The Lake Isle of Innisfree

by William Butler Yeats

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Self-image and Daydreaming in Yeats’s Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1225

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.

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud claims that the purpose of creative writing is to fulfill both the author’s fantasies and the reader’s. Poets and fiction writers—those who traffic in fantasies, daydreams, and the world of the imagination—perform a kind of regulatory function for society, in that they give voice to fantasies that readers sometimes do not even know they have. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” remains one of Yeats’s most popular poems because of this very fact. Readers vicariously participate in Yeat’s fantasy because it is such a popular and generic one. Although not everyone necessarily desires to live alone in a small cabin, the wish to live close to nature and away from the distractions of modern life is common, as is the wish to see one’s own self in the best possible light. Compared to Yeats’s later more modern poetry, the poem is sentimental and conventional, but these facts have also helped its popularity, as those very features make “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” accessible to more readers, meeting their expectations of what poetry should do.

Yeats moves from simply wishing he were elsewhere to coming up with a concrete plan for being there. The details in the first stanza read as a kind of blueprint for his Eden-like cabin. He imagines himself as a steward of the land and all the life on it. The second stanza, however, paints a more impressionistic scene. In addition to the cabin and “bee-loud glade,” the speaker will also find peace, “Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings.” Such emphasis on quiet and solitude tells readers something about what the speaker’s current life must be like: crowded, hectic, noisy. Living alone on an island in the midst of a lake is about as far away from those circumstances as possible. The imagery and figurative language of the second stanza also underscore the dreamy nature of the speaker’s fantasy, highlighting the distinction between the real and the imaginary, the present and the future, the city and the country.

Sights, sounds, touches, smells are often catalysts for memories, and the sound of fountain water on a busy London street has evoked the memory of Yeats’s childhood for him. The consuming nature of the speaker’s desire to leave his present situation and return to the setting of his childhood is evident in the last stanza, when he says, “for always night and day / I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.” Such an aural hallucination underscores the intensity of Yeats’s memory of Lake Gill and what that memory now represents for him. It is significant that in his autobiography Yeats says the poem is the first he had written with anything of his “own music” in it, for it represents a maturing, both poetically and emotionally, of the poet’s relationship to his past and his own self image.

Source: Chris Semansky, Critical Essay on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2002. Semansky is an instructor of English literature and composition whose essays, poems, and stories regularly appear in journals and magazines.

Return to la bonne vaux: The Symbolic Significance of Innisfree

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5850

In an attempt to explain the nature of the attraction he feels toward the Devon farm he calls Thorncombe, the protagonist of John Fowles’ Daniel Martin refers to a passage in Restif de la Bretonne’s eighteenth-century romanced autobiography, Monsieur Nicholas, in which the speaker describes the feeling of total peace and joy found in a remote, lush, hidden valley in the Burgundian hills. Fowles’ protagonist, after pointing out that the Frenchman “baptized the place simply la bonne vaux: the valley of abundance, the sacred combe,” goes on to describe the general nature of such places as “outside the normal world, intensely private and enclosed, intensely green and fertile, numinous, haunted and haunting, dominated by a sense of magic that is also a sense of a mysterious yet profound parity in all existence.” In the context of Fowles’ novel, this section serves to illustrate both the necessity for the artist to find a place of retreat and the fact that such places exist for him, as an artist and human being, not simply as geographic locations but also, and more importantly, as symbolic settings. La bonne vaux, while a physical place, is more importantly a state of mind in which the individual is linked by the significant details of his surrounding to a symbolic world that stretches beyond the boundaries of human time and space. In his description of the lake isle of Innisfree, W. B. Yeats presents his version of la bonne vaux, an ostensibly nostalgic description of a specific geographic location that, through the particular physical details and the symbolic force of those details, is transformed into a symbolic landscape. Like Daniel Martin’s Thorncombe and Monsieur Nicholas’ bonne vaux, Yeats’ lake isle is private and enclosed, in this case by the waters of Lough Gill. It is fertile, as the beans and bees clearly indicate. It is numinous, in that it is both a physical island and a state of mind created by that island. It is haunted by the mythical Tuatha da Danaan and is haunting to the speaker of the poem, as the last stanza clearly reveals. In fact, Yeat’s view of the island in his youth was dominated by the magical and mysterious story about the Tuatha da Danaan and the Danaan Quicken tree:

I planned to live some day in a cottage on a little island called Innisfree . . . 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 [as the proposed place of retreat] because of its beauty or for the story’s sake, but I was twenty-two or three before I gave up the dream.

