WHERE THROBBED THE THRUSH: THE FORGOTTEN HENRY MARTYN HOYT

HENRY MARTYN HOYT (Self portrait)

HENRY MARTYN HOYT
(Self portrait at age 23)

Most people — even most teachers of literature — have never heard of the artist and poet Henry Martyn Hoyt (May 8, 1887- August 25, 1920).  And yet one of his poems remains a favorite of mine, not only for its vivid imagery, but also for depicting so clearly the hopeless attitude of mind that — if one does not have a corrective change of perspective — can lead to disaster.

It deals with disillusionment about life — the realization that the world of childhood and youth — a world lived much in the imagination and shining expectations — is not the real world around us.  It comes to different people at different times, whether early or later in life.  It can be precipitated by any number of things.

We have seen this realization — shattering for some people — in previous discussions.  We saw it in Dylan Thomas’ lines:

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.

We saw it also in the plea of Matthew Arnold:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Life suddenly becomes very difficult and traumatic for those going through this realization; whenever it occurs, it is essentially a transition crisis from immature thinking to adult thought.  For some people, the body matures but the mind reminds in a childish state, blocking out the realities of life.  Such people are the Peter Pans of the world, who never want to grow up.  This clinging to mental immaturity — this reluctance to deal with the hard facts of life — is one reason why people attach themselves so firmly to dogmatic religious beliefs, and then when the evidence against those beliefs becomes too overwhelming, the individual’s world seems to collapse.

It is expressed when reality breaks into fantasy in the lines of T. S. Eliot:

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.

And some people, unfortunately, do wake only to drown.  The difficult time of transition is just too much for them.  If they were to wait, to learn from the hard knocks of life, they might survive and be better for the experience.  But for some, giving up the “Land of Dreams” is so traumatic a crisis that they end their lives prematurely, without ever having really achieved all that maturation means.  They cannot survive the loss of their pleasant illusions about life — the world of childhood and youth — at least that is how they feel while in the grip of the trauma of that dark period.

Henry Martyn Hoyt left us one of the most poetic expressions of this critical and dangerous time of transition.  It is titled

THE LAND OF DREAMS

Ah, give us back our dear dead Land of Dreams!
The far, faint, misty hills, the tangled maze
Of brake and thicket; down green woodland ways
The hush of summer, and on amber streams
Bright leaves afloat, amid the foam that creams
Round crannied boulder, where the shallows blaze.
Then life ran joyous through glad, golden days
And silver nights beneath the moon’s pale beams.

Now all is lost.  There glooms a dark morass
Where throbbed the thrush across the dappled lawn.
Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass,
Nor dance of light-limbed satyr, nymph and faun,
Adrift among the whispering meadow-grass,
On wind-swept uplands, yearning toward the dawn.

One can discern in this poem an individual whose bright, youthful view of the world has been shattered, replaced by a day-to-day reality far from what had been hoped.  There is so little published material available on Hoyt’s life that one cannot easily trace the course of this disillusionment, but we know that it ended in his taking his own life at age 33.

This is the beginning of an article that appeared in The Sun and the New York Herald, 26 August, 1920:

H.M. Hoyt, Artist, Ends Life With Gas
No Cause Assigned for His Act.

Henry Martyn Hoyt, a portrait painter, committed suicide last night in his studio at 37 West Tenth street, by inhaling gas. William Rose Bennet, who roomed with Mr. Hoyt, returned home at 11:15 o’clock and found the artist’s body in the bathroom with a gas tube in his mouth and attached to that gas jet. Mr. Hoyt was only partly dressed.
Mr. Bennet notified the police and Patrolman Schroeder of the Mercer street station summoned a physician from St. Vincent’s Hospital, but Mr. Hoyt was dead when the physician arrived at the studio. Mr. Bennet told the police he knew of no reason why his friend should have committed suicide.

