizes the contradiction of his work and his views? The relationship becomes even more complex when he analyzes the merit of his work, finding that the true beauty of each poem is in the dream it inspires, which is abstract and, thus, immaterial. Yet Yeats claims that he has ignored the foundation of his work, the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart," which could be the material, or tangible, aspects of his work (ln. 40). It seems to me that this poem is full of contradictions: his anti-materialist attitude is contradicted by the notion of circus animals, which is then contradicted by the claim that Yeats is selling dreams. Maybe this reflects Yeats' own conflict, or perhaps there is a relationship I cannot see. Does anyone else have thoughts?


  1. THIS IS A LONG SHOT, but it's an attempt. As I read it, he doesn't wnat to be materialistic, but he keeps getting caught up in the way he idealizes the world. And it seems to me that the way he idealizes the world is through objects - certain THINGS he sees as beautiful or representing some sort of beauty. So even in his efforts not to be materialistic, he still gets caught up in it all.

    Well kind of - I also got that everything we consider noble is just invented by the minds of people we consider inferior...and that everything he idealizes was just made up by a scullery maid to entertain...and that's why he says is the "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." Meaning the heart is SUPPOSED to be something great, but its only made up of loves that are created in the dirtiest streets of London.

  2. I agree that that poem seems pretty difficult to untangle, but I really liked it. Regardless of the specific attitude toward materialism, I felt like Yeats was commenting on the nature of his poetry. I agree with Liz that this poem has a strong sense of disillusionment, but I had a slightly different impression of what the author intended to say about the rag and bone shop. I think Yeats sounds tired of the artificiality of flashy poetry that attempts to mask the true origins of the message. I interpreted the rag and bone shop as the nitty-gritty reality of human existence, the raw emotion and experience of life. In my mind, the kettles, bottles, cans, etc. made the scene real and tangible. Yeats says that the other things were illusions and images, circus animals and painted players. At the end of his career, the poet is returning to the source of these dreams and aspirations, to the heart of human existence. This reality is one that is much less glamorous but much more authentic.

    I don't think the author is trying to suggest that the heart is supposed to be any different than what it is.

  3. Wow - your interpretation sounds dead on. Nice job.