A summary of a classic Yeats poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
The poetry of Yeats often touches upon the idea of chucking it all away and heading off somewhere. In ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, one of his most popular poems, the ageing poet takes himself off to the Turkish city in search of spiritual fulfilment and retraining. But one of Yeats’s other best-known poems about moving on to another place is ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, a poem which first appeared in Yeats’s 1893 collection The Rose, when Yeats was still a young man in his late twenties. What follows is the poem, along with some notes towards an analysis of its meaning the language.
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Innishfree (‘Isle of Heather’) is located near the southern shore of Lough Gill, in County Sligo, Ireland.
Why does Yeats want to take off there? The sentiment is one we can probably all relate to: wanting to leave behind the world and the life we inhabit, and ‘get back to nature’ and to a simpler existence. It seems more spiritually fulfilling, more tranquil, more wholesome. This is what ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is about.
In summary, Yeats describes his intention to go to Innisfree and build a small cabin of clay and wattles, to grow beans and keep bees for honey, and to live on his own there. The world is quiet and peaceful at Innisfree, the sound of the linnet birds the only thing puncturing the tranquil silence of the evening.
The poet feels as though the lake isle of Innisfree is calling to him: he imagines that he hears the waters of the lake lapping around the shore, as if he has some spiritual kinship with the place. Inhabiting the town or city has he does, a place marked by pavements and roads and all the bustle and loudness of urban life that they suggest, he nevertheless feels the earth calling to him.
One of the most intriguing features of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, and one that needs to be mentioned in this analysis, is the tautological language Yeats employs to convey his meaning. Even the title contains a tautology, since ‘Innis(h)free’ means ‘Isle of Heather’, and so ‘the lake isle of Innisfree’ means ‘the lake isle of the isle of heather’.
To arise and go are not the same thing, but they converge: and to say ‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree’ is to announce that one is going to go twice.
Does the poet – or his speaker, leastways – really intend to go? Or is the poem merely an articulation of his desire to do so, when he knows (like most of us who talk about ‘getting away from it all’) that he probably never will summon the courage to leave the city behind and head to the seclusion of the lake isle.
Similarly, the very last line of the poem, ‘I feel it in the deep heart’s core’, ends on another tautology, since ‘core’ stems from the Latin for ‘heart’. We may have to do a double-take: not ‘earth’s core’, as we might have expected, but that word’s anagram, ‘heart’. Does ‘heart’ refer, though, to the heart of the Earth – ‘core’ summoning up the Earth’s core – or does it refer to the poet’s heart? Is this voice calling him from within himself, or is nature calling to him?
There is, perhaps, no straightforward answer, nor should there be. ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one of W. B. Yeats’s first great poems, and is worth reading and discussing for that reason alone. If you enjoyed the poem, you can discover more of Yeats’s work with our analysis of his classic 1919 poem ‘The Second Coming’.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
The best edition of Yeats’s essential poetry (and some of his prose and dramatic works) is The Major Works including poems, plays, and critical prose (Oxford World’s Classics). It also has a very helpful introduction and copious notes.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: The Lake Isle of Innisfree near Killerry, Sligo, Ireland, by Kenneth Allen via geograph.ie.