Yeats’ attitude to the lake isle of Innisfree, then, is markedly similar to the attitude described by Fowles’ narrator in Daniel Martin. The importance of Yeats’ poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a work often dismissed as a youthful, nostalgic, derivatively romantic lyric, lies in the very qualities that make the physical setting numinous for the author as young artist. Through a careful examination of the precise details and specific symbolism of the poem, one comes to see that, for the young Yeats, the retreat to the island of Innisfree is a journey in search of poetic wisdom and spiritual peace, a journey prompted by supernatural urgings, a journey in quest of identity within a tradition. The wisdom and peace that are the goal of the quest can only be realized through a poetic and spiritual grasp of the parity and even identity that exists between the legendary past of the Celtic world and the present, and of the presence of that past in the mind and spirit of the artist attuned to the numinous qualities of his particular bonne vaux.

Of the genesis of the poem and of its relationship to Yeats’ development as a poet we know a great deal. By the time the poem began to take shape, some time late in 1888, the young poet had already published Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (Dublin, 1888), and Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (Dublin, 1888), and was about to publish his first major volume of verse based on the Irish legends he had heard and learned during his frequent visits with his mother’s parents in Sligo, The Wanderings of Oisin and other Poems (London, 1889). Although his thorough involvement in the Celtic Renaissance would not bear significant poetic fruit until the latter part of the 1890s, it is clear from the poems written in the early part of the decade, and indeed in the latter 1880s, that Yeats was fully aware of the poetic potential of the Celtic legends of Ireland and of his relationship, as poet, to the Celtic tradition. The specific background of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is made clear for us both by the commentaries of Jeffares and Alspach and by Yeats’ own autobiographical comments. His familiarity with the connection between the Tuatha da Danaan and the island of Innisfree is clear from the passage from the Autobiographies cited above. Yeats had gleaned the legend of the Danaan Quicken tree from William Gregory Wood-Martin’s History of Sligo (1882) and seems to have used the idea of a plant or tree sacred to the Celtic gods not only as the basis for the poem “The Danaan Quicken Tree” but also, with some transformation, in the bean rows of the poem under examination here. The early version of the poem, sent to Katharine Tynan in 1888, contains the text of the first two stanzas, including the details of the dwelling of clay and wattles, the bee hives and bean rows, and mention of the sounds and colours of the island. It lacks, however, the final stanza, the stanza that pulls the poem together and gives it its specific context and direction. Yeats tells us about the genesis of the final stanza—if not the entire poem—in the Autobiographies:

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 very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball 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.

The first printed version of the work appeared in The National Observer for 13 December, 1890, and the poem was then reprinted in The Book of the Rhymers’ Club (London, 1892), and The Countess Kathleen and Various Legends and Lyrics (London, 1892), without substantive changes. Yeats then included the poem in more than twenty collections of his works published between 1892 and the time of his death, again without substantive changes. Given that Yeats was constantly— and not always productively—revising his early work, it is significant that this poem was left virtually untouched through almost fifty years in which it could have been altered. This lack of tampering or revising seems to argue for its being one of the few early poems that Yeats considered to have achieved, in his eyes, its perfect expression at an early point in his poetic development. It is also significant to note that, with the exception of its inclusion in the first two collections, it does not appear in any of the works that Yeats organized around a particular thematic principle. Rather, it stands as a single, isolated work, a world unto itself, which seems to argue for its being considered a central statement in his poetic development. Interesting though the genesis and printing history of the poem might be, however, it is in the content of the poem, in the rich symbolic and mythic matrices for the work, that its major importance lies.