The “William Rose Bennet” mentioned in the article was actually William Rose Benét, the older brother of the writer and Pulitzer Prize winner (1929) Stephen Vincent Benét.  William eventually married (her third marriage) the poet and literary editor of Vanity Fair,  the beautiful Elinor Wylie, born Elinor Hoyt — a sister of the poet and artist Henry Martyn Hoyt.  She was Benét’s second wife of four.  William Rose Benét was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

“The Land of Dreams” was published in Dry Points: Studies in Black and White, by Henry Martyn Hoyt and William Rose Benét, in 1921.  Oddly enough, I first encountered the poem in my teens, finding it in the old volume The Home Book of Modern Verse (1925) in my school library.  For many years — due to an apparent typographical error in that edition — I knew the fourth line from the end as:

Oh, never more shall fiery pageants pass…

But when I read the original printing of Dry Points, I found it as

Oh, never more shall fairy pageants pass…

I must admit that I still rather prefer the line as it is with the typographical error “fiery,” because it presents such a strong, vivid and effective image.

Henry’s friend William Rose Benét wrote of him in Dry Points:

All it meant to him — this life!  It meant so much.  It tortured him so deeply and yet he wrung from it so much and such exquisite pleasure.  And the times when he was most happy were of such utter simplicity — friends, his family, summer evenings, talk to the accompaniment of some handiwork, snatches of song, Italian restaurant suppers, lamplight, the reading of poetry, firelight, mildly hilarious pilgrimages through moonlit streets, — friends, friends, friends ….

Hoyt came from an old, very prominent, and wealthy family.  He had connections to then well-known people.  He was well-educated, talented and intelligent, and yet all of that was not enough in his time of crisis.

If you would like to read Dry Points, you will find it online here:
https://ia801404.us.archive.org/3/items/drypointsstudies00hoyt/drypointsstudies00hoyt.pdf

And for those who want to know a little more of the life of Henry Martyn Hoyt, the Obituary Record of Graduates of Yale College tells us this:

Henry Martyn Hoyt was prepared at the Haverford Grammar School and the Friends’ School, Washington D. C., entering Yale when he was only sixteen…

He spent the summer after graduation abroad, and then attended the Harvard Architectural School for a year.  The next summer he did some painting and took a trip through the West, and the following year was a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts under William M. Chase.  After another visit to Europe he entered the Museum of Fine Arts School in Boston, studied under Edmund C. Tarbell, and completed the course there.  He had since continued his painting independently and had developed a gift for etching.  He wrote a number of articles in connection with his work, some poems, and a one-act play… Dry Points, a volume of verse, by Mr. Hoyt, with a sketch of his life by William Rose Benét, ’07 S., was published in the fall of 1921.

In the summer of 1915 Mr. Hoyt attended the first Plattsburg Training Camp.  He enlisted on May 3, 1917, and during the next two months attended the Ground School at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He went overseas in August, 1917, and was sent to the flying field at Etampes, later being transferred to Avord.  In Septemper and October, 1917, he was flying at Foggia, Italy, but was then taken ill with Saloniki fever and sent to a hospital in Paris.  In February, 1918, he was transferred to the Photographic Section of the Air Service, and the following May was commissioned a First Lieutenant in the Air Service and assigned to the Photographic Section Headquarters at Tours.  He returned to the United States in April, 1919, and received his discharge at Washington on the twenty-fifth of that month.

He took his own life in his studio in New York on August 15, 1920.

A collection of Hoyt’s papers, sketchbooks, and correspondence are preserved in the Beinecke Library at Yale University.

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May Winds

May Day;
The warm wind fills
with whirling seeds.

Today  — May Day — Bealtaine/Beltane by its old Celtic name, is the day in the old agricultural calendar when summer begins.  It certainly feels like summer has begun where I am.  The sky is a robin’s egg blue, and the air is warm and soft.

Happy May Day!

