Our next poem is by D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930): "When I Went to the Circus." For a short biography of this extraordinary novelist, critic, poet, and painter, click here.
Extra special thanks to Jett who suggested the poem, and when I couldn't find it, typed the whole thing out and sent it to me. Thanks, Jett!
WHEN I WENT TO THE CIRCUS
When I went to the circus that had pitched on the waste lot
It was full of uneasy people
Frightened of the bare earth and the temporary canvas
And the smell of horses and other beasts
Instead of merely the smell of man.
Monkeys rode rather grey and wizened
On curly piebald ponies
And the children uttered a little cry--
And dogs jumped through hoops and turned somersaults
And then geese scuttled in in a little flock
And round the ring they went to the sound of the whip
Then doubled, and back, with a funny up-flutter of wings—
And the children suddenly shouted out.
Then came the hush again, like a hush of fear.
The tight-rope lady, pink and blonde and nude-looking, with a few gold spangles
Footed cautiously out on the rope, turned prettily spun round
Bowed, and lifted her foot in her hand, smiled, swung her parasol
To another balance, tripped round, poised, and slowly sank
Her handsome thighs down, down, till she slept her splendid body on the rope.
When she rose, titing her parasol, and smiled at the cautious people
they cheered, but nervously.
The trapeze man, slim and beautiful and like a fish in the air
Swung great curves through the upper space, and came down like a star
--And the people applauded, with hollow, frightened applause.
The elephants, huge and grey, loomed their curved bulk through the dusk
And sat up, taking strange postures, showing the pink soles of their feet
And curling their precious live trunks like ammonites
And moving always with a soft slow precision
As when a great ship moves to anchor.
The people watched and wondered, and seemed to resent the mystery
That lies in the beasts.
Horses, gay horses, swirling round and plaiting
In a long line, their heads laid over each other’s necks;
They were happy, they enjoyed it;
All the creatures seemed to enjoy the game
In the circus, with their circus people.
But the audience, compelled to wonder
Compelled to admire the bright rhythms of moving bodies
Compelled to see the delicate skill of flickering human bodies
Flesh flamey and a little heroic, even in a tumbling clown,
They were not really happy.
There was no gushing response, as there is at the film.
There is so much to do with this poem. Mostly, I am struck by the response of the human beings to the parading, performing animals and humans. They begin “frightened” and “uneasy,” just from the smells of animals and canvas. Children “shout out” when they see the monkeys. There is a “nervous” cheer for the “nude-looking” “tight-rope” lady,” her almost-naked appearance being to primitive or animal-like for the comfort of the audience. The same for the “trapeze man,” who receives “hollow, frightened applause.”
It is striking how the audience is just as uncomfortable with the human acts as they are with the animal acts. It is as if, in the three rings of this circus, animals and humans are on a level playing field, all of them serving the same purpose, which is to parade their trained talents in front of a crowd. The audience senses this “equality” between man and animal, and are forced to consider that they, as human beings, may be just as trained—to applaud in the proper places, and to obey their compulsion to watch the disturbing show.
The stanza with the elephants is the one I find most poignant. The audience watches the elephants “taking strange postures” “with a soft slow precision,” disturbed by the elephant’s talent and ability. The people resent “the mystery / That lies within the beasts.” Why? I believe it goes back to the leveling of animals and people—that elephants are capable of the kind of great beauty and intelligence that only people should be capable of. To be confronted with the idea that they may not be the most significant creatures on the earth, but only one of many—this is what the people resent.
But, in the end, they are still “compelled to wonder… admire… and see” the show, despite how it disturbs them. They don’t responds with enthusiasm however, not the way they would “at the film.” Why? Because a film is not real. You can always leave a movie thinking, “well, that’s just a story, that’s just a movie.” But what these people witnessed was real life confronting them with what is potentially their own insignificance.
Thoughts? Please share!