Stylistically speaking, the poem is not remarkable. It clearly shows, in its fascination with detail, the influence of the Pre-Raphaelitism of the Rhymers’ Club, and also demonstrates, in its succession of three fairly regular quatrains, the influence of the lyrics of the Romantics. The first stanza, after describing the basic motivation of the speaker, goes on to give details of the habitation he will build in his retreat. The second stanza then details the benefits that he will derive from his solitary existence. The final stanza then adds urgency by contrasting the images of the rural retreat with the bustle of urban life, thereby strengthening the motivation behind the resolution expressed in the first line. In form, then, the poem is a simple nostalgic lyric expressing the speaker’s desire to find a kind of peace in a place of rural solitude he has known in his youth. Aside from some minor metrical effects, there is nothing in the form and structure of the poem to indicate a departure from tradition in the work. The music of which Yeats speaks in the Autobiographies is heard not through the form of the poem but rather through the symbolic dimensions of the imagery, and one of those dimensions is seen in the role of the speaker. The speaker in the poem is presented as a seeker or questor. The initial line, with its ironic echo of the prodigal son’s resolution, strengthens this notion, as does the double mention of the roadway in line 11. The actual location described in the first two stanzas of the poem, both in terms of the times mentioned and the specific details of geographical location, strengthens the idea that the speaker is seeking something more than a place in which to relax. The particular physical details that are provided in the first two stanzas describe not only an actual place but also a state of mind achieved because of the place. The description of time in the second stanza, with its double mention of evening and midnight, also stresses that the place is one in which mental and not physical vision is the important factor. The poem is presented, furthermore, through a first-person speaker. The air of immediacy created through the use of this kind of narrative voice amplifies the subjectivity of the utterance and stresses the importance of the dream or vision to the speaker himself. The retreat to Innisfree will be a solitary retreat; but it will be one that links the speaker, through the visions described, with his natural and, from what we know about the mythic significance of the island, supernatural world. The simplicity of rhetorical devices in the poem has, at once, a charm and yet an archaic air. The simplicity serves to stress the romantic nostalgia of the poem, but the deliberate archaisms— archaisms that, although he later repudiated them, Yeats did not choose to change— link the poem to the past, to the traditions of a day gone by and yet still present in the setting described. It is in the imagery and the allusions of the poem, though, more than in the type of speaker, choice of verse form, or particular rhetorical techniques, that Yeats makes his strongest statement, a statement that links the subjective speaker of the poem to a tradition that, because it stretches back to the Celtic vision both of the significance of the lake isle of Innisfree and of the role of the poet/hermit, objectifies the experience at the core of the work.

One of the central allusions in the poem, however, seems initially to have little to do with the Celtic. In describing the crops of the island, Yeats specifically mentions two things: honey and beans. Although the latter may seem out of place, when one remembers the two passages in the Autobiographies that refer directly to the poem, one notes that, in both cases, Yeats mentions Thoreau, the bean-cultivating hermit of Walden pond. Yeats’ youthful desire was to live “in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree”, “to live, as Thoreau did, seeking wisdom.” Thoreau tells us that, when he went to Walden Pond, he was “determined to know beans.” As Thoreau’s editor points out, “A common expression in New England is ‘He doesn’t know beans,’ meaning the person is ignorant.” To put it another way, to know beans is to be wise. Hence one can see that it is possible for Yeats to have equated, tropologically, Thoreau’s cultivation of beans with his pursuit of wisdom. In speaking of Walden Pond, Thoreau comments on the memories he has of a childhood visit there, of his awareness of those who dwelt there in the past, of his awareness of the birds and animals there, of the fact that gardening has long been a venerated occupation of intelligent men, and of the connection between gardening and ritual, of the connection between farming and the making of a better mankind. Familiar with Thoreau’s work, the young Yeats was also familiar with the way in which Thoreau saw the retreat to a childhood-visited rural setting and the occupation of oneself in gardening as tropes for the poetic retreat in search of wisdom. In his nostalgic lyric description of Innisfree, Yeats carefully points out his awareness of the birds there, of the speaker’s occupation as a gardener, and of the peace that comes from such an occupation in such a place. To connect the retreat to Innisfree with Thoreau’s retreat to Walden in search of wisdom, Yeats carefully includes not only the mention of the honeybee, traditionally a symbol of industry, culture, and wisdom, but also the bean plant. Through this latter image, one sees a connection between Yeats’ retreat and Thoreau’s that places the former’s retreat into a particular symbolic context. Through the references to Thoreau in the Autobiographies, then, and through the image of the bean in the first stanza, one sees a close connection between the nature and objectives of the hermit of Walden Pond and the speaker in Yeats’ poem. Yet the context of the retreat to Innisfree is more specifically defined through the connections that the location has with particular aspects of Celtic folklore, another branch of the tree of knowledge with which Yeats was quite familiar.

