Literature is to my mind the great teaching power of the world… –W.B. Yeats
Years and years and years ago when I was but a wee lass, I just knew, deep down, that I was destined to live abroad. It wasn’t a dream or a whim or a young girl’s fantasy, but a real need that seemed to arise at an early age. Perhaps it was my own name that drew me back toward my ancestry; perhaps I was merely born out of place. Whatever the cause, I knew only that I wasn’t yet home.
Recently, a long-lost friend I haven’t heard from and couldn’t find for twenty-five years sent me an email through this site. We were undergrads together, and I credit her with introducing me to my pal Dorothy Parker and for otherwise broadening my literary horizons. The years fell away as if we two blonde English majors were still back in the dorm, mocking a certain pompous prof, grumbling over journal entries, fighting off a general ennui. She’s still the same thoughtful, poetic soul I knew her to be.
I have spent my life in clearing out of poetry every phrase written for the eye, and bringing all back to syntax that is for ear alone.
At some point, I mentioned wanting to broaden my NWR classics series to include poems for high school students, and she immediately sent me one of her favorites, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I don’t think I’ve read this poem since she first shared it with me all those years ago, and it was like reading a long, slow sigh of goodness.
Look at him in that picture up there. So young, so earnest, so full of things to impart, so eager to be understood. That’s the image of him that sticks in my mind when I read this beautiful poem. Because he seems to be talking to me, describing this wondrous place…
…and in reading his poem, I realized he’s describing the Innisfree I have found in my home abroad. I may be less of a lass and a bit shy of wee, but I have some peace here. So this one is for my friend J.A., thanking her for the reminder and for re-introducing me to another lost friend in Yeats, and hoping from the deep heart’s core that she’s found her Innisfree, too.
And what about you?
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 bee-loud glad.
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.
~written 1888, first published in National Observer, 1890~
INTERVIEW with WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS
Dates: b. June 13, 1865 in Dublin, Ireland; d. January 28, 1939 in Surrey, England
Occupation: Writer, Poet, Playwright, Cofounder of Irish Literary Theatre, Senator of the Irish Free State, 1923-29.
Recognition: Nobel Prize for Literature, 1923
Works: Poetry, plays, essays. Alphabetical listing of poems. Links to collected works.
Known for: Being one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century
Full bio at Poetry Foundation
Online Exhibit: “The Life and Works of William Butler Yeats” hosted by The National Library of Ireland
Facebook: William Butler Yeats
Mr. Yeats, thank you for stopping by No Water River today. It was kind of you to make time for a stranger.
There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.
Aw, that’s sweet. Then welcome, friend.
Our world is quite different from the one you knew. In some ways better, and in some ways much worse. What would your ideal world look like?
I would mould a world of fire and dew / With no one bitter, grave, or over wise, / And nothing marred or old to do you wrong.
That sounds like heaven! Do you have a special place where you write, a place that inspires you?
Where the wandering water gushes / From the hills above Glen-Car, / In pools among the rushes / That scarce could bathe a star.
I was always discovering places where I would like to spend my whole life.
Where do get your ideas for your poetry?
The mystical life is at the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write. I desire a mysterious art…doing its work by suggestion, not by direct statement, a complexity of rhythm, colour, gesture.
Many young or new writers don’t feel comfortable calling themselves “poet” or “author.” What is your definition of a true poet?
A poet is by the very nature of things a man who lives with entire sincerity, or rather, the better his poetry the more sincere his life. A poet creates tragedy from his own soul, that soul which is alike in all men. A poet writes always of his personal life, in his finest work out of its tragedies, whatever it be, remorse, lost love, or mere loneliness.
Like a long-legged fly upon the stream / His mind moves upon silence.
Can you share a lesson that you’ve learned about writing?
I lie awake night after night / And never get the answers right. (Join the club!) Write for the ear…so that you may be instantly understood as when an actor or folk singer stands before an audience.
What’s your best advice for aspiring poets?
The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper. Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear. Hammer your thoughts into unity.
And walk among long dappled grass, / And pluck till time and times are done / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.
JUST FOR FUN
Favorite lines to impress the ladies?
I looked upon the moon, / Longing to knead and pull it into shape / That I might lay it on your head as a crown.
I kiss you and the world begins to fade.
While still I may, I write for you / The love I lived, the dream I knew.
Delight my heart with sound; speak yet again.
Quick! Write us a couplet using the word body!
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
But I, being poor, have only my dreams; / I have spread my dreams under your feet; / tread softly, because you tread on my dreams. –W.B. Yeats, “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
Extension Activities for “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”
- Read about the origins of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” from Yeats’ autobiography
- Look for images of Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, County Sligo, Ireland. How has Yeats captured this place in his poem?
- Reading and Listening
- Read the poem aloud in groups and listen for the sounds and rhythms Yeats uses to create aural imagery of Innisfree.
- Find examples of internal rhyme, alliteration, sibilance, onomatopoeia, and assonance. Study the meter. Discuss the effects these devices have on the poem and the reader.
- Listen to W. B. Yeats recite his own poem. Do you think he captured the feeling of his own words? Why or why not? How would you read it differently to convey how the poet feels about Innisfree?
- Where is your “Innisfree” – your special place that you dream about? What does it look like? What do you do there? Who or what lives there with you? Create a list of images and phrases answering these questions and write your own Innisfree poem.
- The “interview” above was created using quotes from Yeats’ autobiography and snippets from his poems. Choose your favorite poet from the past and do a little research to find quotes and poems by that poet. Then put together your own interview that gives some insight into the poet.
- Look at this beautiful “poetry comic” created by Julian Peters for the W. B. Yeats poem “When You Are Old,” done in the style of a Japanese manga. Choose any Yeats poem and use the words to create your own art piece, whether it be a painting, collage, comic, sculpture, or even a board game!
- Bake some Irish lace cookies and enjoy them with a spot of tea.
In dreams begins responsibility. –epigraph for a poem in Responsibilities (1914) by W. B. Yeats
Poetry Friday is hosted by the charming Marjorie at Paper Tigers. Skip on over there to see more dreamy poetry offerings!
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats is in the public domain.
*Quotes and lines of verse by W. B. Yeats used in the interview culled from the Twitter account @YeatsDaily