The Lake Isle of Innisfree

'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' (1890) is a poem written by the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939). The poem was written about a real place called The Lake Isle of Innisfree, located in County Sligo, Ireland, Yeats' childhood home. 

The Lake Isle of Innisfree The Lake Isle of Innisfree

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Table of contents

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a small, uninhabited island in the lake Lough Gill, and Yeats concentrates on the natural and untouched state of the Lake Isle as a main theme. 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is a deep dive into the broader themes of inner peace, sanctuary, and serenity that nature provides the speaker.

    The speaker of a poem is the voice, or lyrical "I" of the poem. The term speaker is used to indicate the voice or person speaking through a poem. It is best not to assume the poet himself is speaking as the voice in the poem, as poetry can be fictional, and it would be inaccurate to the reality of the poet's life and history of events surrounding them.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: at a glance

    • Written in 1888
    • Published as a single poem in "The National Observer" (1890)
    • Re-released in The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (1892)
    • Included in The Rose (1893)
    Written ByWilliam Butler Yeats (1888)
    Form / StyleLyric poetry; categorized as a Celtic Revival poem
    MeterMostly written in hexameter, vague adhesion to an iambic pattern.
    Rhyme Schemeabab, cdcd, efef
    Poetic DevicesSymbolism; Metaphor; Hyperbole; Personification; End rhyme; Refrain; Juxtaposition
    Frequently noted imageryPhysical labor, insects, natural images
    TonePeaceful, comforting, rhythmic
    Key themesCeltic revival; Connection with nature; Spirituality
    Meaning'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' pursues a deep understanding of love for the speaker's homeland and the ways in which nature can bring inner peace. The poem concentrates on natural imagery and physical labor to indicate a deep connection between the speaker and the natural world, and indicates the eternity and cyclical nature of natural life, even amongst the developed world.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: context

    Historical context

    'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' was written by William Butler Yeats in 1888 as a Celtic Revival poem. Yeats grew up in County Sligo, Ireland, and spent much of his adult life involved in the politics and nationalism movements in Ireland. While this poem is about the inner peace that comes from being connected to nature, it is written about a real place located in County Sligo: The Lake Isle of Innisfree in Lake Lough Gill.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Photograph of Innisfree, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The Isle of Innisfree is a real island in Ireland.

    Throughout his life, Yeats was interested in the spiritual and unknown depths of the human experience. His poetry interrogates the realities of the human subconscious, and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is no different.

    As an Irish Nationalist, Yeats participated in a movement known as the Celtic Revival, which was a movement aimed at creating a clear and strong Irish culture through art, politics, and tradition. At the time "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" was written, Yeats was a 23-year-old exploring the implications of Irish Nationalism as Great Britain was pushing for English culture to be spread in Ireland.

    Yeats was living in London and was reminded of his hometown when looking at a painting in a window in the middle of the city. Yeats wrote 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' as a means of reminding the Irish people of their love for their homeland and spiritual connection to the location. The poem was already incredibly popular before Yeats' death in 1939 and remains one of the most popular Irish poems today.

    Literary context

    William Butler Yeats was incredibly influential in pushing English-language poetry into 20th century modernist poetry. He's known for his use of symbolism, and 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is a great example of the ways in which Yeats questions the self and creates deeper meaning using a symbol (in this case, the lake isle). 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' concentrates on the concept of inner freedom or inner peace without ever using the words 'inner freedom.' It is the aural implications in the word that lend the ear to the understanding of the meaning "inner freedom." This was a conscious decision on Yeats' part, as he could have used any other lake isle in County Sligo.

    The rhyme scheme of the poem lends itself to a magical and musical quality, using soft vowels and consonants to describe the desire of the speaker to have a quiet life on an isolated island. These soft sounds and implications behind the word "innisfree" exemplify William Butler Yeats' skill at wordsmithing, and bring out the spiritual nature of the poem, as rhyme has traditionally been used in music and spiritual chants or incantations for centuries.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: analysis

    Poem Text

    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 dayI 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.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: Summary

    Summarizing a poem should concentrate first on the literal aspects of the poem: What is present? What sensory sensations are described? What images are used?

    'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is a poem that literally concentrates on the desire of the speaker to go to the uninhabited and isolated island of Innisfree to build a "small cabin," farm, and bee keep. The speaker desires the peace of the natural space and mentions various natural sounds, including bees, crickets, linnets, and water lapping against the shore.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Bees in beehive, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The speaker wants to lead a simple life of beekeeping in Innisfree.

    The poem concentrates on the slow consistency of this imagined cabin in Innisfree, describing the various stages of light at midnight, noon, and evening.

    The final stanza of the poem emphasizes again that, while the speaker is seeking the peace that comes with this Irish lake isle, the speaker is not actually present at Innisfree. The speaker states again, "I will arise and go now," which is the second time this refrain is used in the poem.

    The repetition of this line emphasizes the speaker's absence and distance from the isle. We are not to believe the speaker actually rises from their physical location to go to Innisfree; rather, this is a spiritual journey inward. "I will arise and go now," The speaker says, though they do not actually go anywhere. This journey inward to the Isle of inner freedom allows Yeats to encourage his readers to hold Ireland in their inner sanctuary.

    The speaker then goes on to juxtapose the "pavements grey" of city life with the lapping of lake water, stating that they can hear the lake itself in "the deep heart's core." This juxtaposition emphasizes, again, the physical distance from the Isle, though the love for it lives on in the speaker's heart. This final line is symbolic of the longing for Irish homeland and culture that William Butler Yeats attempted to convey with this poem.

    Juxtaposition is a literary device that creates tension between two things that have contrasting or opposing effects. In this poem, there is juxtaposition between the man-made pavement of the city and the natural image of the lake isle.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: Rhythm

    Pro tip: Always make sure to note where the writer deviates from a pattern they established in meter or rhyme scheme. Poetry writing is always intentional and, often, these deviations can indicate a shift in the poem or text.

    William Butler Yeats wrote the poem "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" with the intention of it being remembered and renowned throughout Ireland. A few of the traditional methods used to make a poem or lyric memorable is by utilizing meter, rhythm, and rhyme to make the poem stick in a person's head after reading it. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is composed of twelve lines, consisting of three quatrains. The poem adheres loosely to an iambic meter and has a rhyme scheme of alternating end rhymes, presenting itself as abab, cdcd, efef. The poem utilizes perfect rhyme, staying away from the slant-rhymes that William Butler Yeats relied on heavily in his later years. So, what does all of that information mean? In the following example, we can see iambic meter in action:

    "I will / arise / and go now, / and go / to In- / nisfree," (line 1)

    Note: In this line, the second syllable of each iamb (or "foot") is emphasized. It gives the line a musical quality that helps with memorization.

    In this line, we can already see a deviation from traditional iambic meter. The third iamb contains three syllables (and go now) composed of unstressed, stressed, and unstressed syllables. This deviation from iambic meter, in this instance, is a caesura.

    The break in the rhythmic movement of the line adds emphasis and weight to the concept of going to Innisfree. The emphasis is echoed again without the caesura in the second half of the line. The deviation from the pattern allows the readers to note important and emphasized messages within the text.

    A caesura is a break in a metrical line. These can be represented with punctuation, deviations from a rhythmic meter, or other grammatical boundary.

    William Butler Yeats is also an avid user of the end-stop. In 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', every stanza is end-stopped with a period, as well as the second line of every stanza, using the semicolon. End-stopping lines can create a pause at the end of a concept or phrase and can give the readers a moment to absorb the concept.

    End-stops can also be used to conclude an idea and provide the author with the space to begin a new idea on the following line. In this instance, end-stops slow the roll of the poem, creating pause and mindfulness midway through each stanza, as well as the end.

    An end-stop is a phrase or metrical boundary ending in a grammatical break. End-stops can also be complete phrases.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: Themes

    Let's look at some of the themes in the poem.

    Natural connection

    It is clear that 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is about the love of the location itself, but what about themes other than Celtic Revival? The speaker in 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' has an intimate connection to nature. We know this through the fact that they say it explicitly: "I feel it in the deep heart's core" (line 12). But what does this connection to nature give to us when interpreting the poem as a whole?

    Through the juxtaposition of the speaker standing on the pavement in contrast to the lake water lapping against the shore in the final stanza of the poem, the desperate longing to be elsewhere (in this case, Ireland) comes through powerfully.