Writing in The Speaker in 1893, Yeats remarked that “Folklore is at once the Bible, the Thirty-nine articles, and the Book of Common Prayer, as well nigh all the great poets have lived by its light, Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Shakespeare, and even Dante, Goethe, and Keats, were little more than folk-lorists with musical tongues.” Yeats’ interest in folk-lore had already led him to publish Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (London, 1888) and to use the material of Irish folk mythology as the basis of many of the selections in Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (Dublin, 1888) and The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (London, 1889). As Daniel Hoffman remarks in his recent study of Yeats, Graves, and Muir— three poets who developed from their awareness of folk-lore a particularly coherent and compelling personal mythology that links the individual to the tradition—:

Not only ballad tradition but folk beliefs in the supernatural and the body of myths and legends from the Irish Heroic Age contributed subjects to [Yeats’] poems and plays. His firsthand observation, when a youth, of the folklore beliefs in the West of Ireland comprised his initial experience of the spiritual reality denied by the deterministic philosophy of the day . . . Critics have little heeded Yeats’ tenacity in holding and remolding the folk beliefs with which he started out. Much though he remade his style and changed his attitudes toward life, he did not repudiate this first area of his experience and research. Instead he found ways to change his use of it to conform with the evolution of his art and of his thought.

Yeats’ awareness of folk belief is connected with his desire to retreat to Innisfree, as the Autobiographies show. After recounting the legend of the Danaan Quicken Tree, he remarks: “I do not remember whether I chose the island [of Innisfree for my retreat] because of its beauty or for the story’s sake . . . ” Although the former may be sufficient reason in itself, the latter is more pressing in terms of the symbolism of the poem. The dominance of the Tuatha da Danaan in Yeats’ poetic imagination forms a link between the young poet, the folk mythologies, and the island of Innisfree that stretches throughout Yeats’ verse. The Tuatha da Danaan, as one folklorist points out, were early invaders of Ireland, closely schooled in the Druidic mysteries. Defeated by the Sons of Míl, they made a deal with the Gaels whereby the Gaels were left to control the upper or human world and the Tuatha da Danaan were left to rule the world under ground, from which world they controlled magic and led a life largely independent of human society. They are creatures of the ‘other world.’ “Theirs is an idealised, magic counterpart of the natural world into which mortal men rarely intrude except by invitation or by accident.” “The Hosting of the Sidhe,” the first poem in Yeats’ The Wind Among the Reeds (London, 1899), has a lengthy headnote in which Yeats gives a lengthy description of the Tuatha da Danaan, or “the Sidhe . . . the people of the Faery Hills.” In that headnote Yeats comments, in a passage that deals with the contact between the human world and the world of the Tuatha da Danaan, that “If any one becomes too much interested in them [the people of the Sidhe, the Tuatha da Danaan], and sees them over much, he loses all interest in ordinary things. I shall write a great deal elsewhere about such enchanted persons . . . ” As we shall see in a moment, the speaker in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” may very well be one of those “enchanted persons,” but to grasp the full significance of the enchantment and its connection with the artist’s pursuit of wisdom and peace, we must look further into the origins of the Tuatha da Danaan.

