The Lake Isle of Innisfree by W.B.Yeats
The poem is about a going back to something simpler, something purer, something more spiritually uplifting, something freeing, liberating. Three simple quatrains containing as much as I think it is possible to put into twelve simple lines of verse without losing the ease of expression. It’s like sitting by the side of the lake and seeing. At first just the water, the trees, the skies and eventually an entire landscape in all its fascinating detail. It’s a nature poem first and foremost but in this each element contains its opposite. The longing for simplicity betrays social complexity; the yearning for the natural reveals a man-made present and the hope for spiritual renewal unearths the worms of unease.Here we have in miniature Ireland’s response to Thereau’s Walden. The desire to leave behind the urban sprawl (pavements grey), industrialisation and technological phenomenon of the modern world and to live in a hut. To provide for oneself through nature’s bounty supplemented by careful husbandry. The call of the pure is similar to that felt by the English Romantic poets a century before. That truth and beauty can be discovered through a return to nature. But what truth? What beauty?
In the first verse is the gratification of physical needs. That a simple wattle shelter to rest in and a garden with bean rows and bee hives is enough. It’s a rural idyl, a dream shared by many of us. In the second verse is the need for the spiritual renewal of the natural world. Like Walden Pond, the Lake Isle exists. It’s an uninhabited island in Lough Gill, County Sligo where Yeats spent many hours as a child. This return to the innocence of childhood in search of truth and spiritual renewal again links it with the likes of Wordsworth and Coleridge. It find echoes through the twentieth century in the likes of Holden Caulfield (Catcher in the Rye) in his field dream stopping children from falling from the purity of innocence into the corruption that lies beyond puberty, in Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock where half a million are going “to camp out on the land and set (their) souls free”Whether Yeats would find peace and truth among vast crowds tuning in and dropping out is a moot point; but there is a political link. Here is a country which for centuries has been under the oppressive yoke of Great Britain finding an appetite to resist, to assert its independence and its sense of its own identity. Ireland had been looked down upon by its supposed colonial masters. The west of Ireland was a land of poverty, famine and despair. And yet it is to here that the poet wishes to escape to find fulfilment and to discover who he really is. The poet asserts that far from its portrayal, Sligo and the West is a place from which to build a nation. The poem is political. The first three words are the language of revolution and Yeats wants nothing less. “I will arise”. Here is what we are fighting for and where I go I’d like you to follow. Yeats is creating a new vision of Ireland wrought out of its rich tradition of story and song.
The yearning for freedom and the sense of liberation in the poem still draws. I’ve always been a revolutionary in spirit; though often a lazy one. Yeats’ verses drew me to Ireland by the old ways; I went on a bicycle and I went slowly. Not for me the modern day trappings of the velocipede: the stretch knickers and go faster logos and head-down-arse-up carbon fibre sleekness. My bicycle was a quarter century old and creaked and groaned. It spent as long resting on its side as I sketched on some grassy hummock or fumbled with words in a notebook or took the occasional photograph. I only had a cheap camera and feared the memory card would fill up if I took too many (it never crossed my mind that I could buy a new card). I was drawn to Sligo and when I got there I slowed down still further. I had a copy of Selected poems in my bag and I found a different vantage point to read each one. Seldom has poetry gained more meaning for the hungry student than in those Sligo days.
The area is dominated by the most astonishing mountain I think I’ve seen. Benbulbin might not be the highest but it matches most for history and legend and its shadow is the chosen resting place for the poet.
Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
I pedalled slowly, stopping often and feeding on the views, the skies, the sounds, the mountains, the sea, Yeats’ grave. Lough Gill was busy with coach loads from Surrey when I got there. It didn’t matter much. It’s only one lake among hundreds out in the west. I went in search of an understanding and think I got something of it. I found a quiet place to brew tea and recite a poem I’d learnt by heart years earlier but had never learnt so well.
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 honeybee,
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 gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
Afterthought: The simplicity of the poem’s music is deceptive. Many people have set the words to music but I’m yet to hear a version that catches the true rhythms of the piece.