The Lake Isle of Innisfree Essays and Criticism
by William Butler Yeats

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Self-image and Daydreaming in Yeats’s Poem

(Poetry for Students)

Yeats’s poem is perhaps most interesting for what it does not say. Although the speaker expresses the desire to arise and “go to Innisfree,” he never explicitly states what it is that motivates this desire. This absence asks readers to infer what compels the speaker to be other than where he is. People often daydream when they are dissatisfied with their lives. They fantasize about how circumstances might be different and how new surroundings would make them more content, perhaps even how such a change would make them different persons. They see themselves in daydreams differently than they see themselves in their “waking” life. By examining the speaker’s daydream closely, readers can deduce the speaker’s current situation and speculate about his inspiration for writing the poem.

The opening line of the poem, repeated as the first line in the last stanza, tells readers what the speaker “will” do: “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” Echoing the parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament (Luke: 15:18), which begins, “I will arise and go to my father,” Yeats, consciously or not, infuses his poem with religious weight. This choice suggests that the person Yeats would like to be is the one who returns home, fulfills his familial duties as a son, and yet nonetheless achieves his own separate identity as a poet. Yeats spent much of his youth in County Sligo, home to his mother’s family, but they were not particularly happy years. By picturing himself on Innisfree, an island on Lake Gill in Sligo, Yeats can, imaginatively, both return to the place of his childhood, effecting a kind of redemption, and yet remain separate from it.

In his biography of Yeats, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Richard Ellmann notes that Yeats was in London when he wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and that despite the robust literary scene there, felt shy and out of place. Ellmann writes, “To a poor Irishman . . . it seemed alien and hostile. . . . Yeats often dreamed of beating a retreat to Sligo.” Ellmann sees Yeats’s homesickness as an unbearable desire, writing that Yeats

filled his poems and stories with dim, pale things, and longed to return to an island like Innisfree, where his “old care will cease” because an island was neither mainland nor water but something of both, and because the return to Sligo, though he knew it now to be impossible, would be a return to the prepubertal stage when his consciousness had not yet been split in two.

Some critics go as far as seeing the poem as a kind of death wish. Henry Merritt, for example, in his essay, “Rising and Going: The ‘Nature’ of Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’” argues that Sligo is closely linked with failure in Yeats’s imagination because it is home to Yeats’s maternal family, the Pollexfens of Sligo, who largely disliked the poet. A return to Sligo marked a surrender to the stodgy, provincial values of the Pollexfens, Merritt argues.

But Yeats never went to Innisfree; the poem remained at the level of a daydream, albeit one with specific benefits for the young poet. One of these is that he was able to grapple with the kind of person he was becoming by imagining the kind of person he might be. The imagery in the first stanza alludes to the life that Thoreau made for himself at Walden Pond. It is not only the kind of life that Thoreau lived, however, that Yeats is drawn to but also the kind of person Thoreau was. An American transcendentalist who championed civil liberties, Thoreau was known as much for his politics as he was for his nature writing. Yeats’s fantasy of living in a Walden-like hut, in Walden-like surroundings, then, is also a fantasy of being the kind of person who could bring about such a dream— strong, self-reliant, full of conviction and initiative. It is significant that Yeats wrote the poem in his early twenties, a time when most people are still struggling to carve out a place for themselves in the world.

(The entire section is 7,075 words.)