Written in 1888, ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is one of Yeats’s earlier, more lyrical poems. “Significantly enough, when Yeats spoke of what was ‘Irish’ in his early poetry he did not refer to the ballads at all. … Yeats distinguished his ‘Irish’ poems from his more literary work, but in naming ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and not the ballads he is tacitly defining an Irish poem as one that is not narrative but lyrical.” (Meir, 15) ‘The Lake Isle …’, like all lyrical poems is brief, yet intensely personal. It is sharply contrasted to the early ballads in that the true ‘Irishness’ of the poem is established upon the authenticity of the things and actions described. In following a passion for all things Irish, Yeats sought to produce “a national literature that made Ireland beautiful in memory” and in turn make ‘Irishness’ culturally acceptable. (Pietrzak, 14) Despite this unpopular opinion, Yeats held great hopes for Irish literature and promoted Ireland for it’s artistic inspiration. He describes in his ‘Collected Works’: “In the garden of the worlds imagination there are seven great fountains. And The Irish were one of them.” (3) This notion of a fountain as a source of inspiration serves as the catalyst for ‘The Lake Isle …’. Yeats describes: “… when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little trickle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window … and began to remember lake water.” (Mallins, 174) In his early twenties, Yeats had left his beloved childhood home in Ireland for the metropolis of London. Yeats’s imagination transported him back to the West of Ireland where he had spent the majority of his summers as a young boy. A simple sound of trickling water triggered an aural memory of the lake water “lapping” on the shore in Innisfree. The green and watery landscape of Lough Gill in Co. Sligo remained embedded in his memory throughout his lifetime. As Yi-Fu Tuan states:
“The city or land is viewed as mother, and it nourishes; place is an archive of fond memories and splendid achievements that inspire the present; place is permanent and hence reassuring to man, who sees frailty in himself and change and flux everywhere.” (154)
And for Yeats, Innisfree was an “archive of fond memories” to which he could return when he found himself struggling with the dull, demanding city life. In the opening line – “I will arise and go now, go to Innisfree” – the verb “will” suggests that Yeats is speaking about the future, which highlights an inner wish to abandon the hustle and bustle of London for the harmony of a rural idyll. There is also a biblical undertone in the opening line, as it is very similar to the words of The Prodigal Son in the Bible. Dwight Purdy highlights this link: “Luke 15.19-19: ‘I will arise and go to my father’.” (51) It is this particular line that introduces Lough Gill as a peaceful, almost holy place. Like the Prodigal Son who decided to return to his childhood home, Yeats too wishes to leave his chaotic life behind.
Yeats then goes on to describe the life he will lead on the island. As discussed in his biography, Yeats found inspiration for a simple life in isolation from his reading of ‘Walden’ by the American writer Henry Thoreau. Yeats states: “I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill ….” (Mallins, 174) As Thoreau wrote:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary.” (Thoreau, 143)
Thoreau championed living at one with nature, and Yeats admired his ability to remove himself from the chaos and evil dispensations of civilisation. Yeats expresses a similar inclination of leaving the mechanical modern society of London behind and becoming completely self-sufficient as he writes of having “nine bean rows” and living “alone in the bee-loud glade.” Not only will he build a cabin but it will be made of all natural products – “clay and wattle”. It is as if Yeats is dismissing all things of the modern world as he produces nature image after nature image and nature sound after nature sound. The only mention of modernity comes in the form of a very dark, depressing image in comparison to Yeats’s vibrant vision of Innisfree – “While I stand on the roadway, or on pavements grey.” However, unlike the Prodigal Son and Thoreau, Yeats will never physically reach this place of serenity and simplicity, despite his best mental efforts. He is longing for a past that unfortunately, he will never return to.
In describing his desire to live alone in Innisfree, Yeats’s vision of a romantic idyll begins to dominate. When considering his early works such as ‘The Lake Isle …’, Yeats could have been viewed as one of the most important romantic poets. During the late 1800’s, Yeats was heavily influenced by Romantic writers such as Shelley. As Merritt argues in his article: “In his earlier years Yeats saw Shelley as a mystic whose creative system offered hope for all man kind.” (175) In the same way Shelley’s work offered hope, Yeats felt that his work could give hope to the Irish people and to Ireland itself, in making Ireland beautiful again. ‘The Lake Isle …’ displays certain qualities of Shelley’s work and almost all the features of a Romantic piece – such as his use of imagination and emotion, his love for nature and also the use of themes such as escapism and nostalgia. As Adel Dalsimer notes Edmund Wilson’s thoughts on Yeats’s use of the imagination: “He writes in Axel’s Castle:
‘The world of imagination is shown us in Yeats’s early poetry as something infinitely delightful, infinitely seductive, as something to which one becomes delirious and drunken – and as something which is somehow incompatible with, and fatal to, the good life of that actual world which is so full of weeping and from which it is so sweet to withdraw’.” (2016)
Yeats’s imagination really springs to life in the second stanza as he guides us through each stage of the day. In the morning, there is a veil-like mist over the lake accompanied by the sound of a cricket – “Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.” At noon, the purple heather soaks up the sun. In the evening, the sound of the linnet’s wings fills the air and at night the stars glow: “midnights all a glimmer”. What is rather striking is that Yeats associates the dark time of midnight with light and glimmering and the bright time of noon (“purple glow”). It is almost as if midnight and noon are adopting qualities associated with one another. Yeats has become so caught up with the notion of the peaceful tranquillity of Innisfree, that he has disregarded the future tense he had used in the first stanza, and adopts the present tense instead. By conjuring up such beautiful imagery of Innisfree, it could be argued that Yeats is in a “trance”-like state, as if he is in Innisfree at that particular moment. (Collins, 246) It is as though time has stood still as the rhythm of the poem allows for a constant feeling of nostalgic pleasure and that “peace” is accessible from morning through night – “for always night and day”. Christopher Collins acknowledges that “William Butler Yeats described the working relationship between rhythm and imagery as follows:
‘The purpose of rhythm, it has always seemed to me, is to prolong the moment of contemplation, … the moment of creation, … to keep us in that state of perhaps real trance, in which the mind liberated from the pressure of the will is enfolded in symbols.” (246)
In an attempt to maintain “liberation” from the colourless grey pavements of London, Yeats carefully uses a combination of rhythm and imagery in the third stanza to highlight the tranquillity and peace of Innisfree. As Spangler argues: “starting with his earliest poetry … Yeats’s verse made use of strong and carefully placed beats that demanded oral performance for their full realisation.” (142) For example, in the line – “I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore”, Yeats uses broad vowels to slow the pace of the poem. This in turn allows the powerful descriptions of the beauty of Innisfree to resonate in the mind and “prolong the moment of creation”. (Collins, 246) Spangler also argued that:
“Rhythm was something tangible and physical that the listener needed to feel and could not simply imagine through silent reading. Spoken language was crucial. Yeats believed that the power of poetry was at it’s greatest when it had immediate presence and when the words came tripping down the tongue as ‘a vivid speech’.” (144)
It is practically impossible to say “I hear the lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore” speedily without becoming somewhat tongue-tied. The sounds tumble down the tongue and this, combined with natural imagery cause the descriptions to reside in the memory.
