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.  Yeats’ 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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3 Responses to INNISFREE OF THE DEEP HEART’S CORE

  1. Love this – I have kept the url to read at my leisure

  2. Ashley says:

    I did go there, once upon a time, but couldn’t find my dream!

  3. Katie Dent says:

    This is quite a lovely poem and very well explained. I was distracted, however, in the description of wattle by this statement: “Yeat’s notion of a wattle and daub cabin is more primitive.” Note the punctuation is incorrect and should be either Yeats’ or Yeats’s. I see it is Yeats’ in the rest of the writeup, so this is probably just an oversight by a proofreader. Otherwise, it was a great article! This is the first time I’ve even seen the web site, and plan to use it more.

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