 

David

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THE DAYS DWINDLE DOWN: CAVAFY’S CANDLES

 

Today’s poem is my translation of another work by that unique poet of Egyptian Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek.  It is titled Κεριά, pronounced kair-YA.  It means simply

CANDLES

lineofcandles

The days to come stand before us
Like a row of lighted candles —
Golden, warm, and lively.

The days gone by remain behind,
A sad line of extinguished candles,
The nearest still smoking;
Cold candles, melted and bent.

I don’t want to look at them; their form saddens me,
And it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lit candles.

I don’t want to turn back, to see and tremble:
How fast the dark line grows —
How fast the extinguished candles multiply.

The poem gives a clear visual image of the swift passing of life, of how one eventually realizes that the days behind are many more than the days likely left ahead.  And every older person knows that the older one gets, the more time seems to speed up.

Many people, as they age, like to dwell on the past and its memories.  But here Cavafy says it makes him fearful to think of all the “dead” days gone by, and it is sad for him remember them as they once were but are no more.  Better, he says, not to dwell on the past, but to look ahead at what still remains of life, without comparing it to what came before.  All too often, comparing the present to the past can be depressing, particularly as one ages and more and more people disappear from one’s life, and one’s abilities begin to wane.  One sees fewer and fewer lit candles ahead, and even their number is only a hopeful guess.

It makes one think of these old words  from Dante’s Divine Comedy:

Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.

“No greater pain than to recall, in misery, the happy times.”

I am always impressed by the simplicity and beauty of Cavafy’s poetry.  Many modern poets, with their needless and unpleasant obscurity and crudity, could learn much from it.

 

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THE YELLOW WATERS OF SPRING OR THE SPRING’S YELLOW WATERS?

Ransetsu wrote a spring hokku about the flowering shrub called yamabuki —山吹  — which is generally translated into English as “mountain rose.”  That is, however, rather confusing for Westerners, who generally think it looks little like the roses they know.

Technically, however, the yamabuki is in the rose family; its botanical name is Kerria japonica.  The single form is rarely seen in Western gardens, though the double-flowered form is rather common.

The kerria has flowers of very bright yellow, which no doubt is what inspired Ransetsu in composing this verse:

(Spring)

The kerria
Has turned it yellow —
The spring.

That is quite clear in Japanese, which does not have the same word for the season and for water bubbling out of the ground, as we do in English.  The original verse, in fact, uses the Chinese character , which in Japanese is pronounced izumi, and means a spring of water.

Blyth attempted to deal with the problem by translating it quite loosely:

Catching the reflection
Of the yamabuki,
The spring is yellow.

Though it gives the spirit of the verse, it does not really solve the problem if the verse is given without explanation.

The original is simply:

Yamabuki no utsurite ki naru izumi kana

Yamabuki is of course the Japanese name of the shrub.
No is a particle with somewhat the effect of the possessive  “‘s.”
Utsurite ki naru means essentially “changed-yellow-has.”
Izumi as already mentioned, means “spring” in the sense of a spring of water.
Kana is a word said to give a slight emphasis to what is said, but actually it was often just used to pad out the required number of phonetic units in a hokku, so it is generally just indicated by a period in English.

So we could say that translated literally and woodenly, the original reads:

Yamabuki’s changed-yellow-has spring kana

My own translation for clarity would be:

It has turned
The spring water yellow —
The kerria.

R. H. Blyth’s purpose in writing was not to teach Westerners how to write hokku or to translate in a completely literal fashion, but rather to convey the overall meaning of a verse.  And in this, he was quite correct to make sure his readers understood that Ransetsu was seeing the bright yellow reflected in the water, though the word is nowhere in the original.  But if you have been reading my postings on hokku for some time, you should be at the point where, like Ransetsu’s Japanese readers, you can intuit what he meant, without the need for explaining it as Blyth has done.

Now quite by chance, I happened to take some photos of a blooming yamabuki within the last couple of days, so here is what it looks like:

kerriasingle_1

Here is a closer view:

David

 

 

 

 

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THE SIGNIFICANCE OF SMALL THINGS

One of the first problems a new student of hokku encounters is the selection of material, and this question arises: What subject is worth making into a hokku?

