In the last stanza of his late poem “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” W.B. Yeats writes:
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.
“Circus Animals” is a poem about artistic themes and inspiration. Yeats laments the lack of fresh material to inspire him, and attributes his dry spell to old age: “Winter and summer till old age began My circus animals were all on show.” His circus animals (“these masterful images”) were all the noble themes that thronged the poetry of his youth—the great heroes of Irish mythology like Oisin & Chuchulain, archetypes like the Fool and the Blind Man, characters from his plays like the Countess Cathleen—and the title of the poem implies that these themes have now forsaken him.
Near the end of his life, the poet, in search of a theme but feeling abandoned by his earlier images and themes, speculates on their origins. At the start of his career Yeats was not wont do this; throughout the poem are guilty hints that he appropriated and used his images without regard for their “feelings” or how they came about. But Yeats has become a realist, and the final stanza acknowledges that all his poetic finery first saw the light of day as harvest of the rubbish heap, the gleanings collected and deposited in the “foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.”
This is a priceless insight. At the start of his poem Yeats despaired of finding anything to inspire him; by its end, retrospection has led him to turn over and re-examine the old images of his poetry. He has looked for the first time at the underbellies of his circus animals, and has gotten to know their inwardness. He sees that the ugliness of life can give birth to the exalted matter of poetry. He has realized that he can no longer do the work of his poetry by heroically scaling ladders, now that all ladders are broken; instead, he will do his work by lying in down in—accepting—the foundation of all ladders, the “foul” heart. And by writing this poem on the nature of inspiration, he has written himself out of a blocked and dry time as a creative artist.
“The Circus Animals’ Desertion” states more explicitly than any other modern poem the nature of art as collage. Yeats, feeling more like thief than poet, here concedes that he has assembled the substance of his life’s writing from spoils he has collected in the rag-bag slung across his back, that he has glorified and aggrandized the images, polishing them well beyond their luster perhaps, but smoothing out their joints and hiding the seams, making of them the raw material of beauty.
And after all, is that not what other artists do? Do they not tinker, jury-rig, and splice the elements of a composition together? When Hieronymus Bosch painted The Garden of Earthly Delights, he could not likely find a single woman so beautiful and a single man so ugly that he could use their features for Eve and a demon by simply transcribing them without alteration. Every figure in the painting is doubtless a composite: the nose of one, the ears of another, the eyes and mouth of a third all combine to make a complete person. And even if it were not so—if Bosch were able to find the perfect model for each human being in the picture—the Garden would still be a collage, by virtue of bringing together such disparate individuals.
Understood this way, all art is collage. All artists are collagists. And all of them excavate the rubbish heap of life’s experiences for likely items to use later, filling their rag-bags with treasure-to-be, browsing the rag-and-bone shops of their hearts, and finding them not so foul at root.
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