Exercise Four: Modeling W.B. Yeats

This exercise is about modeling theme and tone; though the model poem is an Italian form called the ottava rima (thought to be developed by Boccaccio), we are concerned only with tone and theme. We are going to use W.B. Yeats poem "The Circus Animals' Desertion" as a model for how we can find theme and tone in a poem. Take a look at the first stanza and be sure to pay attention to the imagery being invoked as well as the word choice:
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.
The first two lines, with the repetition of "sought" and the conclusion that it is all "in vain," gives the reader a feeling of hopelessness and, perhaps, despair. The narrator of the poem then goes on to call himself a "broken man" and we begin to see the theme take shape - someone is losing hope. But what can you make of the final lines about the circus? How does a circus fit into this theme? How does the tone of the language color the circus imagery?

Step One
Using just this first stanza, try to follow Yeats lead: create a persona (narrator) for your poem with a tone of despair. Now, choose some happy imagery (not a circus, but similar - maybe a zoo, a theme park,  a party) and try to use descriptors that help to carry the idea of despair. Okay, let's move on to the next stanza:
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 fairy bride.
Yeats seems to switch his theme from the circus to a Celtic myth. However, he brings over just enough from the first stanza with the repetition of the word "vain" for the reader to still feel connected to the overarching theme of despair.

Step Two
Time to couple your first image with a new image, anything that comes to mind. Here it doesn't matter much which image you choose because you will use some word or phrase from your first stanza to connect to the last stanza. What does matter is that you keep your tone consistent throughout. Section two of this poem has two remaining stanzas which provide more background to Yeats specific theme which is his reliance on old themes he has used for older poems and plays. For this model, however, stick to three stanzas total, the two you've completed and the one you will do for Step Three.
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 mu ladder's gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.
Again, Yeats changes the setting. Now we are in a place of commerce. Perhaps it is still the circus, but the imagery suggests that the venue has been vacated, nothing desirable is left. Yeats was talking about his own writing with this final image. He was sharing a frustration with himself and also a resignation to "lie down" in that final scene. But poems are not self serving; they must engage the reader. Most poetry instructors will warn you to stay away from moralizing at the end of a poem, and I think they are mostly right. It is far better to get a point across naturally. Yeats, on the other hand, does exactly that here - the "rag and bone shop of the heart" is a final message to the reader, but it is ambiguous.

Step Three
Moralize your poem. Come up with a final image or phrase you want to leave the reader with and build your last stanza around that. Take a look at your two stanzas that are already completed and decide if you want to hint at the obvious theme or if you want to use those stanzas to suggest something completely different, maybe hope or perseverance or even anger. That is the great thing about a final "moral" - you can completely change the meaning of the entire poem... you just have to pull it off without making your reader feel duped or cheated.