The answer is that to make a hokku interesting, one must pick an interesting experience. But how do you recognize one? As the old saying goes, “That which interests is interesting.” If an experience does not interest you, does not catch your attention, it is unlikely to interest anyone else. But keep in mind that hokku is generally interested in small events that seem to have a significance we cannot quite put into words, and should not try.

What then makes an interesting experience in hokku? We can find out by looking at some good examples.

Buson wrote:

(Spring)

Bags of seeds
Getting soaked;
Spring rain.

Why is that interesting? Because of the relationship between seeds and water and spring. Not only do we see and feel and hear the spring rain when we read it, be we also feel a kind of hidden energy in it, because we know the rain soaking into the bags of seeds will make them sprout. And sprouting seeds really make us feel the spring. We can almost sense the power in the seeds, ready to burst out in sprouts.

To make such a hokku, someone had to notice — had to pay attention to — the rain falling on the bags of seeds. A great part of writing hokku is simply paying attention to things that most people do not bother to notice because they think them of no importance. But hokku are all about such “unimportant” things that are nonetheless felt to have significance if one only pays attention.

I have written before that it is not seeing what others see that makes a poet, but rather seeing the significance in what others see but think of no importance.  That is certainly true of a good haiku writer. If you do not notice and feel the significance in small things, it will be difficult for you to write hokku.

That principle applies even to Shiki, the fellow who, near the end of the 19th century, decided to call his hokku “haiku,” which later became the cause of much confusion. Here is what Shiki saw:

(Spring)

Turning to look
At the man who passed —
Only mist.

The interest here is in the quick feeling of surprise and puzzlement. The man was there just a moment ago, but now only mist is seen. This sense of someone disappearing into mist is felt to be somehow significant. If we try to explain why it feels significant, we lose the poetry. So in hokku we only present the experience, so that the reader may sense that odd feeling of significance in such a small event as well.

In both hokku we have looked at, there is the sense of seeing something in a different way, a way that feels new to us, a different perspective. In Buson’s verse, instead of stacks of dry seed bags, we see them in the rain, getting wet. In Shiki’s verse, instead of turning around to look at a person who passed and seeing him, we see only mist. It is such little differences of perspective, of things slightly out of the ordinary, that make us see the world in a fresh way. And it makes for fresh and interesting hokku as well. So when choosing a subject, look for things seen in a different way, from a different perspective.

Rofu wrote:

(Spring)

Ebb tide;
The crab is suspicious
Of the footprint.

There are lots of things to see on a beach at ebb tide. Most are rather ordinary. But then we see a crab scuttling along the wet sand, and suddenly pausing at the impression someone’s foot has left. In that pause we feel the crab’s hesitation and uncertainty, his suspicion of this out-of-the-ordinary depression in the sand.  Rofu has selected this out of everything else on the beach because it enables us to see the crab in a different way, from a different perspective — and we also see the footprint in a different way, from a “crab’s eye” view.

Ryōto wrote:

(Spring)

Someone passing
Over the bridge;
The frogs go quiet.

Here the writer has again been paying attention to something that seems very unimportant on the surface, but nonetheless is felt to have unspoken significance. I have put it into the present tense because I like it that way; it seems more immediate and present.

Shiki wrote a similar verse:

(Spring)

Stepping onto the bridge,
The fish sink from sight;
The water of spring.

cropped-trout.jpg

So the subjects appropriate for hokku are in general just ordinary things, written down in ordinary language. But they are ordinary things that when seen from a new or different or unusual perspective, give us a sense of unspoken significance.

Wakyu wrote:

(Spring)

At the sound
Of one jumping,
All the frogs jump in.

As an event in our modern, busy world, it does seem like much; but we feel the nature of frogs and their green and watery world in it. Hokku is often about the little things that, as Blyth says, we knew, but did not know we knew until we read the verse.