Robert Graves remarks in The White Goddess, that “According to legend, the Danaans had come to Britain [and to Ireland] from Greece by way of Denmark to which they had given the name of their goddess . . . ” At another point in his discussion of their origins, Graves describes the Tuatha da Danaan as “Bronze Age Pelasgians expelled from Greece in the middle of the second millenium . . . ” He further identifies Danu, their goddess, with the pre-Achean goddess Danaë of Argos, a figure he sees as one of the many embodiments of the White Goddess. Yeats remarks, when speaking of Danu and her followers, that “The old Gaelic literature is full of appeals of the Tribes of the goddess Danu to . . . mortals whom they would bring into their country . . . ” It would appear, then, that the Tuatha da Danaan exist as a tribe of fairy people intimately connected with the legendary history of Ireland, who still inhabit the land, and who are interested, from time to time, in luring those mortals interested in them into their enchanted faery otherworld. The enchantment that the speaker in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” feels may indeed be seen as a form in that lure. Yeats says in the Autobiographies that he recalled Innisfree when he heard the water in the fountain. The speaker in the poem, on the other hand, hears the insistent lapping sound of lake water, a sound that is closely connected with the Tuatha da Danaan:

To this day the Tribes of the goddess Danu that are in the waters beckon to men . . . The people of the waters have been in all ages beautiful and changeable and lascivious, or beautiful and wise and lonely, for water is everywhere the signature of the fruitfulness of the body and of the fruitfulness of dreams.

The call felt by the speaker in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” may indeed, given the symbolic contexts of the poem, by a call from the fairy people to whom Innisfree was once a holy place, because of the Danaan Quicken tree. In his headnote to the discarded poem “The Danaan Quicken Tree”, a poem published originally in The Bookman in 1893, Yeats mentions the tree that he speaks of at greater length in his recounting of the legend of the tree in the Autobiographies. Yeats’ knowledge of Irish folklore in general, then, and his particular awareness of the connection between the Tuatha da Danaan and the lake isle of Innisfree, would argue for a close connection in his mind between the luring habits of the Tuatha da Danaan and the island itself. The peace that comes to the person who inhabits the island, then, is a peace that derives from a poetic, a spiritual grasp of the tradition and the traditional powers of the ancient fairy people to whom the island was once a sacred spot. The vegetation of the island, furthermore, is of particular importance to its sacred nature. The retreat to the lake isle of Innisfree, then, is not only a poetic retreat in pursuit of wisdom but also a retreat in search of and possibly in response to the urgings of the goddess Danu. The direct link between wisdom, Innisfree, and the Tuatha da Danaan becomes quite clear when one examines closely the detailed description that the poet provides of the habitation his speaker will build there and of the particular horticultural pursuits in which he will engage.

In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker argues that he will build himself a small cabin out of clay and wattles in a setting that has echoes of Eden, of Thoreau’s hermitage at Walden Pond, and of the sacred combe of Restif de la Bretonne’s Monsieur Nicholas. In the description of the building materials to be used for the cabin one sees not just the traditional building materials of the rural peasant but also a connection between the world of man and the world of the Tuatha da Danaan. The cabin is to be built of clay and wattles. Clay, being a material linked symbolically with man, needs no explication. The wattles, on the other hand, carry with them a symbolic association that links them with Celtic mythology and specifically with the Aes Sidhe, the Tuatha da Danaan. It was the people of the sidhe who were responsible for building the circular hill forts known as raths or Dane Raths, the basic component of which structures was wattles from the hazel tree. Robert Graves points out that, in Celtic mythology, “the hazel was the Bile Ratha, ‘the venerated tree of the rath’—the rath in which the poetic Aes Sidhe lived”. He also indicates, though, that “with the ancient Irish the tree of eloquence and wisdom was the hazel.” Hence it appears that the type of cabin that Yeats’ speaker plans to build is closely linked both to the “poetic Aes Sidhe” and to the matters of eloquence and wisdom. Yeats’ choice of particular detail in this case directs the reader to a specific connection between the apparently simple descriptive surface and the actual symbolic depth of the poem. The connection between the Aes Sidhe and the speaker in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is further elaborated when one considers the horticultural aspect of the Innisfree garden or grove. The “hive for the honeybee” draws in the traditional symbolism of the bee as a figure associated with sweetness and light, with culture and wisdom; but the key reference in the third line is to the “Nine bean-rows.”