Like imagination, emotion was also crucial in Yeats’s poetry and indeed much of the poetry of the late 19th Century. As Moscovici argues: “Romanticism connected the sentiment of passionate love to artistic expression perhaps more closely than any other literary movement by describing both as the undistorted expression of intense and genuine emotion.” (Moscovici, 51) And this was the case for Yeats’s earlier, romantic works. Through his intense and real desire (or passionate love in a way) to live in Innisfree, Yeats manages to portray a true sense of his own emotion. “As in ‘Innisfree’, that language achieves concentration in simplicity through the specific and concrete. The poem does not appeal for emotional response in any way; it does not need to, because the feeling is in what is stated.” (Meir, 18) Yeats does not have to tell the reader how to feel, as the simple language and specific descriptions do all the work. Meir supports this notion in stating:
“The world Yeats wishes to escape to is particularised in things to have, to see, and to hear; what he is escaping from is given in one line: ‘While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey’, which succinctly points the need for the simple, solitary life the poem describes, and justifies the biblical ‘I will arise and go…’ with its suggestion that this act is nothing less than an act of truth to one’s own nature.” (16)
Where Yeats disregards the modern landscape of London almost entirely, the descriptions of Innisfree are clear and rich in emotion. For example, he wishes to have “cabin … of clay and wattles made;” and listen to the peaceful, low hums of nature such as the bees, the crickets and the linnet’s wings. Yeats justifies his desire to live in harmony with nature in writing of a call he hears “in the deep heart’s core.” Yeats simplifies the images portrayed to highlight the simplicity of Innisfree itself:
“Yeats … preferred a warmer animism which helped to give his theory an astonishing beauty by avoiding abstract jargon in favour of metaphor and personification: All sounds, all colours, all forms, either because of their preordained energies or because of long association, evoke indefinable and yet precise emotions ….” (Parkin, 10/11)
What is rather interesting is the fact that Yeats chose to imagine the sound of the wings of the linnet and not it’s beautiful song – “And evening full of the linnet’s wings”. With the idea of “precise emotions” in mind, it could be argued that Yeats chose the sound of the wings deliberately. Combined, the image and the sound Yeats has portrayed presents Innisfree as a place so peaceful, serene that even the faint sound of the minuscule bird can be heard.
Although there are no direct references to anything political at any point in the poem, there is still an underlying political theme hidden beneath the vivid descriptions of the Lake of Innisfree. As Holdeman argues in his book ‘The Cambridge Introduction to W.B. Yeats’, “… because the landscape it calls to mind is distinctly Irish … it also softly sustains a culturally nationalist political challenge to prevailing British stereotypes about Ireland’s primitive hinterlands, descriptively endowing an exemplar of the Irish west with much the same spirit of noble, soul-restoring innocence ….” (21) During the time of writing, Ireland was part of the British Empire and for the most part, was associated with poverty and backwardness. In much of the press and writing of the day the Irish were described no better than uncivilised savages. “… collectively British conceptions of Irish identity were always a combination of ethnicity, religion, and class. In British eyes, the eternal Paddy was forever a Celt, a Catholic, and a peasant.” (Willem, 5) There is a certain politics in associating the Irish west with characteristics like natural beauty, truth and spiritual purity. The west of Ireland especially, which had been ravaged by the Great Famine in the middle of the nineteenth century, seemed an unlikely source of such poetic beauty and tranquillity.
It was also during the 1890’s that Yeats became infatuated with Maud Gonne, who was very much politically driven and “whom Yeats pursued so vainly and whose victim he became.” (Arkins, 95) Spurred on by his obsession with Maud Gonne, Yeats developed a liking for the nationalist politics that became increasingly popular in Ireland at the turn of the century. Where several factors contributed to a change in Yeats’s work at this time, (such as being involved in nationalist political causes and an interest in the occult), it is worth taking into account his fragmented relationship with Maud. Yeats’s transition from romanticism to modernism can be seen as the romantic grandeur of his earlier poems like ‘The Lake Isle…’ transforms into something a lot darker and more cynical. The images of serenity, calmness and peace of mind developed into images of chaos, disorder and war.