We could call hokku the verse form for people who pay attention.

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DEFINING HOKKU

Spring is a good time to review the principles and practice of the hokku.  We can begin with a definition:

DEFINING HOKKU

A hokku in English is a brief, unrhymed, three-line verse about Nature and humans as a part of Nature, set within the context of a season.

Here is an example, by Onitsura:

(Spring)

Dawn;
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

The heading in parentheses is the seasonal classification. It has two functions:

1. It identifies a verse by season. You may wonder why it is there if the season is mentioned in the verse. That is explained by the second function:

2. When several hokku of the same season are printed together, the season heading goes at the beginning, thus classifying all the hokku under the same season. The heading makes it very easy to go through a number of hokku and easily classify them by season, even when season is not mentioned in the verse.

In English form, a hokku is divided into three short lines, the second line usually (but not always) longer than the other two.

A hokku consists of two parts – a long part of two lines, and a short part of one line. The long and short parts of a hokku are separated by appropriate punctuation. Sometimes the long part comes first, sometimes second. There may be additional punctuation in the long part, but the essential “separating mark” comes between the long and short segments.

In the hokku above, the shorter part is:
Dawn;

The longer part is:
On the tip of the barley leaf,
Spring frost.

Notice that every line of the hokku begins with a capital letter, and every hokku ends with a punctuation mark. Just which punctuation mark is used depends on the individual hokku. The most common separating mark is the semicolon(;), and the most common ending mark is the period (.). You will see how other punctuation marks are used by looking at various hokku here.

I have long felt that the best way for students to learn authentic hokku and its principles and aesthetics is through reading and analyzing the best old hokku, translated into English. Through the use of such models the student learns not only the principles of form, but also the very important aesthetics of hokku that determine its content.

Learning from old hokku also maintains a connection — not just theoretical — with the old hokku tradition, even though that tradition was Japanese and we are writing now in English. Of course modern hokku is not precisely the same as the old Japanese hokku. That is not possible, given the difference in language and grammar. Nonetheless, modern hokku preserves the most important and essential principles and aesthetics of old hokku.

The problem for most people in learning hokku is that even when looking directly at old models, the student often interprets them according to notions picked up from the English poetry tradition or from “haiku” written in English or poorly translated from Japanese. That is how Westerners misunderstood and misinterpreted hokku from the time it was first introduced to the West in the late 19th century. And that is why any instruction in hokku must include not only the form and techniques of the verse but also the essential instruction in the aesthetics of content, which are generally very different than both English poetry and modern haiku.

Some may wonder why the verse form discussed here is called hokku and not haiku. There are two reasons:

First, from its very beginnings the verse form was called hokku by all those who wrote it in Japan. It was called hokku whether it appeared as a separate verse, or as the first verse in a sequence of linked verses. So hokku, historically, is the correct name for it, not haiku. The anachronistic application of the name haiku to what was and is really hokku has caused great confusion since the “haiku” usage was introduced by Masaoka Shiki near the end of the 19th century.

Second, a broad category of modern brief verse that evolved out of old hokku in the West — largely from the middle of the 20th century on — took Shiki’s name “haiku.” It has no universally-accepted standards, and its principles and practice not only differ widely within the category, but also generally tend to differ greatly from the principles and aesthetics of the old hokku, and even from Shiki’s “haiku,” which was generally hokku in all but name. So it is important that we use the historically-correct term hokku to avoid confusing hokku and its principles and practice with the often very different aesthetics and practices within modern haiku.

David

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INNISFREE OF THE DEEP HEART’S CORE

Today’s poem is simple, but nonetheless one of the most popular in English literature.  It was written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939).

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.

It begins with the biblical sounding “I will arise and go…”  Compare that with Luke 15:18 in the King James Version story of the Prodigal Son:  “I will arise and go to my father….

