Sunday Poetry: The Lake Isle of Innisfree, by William Butler Yeats

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

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.

- by William Butler Yeats
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Of course, on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day, I must feature an Irish poet. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” was in Yeats’ second book of poems, and it was his first major success. Over a hundred years ago, long before email and air travel and telephones, this poem’s message of yearning for a quieter, more grounded world struck a chord in readers, and its appeal has only grown as the world has sped up.

Structurally, the poem abandons iambic pentameter for a looser rhythm of 6 accents per line for the first three lines of each stanza, followed by a four-stress line. To me, the “irregular steadiness” of it matches the sound of the sea. The ABAB rhyme scheme reinforces the rhythm without becoming sing-songy. The form fits the poem.

To save a trip to the dictionary, “wattles” were woven sticks that helped form strong walls when covered with clay or mud. “Linnets” are long-tailed finches. The poem is as understandable in 2009 Kansas City as it was in 1893 Dublin. It achieves greatness with words as simple as a clay wall – “peace comes dropping slow” and “deep heart’s core” are thrilling passages, but not because of heightened language.

There are more obvious poems to choose on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day. I love “Easter, 1916″, and it is a more obviously Irish poem. There are dozens of other Irish poets I could feature, having already indulged my love of Yeats once (The Second Coming), like Seamus Heaney or Thomas Kinsella. Perhaps I’ve brought up a small nugget from the deep gold vein of Irish poetry, but perhaps if you hear William Butler Yeats read and comment on his work, you will understand.

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