Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart

This blog is an excerpt from ‘The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless’.

Illustration by Rebecca Stewart

“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…


… 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.”


So begins and ends WB Yeats’ poem The Circus Animal’s Desertion. Yeats has never been one of my favourite poets. His willingness to use obscure allusions and imagery irritates me rather than beguiles me. But I love this poem, especially the first and last stanzas. Since I first met this poem as a teenager and right up till my middle-aged present, I have come back to these words so many times and in so many contexts.

When I managed a neighbourhood house about ten years ago, I printed out this poem and pinned it to my wall as inspiration while I wrote the house’s business plan. This might seem odd, thinking about poetry while writing such a dry and pragmatic official document. But the imagery in the last line of the poem, of seeking for inspiration in the “foul rag and bone shop of the heart”, grounded me in my purpose as I struggled to articulate the activity of a charity that was non-viable outside of government funding, and in such a way that a bean-counter could accept it and one of our volunteer board members could recognise our house in it. The people who needed this organisation were dealing with disadvantage, sometimes with multiple causes. I had to remind myself that, even as I evoked the heartless language of business and bureaucracy, I was telling the story of a little community of bruised and vulnerable people, valiantly attending our groups, classes, and programs in the hope of making sense and hope in their lives. That, as I sat at my computer tapping out budgets and procedures and strategies, I was climbing down the ladder to where my own sense of compassion for these people lay inside me.

At other times in my life, I have turned to this poem when dealing with failure, surveying the smoking ruins of some project that had gone bust and wondering how I was going to face the next day.

What do you do when the potential of something on which you had pinned such hopes falls apart? When the dreams that you had for it are smashed? How do you begin again? From where do you begin again, if the slate on which your inspirations and plans have been written is wiped clean?

“This is going to be my year,” I remember a friend and I telling each other, back when we were young and actually believed that we could control our fate. But, as the years rolled on, and I tallied up my share of disastrous jobs and blighted projects I found myself, again and again, recognising that I was climbing back down that ladder to find what was left of me, and what I could start to build on again.

So, Yeats’ poem, for me, has been about inspiration and then about recovering from failure. I think there is a third angle, subtle and indelibly linked with the first two. To put it simply, this poem could be read as being about identity. In the context of this note, in which I am speaking to people rebuilding a career or vocational pathway, I could say that it is about branding.

Yeats was an esoteric and an aesthete, living a life devoted to advancing rarefied principals in the service of poetry, Irish nationalism, and an unconsummated love for his friend Maud. He would spit on me for saying that about branding if he were standing right here beside me right now as I write this.

Well, he’s not here.

Bullshit branding, of which we see so much, is an exercise in whitewashing (or greenwashing) the most venal excesses of the corporate world. This is not what I think Yeats’ poem is about. Really good branding is about articulating values in such a way that the more authentic the values are to the branded entity, the stronger the brand will be. Strip away the visual and textual detritus of a brand, and you should be able to see the beating heart of what compels an entity to go about its business.

I wrote in the note before this that I equate developing a brand with dramaturgy, whereby you assemble the different components of theatre – text, staging, art direction, music, performance – in the service of a finished production. Driving this process, the thing that anchors it is a unifying theme and set of values.

The Circus Animals’ Desertion is about finding those values and themes. Moreover, finding them when you feel that everything in your life that has previously been of meaning has been stripped away. Yeats wrote the poem as an old man and as an acknowledged and successful poet. In it, he mentions the flashy and high-flown imagery he used in his poetry in earlier life. Having garnered critical success and recognition, the same imagery, and the themes it conveyed, seem empty to him at the time of writing this poem.

“Players and painted stage took all my love

And not those things they were emblems of.”

How do you start again when you feel devastated, when the things that used to be compelling are gone or feel empty? How do you take a past life, even past successes, that no longer seem to have currency and find the inspiration or ideas on which you can rebuild? There is nothing left but that ladder, nothing left but to lay down at the foot of it. But it is the place where all ladders start, and the stuff you find down there is something – perhaps the something that most matters – with which you can work.

This blog is an excerpt from The next day: a bundle of notes about grief, loss of vocation, and having to carry on regardless.

You can buy The next day here.

These notes are something I have been working on during lockdown. They are a response to the plight of friends and ex-colleagues who have lost work during this tumultuous year. This is my gift to them and anyone else who has found themselves jobless.

This project is unfunded. If you would like to make a small donation to it then you can do so here. If you are unable to afford to do this, then please know that my best wishes go out to you.

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