Much of its appeal is due to its quiet and lulling atmosphere, enhanced by the repetitious phrasing, for example the seven “I” repetitions:

“I will arise”
“will I have”
“I shall have”
“I will arise”
“I hear”
“I stand”
“I hear”

The first stanza:

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.

Its meaning is simple:

The writer says he will arise and go to Innisfree, and there he will build a small cabin of clay and wattles.  “Wattles”  are wooden poles set upright, with smaller wooden branches or rods woven crosswise between them to make a barrier, such as a fence or wall.  When daubed with wet clay (“wattle and daub”) and let dry,  it forms a solid wall, though of course it must be protected from rain by a roof.  Thoreau’s cabin in the woods was built of lumber.  Yeat’s notion of a wattle and daub cabin is more primitive.

He says he will have “nine bean rows.”  The notion of planting beans came from Thoreau’s Walden:

Before I finished my house, wishing to earn ten or twelve dollars by some honest and agreeable method, in order to meet my unusual expenses, I planted about two acres and a half of light and sandy soil near it chiefly with beans, but also a small part with potatoes, corn, peas, and turnips.

Why nine rows in the poem?  Perhaps because in Celtic lore, nine is a sacred number, being three times three, and three too is a sacred number.  Yeats was very influenced by Irish legends and folklore.

Yeats speaks of “a hive for the honey-bee,” but in Walden, Thoreau had only wild bees:

“In August, the large masses of berries, which, when in flower, had attracted many wild bees, gradually assumed their bright velvety crimson hue, and by their weight again bent down and broke the tender limbs.”

So Yeats will build his clay and wattles cabin, plant his nine rows of beans,  and have a bee hive that will provide bees to make the island glade “bee-loud” (loud with the humming of bees).

The second stanza:

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.

He speaks of having (one gets the sense of “finally having”) peace there on the island, and says that peace drops from the “veils of morning,” which can be both dawn emerging from the dark veil of night, as well as the mists that veil the lake in the morning.  Yeats does not more clearly define his meaning.  That peace drops from “the veils of morning” to “where the cricket sings.”  Again Yeats is not entirely clear.  It can mean both “from the air to the ground,” and “from morning to the end of day.”  The impression is that all time is filled with tranquility there, morning, noon, evening, and midnight.

He speaks of midnight as “all a glimmer,” which makes one think of the moonlight glittering on the lake water, but that is not definite; nor is his meaning in “noon a purple glow.”  We can assume these are just romanticizing words to cast a dreamy atmosphere over things, “to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination,” in Wordsworth’s terminology.  And evening, he says, “is full of linnet’s wings,” that is the fluttering of the wings of the small bird (Carduelis cannabina) called a linnet in Britain and Ireland,  a kind of finch.

The third stanza:

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.

There is a sense of decision and immediacy in the “will go now.”  And the reason for this immediacy is that “always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore…”  It never leaves him.  He hears it even amid the artificiality and bustle of the big city.  He hears it while standing on the roadway and while on the “pavements grey.”  “Pavement” is the British term for what Americans call a sidewalk.

So really the writer will arise and go to Innisfree because it is felt to be the deepest, most appealing and most authentic part of him; its sounds and image lie “in the deep heart’s core” — but like many such images, it is a mental mirage woven of memories, illusions and imagination.

Essentially, The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a fantasy poem with three main elements.  The first two are obvious:

  1.  A boy’s typical dream of living alone on an island (whether in river or lake or ocean).

2.  Henry David Thoreau’s account in Walden of living alone in the woods by a large pond, and growing beans.

3.  An undertone of Celtic folklore in which Nature is filled with mysteries hidden behind the visible world.

Yeats made no secret of the influence of Thoreau.  He wrote:

… sometimes I planned out a lonely austerity. 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, and when walking through Fleet Street [in London] very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little bell upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem ‘Innisfree,’ my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music.” (Autobiographies, p.153)