    Yeats conveys this juxtaposition throughout the poem. We can clearly see the speaker's colorful language and explicit peace when referring to the Lake Isle of Innisfree, whereas the speaker describes modern society only as a "roadway" or "pavement grey" (line 11). The hard, dull nature of the pavement is in direct contrast with the Isle where, "midnight's all aglimmer and noon a purple glow" (line 7). These differences in description make clear the speaker's feelings regarding the two different locations and create the pull or longing they feel towards the Isle.

    Animal ecology

    There are also moments where Yeats brings in different animals that are located in Ireland. In this 12-line poem, we see three different animals: the "honey-bee", the cricket, and the linnet. The specific choice of these animals on the part of Yeats allows the speaker to be further situated in the ecology of County Sligo.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree, Linnet on rock, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The linnet is one of the three animals used to situate the speaker in the natural world.

    The speaker pointing out the particular sensory memories of these animals in the lake isle is a fairly universal experience. It is likely that all the readers of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', in 1890, would be able to recall the sound of crickets or linnet's wings, even if they didn't know what a linnet looked like in particular.

    Spiritual introspection

    Another common theme in Yeats' poetry is spiritual introspection. Yeats had a fascination with the occult that is present throughout his early poetry career and continued to a lesser extent until his death.

    In the final stanza of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' the theme of spiritual introspection becomes explicit, though the concept of inner freedom is present in every line, including the title. The final stanza of the poem states:

    "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."

    The line, "I will arise and go now, for always night and day" indicates the cyclical and eternal nature of the spiritual freedom experienced at Innisfree, and goes on to say, "I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore".

    We are not to understand that the speaker literally hears water lapping, this is something that the speaker is hearing in their mind's eye as they remember the eternal image of the Lake Isle of Innisfree, tucked away permanently in the core of their being.

    Whereas the speaker references the Isle being in his "deep heart's core", we get no such reference to modernity meaning as much, the pavement fading immediately from the speaker's mind. The concept of a "roadway" is a liminal space, those travelling a roadway do not stay there forever, they move on and travel elsewhere. This is not the case with the Lake Isle.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree: Meaning

    Pro tip: There are, of course, many meanings and interpretations when it comes to poetry. Being able to provide evidence and defend your interpretation is a critical step in the learning process and will aid in providing a deeper understanding of the many meanings found in art and poetry.

    The meaning of this poem is twofold: to invigorate the Celtic Revival movement and to express the inner freedom found in nature spaces. There are many possible meanings in this poem, but looking at the major themes can provide insight into some of the most common interpretations.

    Finding meaning in art and writing means taking into account the historic and literary contexts of the time. We know through Yeats' explanation that this poem was intended to provide a warm, nostalgic feeling for those from Ireland and contribute to the pride of being Irish.

    The Lake Isle of Innisfree - Key takeaways

    • "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" was written in 1888 and published in 1890 by William Butler Yeats.
    • William Butler Yeats wrote "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" to aid in the Celtic Revival movement in Ireland.
    • "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" concentrates on the inner peace found from being in nature spaces away from modern society.
    • "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is one of the most famous poems ever written in Ireland.

    William Butler Yeats, The National Observer 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', 1890.

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Lake Isle of Innisfree

    What is the theme of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'?

    A few of the major themes of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' include Celtic Revival literature, the natural world, and spirituality. 

    What is 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' about? 

    'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is about a speaker who is longing for the uninhabited lake isle from a paved road far away from the isle. It focuses on the desire the speaker has to build a cabin on this uninhabited isle and live peacefully alone, away from modern society.

    When did William Butler Yeats write 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'? 

    Yeats wrote 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' in 1888, when he was 23. The poem was then published for the first time in 1890.

    What is the meaning of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'? 

    While 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' has many interpretations, the two meanings to concentrate on are 1) Yeats' desire to influence the Celtic Revival movement with a poem concentrating on nostalgia for Ireland and 2) that inner peace comes from natural spaces away from modern society.

    What is the message of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'?

    The message of 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is that inner peace comes from existing in natural spaces. The peace found in one's home country is something that stays with a person for the entirety of their life and can be found even amidst repressive modernity.

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