So there we have the first two elements:  1.  the youthful fantasy of living on an island, and 2.  the influence of Thoreau.  The third element we find mentioned in another autobiographical excerpt:

I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree, and Innisfree was opposite Slish Wood.  I should live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom.  There was a story in the county history of a tree that had once grown upon that island guarded by some terrible monster and borne the food of the gods.  A young girl pined for the fruit and told her lover to kill the monster and carry the fruit away.  He did as he had been told, but tasted the fruit; and when he reached the mainland where she had waited for him, was dying of its powerful virtue.  And from sorrow and from remorse she too ate of it and died.  I do not remember whether I chose the island because of its beauty or for the story’s sake, but I was twenty-two or three before I gave up the dream.” (Autobiographies, p. 72)

Yeats apparently had found the local legend of the magical tree in a book called History of Sligo (1882) by William Gregory wood-Martin.

But The Lake Isle of Innisfree also had its beginnings in a story by Yeats titled John Sherman,  published in 1891.  Yeats wrote in an 1888 letter (to Katherine Tynan):

In my story I make one of the characters when ever he is in trouble long to go away and live alone on that Island — an old day dream of my own.  Thinking over his feelings I made these verses about them [an early draft of Innisfree] (Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, I, 120).

In his story, he called the island Inniscrewin rather than Innisfree:

Often when life and its difficulties had seemed to him like the lessons of some elder boy given to a younger by mistake, it had seemed good to dream of going away to that islet and building a wooden hut there and burning a few years out, rowing to and fro, fishing, or lying on the island slopes by day, and listening at night to the ripple of the water and the quivering of the bushes — full always of unknown creatures — and going out at morning to see the island’s edge marked by the feet of birds.

Now let’s be realistic.  Just as Yeats’ old man’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium, is a fantasy about a once-real place that was transformed into a place of the imagination, so The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a young man’s poem, a fantasy about a real island made into an island of the imagination.  And note that behind both poems is the notion of going somewhere for the sake of knowledge, of wisdom (though they are not always the same thing).  Yeats had written a couple of earlier poems about an island in Lough Gill, one, The Stolen Child, richly heavy with Irish fairy lore, as we see in its beginning lines:

Where dips the rocky highland
Of Sleuth Wood in the lake,
There lies a leafy island
Where flapping herons wake
The drowsy water rats;
There we’ve hid our faery vats,
Full of berries
And of reddest stolen cherries.
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.

“Sleuth Wood” is merely Slish Wood, the wood opposite Innisfree.  And Innisfree is an actual island, but only about one acre in size, not too far off the shore of Lough Gill, a five-mile long lake mostly in county Sligo in the west of Ireland.  The name Innisfree is an anglicized form of Inis Fraoigh in Irish Gaelic. Inis (pronounced “inish”) means “island” and fraoigh means “of heather” (fraoch); so Innisfree is really the “Isle of Heather.”  But by happy chance, when anglicized it becomes a combination of Irish Innis/Inis and the English word “free,” which adds to the sense of escape and liberation in the poem — “the Island of Freedom.”

Now Innisfree, being a very small and rocky island covered with brush and trees, is hardly a place where one could have successfully planted a garden of beans or have found an open glade for anything.  It is only one of  about 20 or more islands in that lake.  A writer described it as “probably the most inhospitable place in Lough Gill.”  But again, Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree is not the real island, but rather that island transformed into a fantasy refuge of the imagination.

So we should remember that it is just a “wish-fulfillment” poem.  Yeats was not a Thoreau in character.  Yeats in reality never arose and went to Innisfree, never built a wattle dwelling there, never planted rows of beans or had a hive of bees there.  The  journey to Innisfree, like that to Byzantium, took place only in his mind.

None of that, of course, changes its beauty as a poem, but perhaps it helps to explain why Yeats was bothered by its continuing popularity in the latter years of his life.

The poem was finished in London in 1888, and published in 1890 in the National Observer.

 

 

David

 

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