Critics have puzzled for some time over the precision of detail in this reference and over the particular significance both of the number used and the bean itself. One critic explains the precise detail in terms of Yeats’ stylistic affinities at the time the poem was written:

Another poem of Yeats which seems to imitate a Pre- Raphaelite painting is ‘She Dwelt among the Sycamores,’ . . . Here it is the insistence upon ‘precision’ of coloring and number, and upon a microscopic focus in general which marks the tell-tale Pre- Raphaelite objective of ‘truth to nature.’ The single ‘ash-grey feather’; the ‘six feet / lapped in the lemon daffodils’; the ‘four eyes’—all these represent the practice of artistic principles which began with the seven stars of the Blessed Damozel’s crown and reached as far as the ‘nine bean rows’ of the Lake Isle.

Though Eddins may be correct about the stylistic source of the precision in the lines, he does not answer the question about the reasons for Yeats’ choice of the plant or the number of rows. Alspach suggests a reason in a somewhat facetious fashion when he states that “one clever Yeats Freudian-critic has said of the nine bean-rows of the third line of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’: that undoubtedly they symbolize the nine months of pregnancy.” A deeper searching of the Celtic mythology that plays such a large part in Yeats’ poetry reveals a much more plausable reason for the use both of the bean and of the number nine. The number can be explained by examining further the reference to the wattles of the cabin. The number nine, Graves remarks, is “traditionally associated with Coll, the hazel, the tree of Wisdom . . . ” He further comments that “The letter Coll was used as the Bardic numeral nine—because nine is the number sacred to the Muses and because the hazel fruits after nine years.” He also points out the close connection in Celtic mythology between the hazel tree, the number nine, and poetic wisdom:

The ninth tree is the hazel, in the nutting season. The nut in Celtic legend is always an emblem of concentrated wisdom: something sweet, compact and sustaining enclosed in a small hard shell . . . The Rennes Dinnshechas . . . describes a beautiful fountain called Connla’s Well, near Tipperary, over which hung the nine hazels of poetic art which produced flowers and fruit (i.e. beauty and wisdom) simultaneously. As the nuts dropped into the well they fed the salmon swimming in it, and whatever number of nuts any of them swallowed, so many bright spots appeared on its body. All the knowledge of the arts and sciences was bound up with the eating of these nuts.

In the poem Yeats has specified the number nine and has already mentioned the “wattles” for which the hazel has been traditionally prized. Since Innisfree was the place on which grew the Danaan Quicken tree, whose fruit was ‘able to endow [mortals] with more than mortal powers”, since Yeats himself states that the wisdom provided by the Tuatha da Danaan is “the wisdom of the fools of Celtic stories, that is above all the wisdom of the wise”, and since the hazel nut is connected with wisdom, it is logical to assume that Yeats’ choice of the number nine is a reflection of his awareness of its connection with the numerology of Celtic mythology in general and its connection with wisdom in particular. This argument is supported by Yeats’ use of the bean as well. Yeats’ speaker does not plant or cultivate hazel trees, but bean rows. Yet the bean, as was mentioned earlier in connection with Thoreau, is also associated with wisdom: to know beans is to be wise. In this context, it would seem that the bean, like the hazel nut something “compact and sustaining” enclosed in a seed pod, is being used as a tropological analogue for the hazel nut. When one realizes that the bean is, as well, connected with poetic wisdom and with magic, the argument gains greater force. The bean has traditionally been associated with magic and with the supernatural: “Pliny in his Natural History records the belief that the souls of the dead reside in beans. According to the Scottish poet Montgomerie (1605), witches rode on bean stalks to their sabbaths.” The bean is also as Graves further suggests, scared to the White Goddess and therefore associated with poetic wisdom. From this group of folk-lore connections, it would appear that the reason for the choice of the particular detail in the third line of the poem lies in the associations made with the numerological significance of the number nine—both in classical and Celtic mythology—and with the relationship between beans and poetic wisdom on the one hand and the hazel nut and poetic wisdom on the other. The “peace” that comes “dropping slow”, then, is the peace that comes from the wisdom gained from the bean rows. In the Autobiographies Yeats argues that he dreamt of returning to Innisfree to “live, as Thoreau lived, seeking wisdom.” In the poem under examination here the particular nature of the wisdom sought is clarified when one examines the symbolic and mythological connections and allusions of the first stanza of the poem and realizes that the wisdom that is gained in the “bee-loud glade” is a spiritual wisdom, a wisdom “above all the wisdom of the wise”, a wisdom of a poetic character that is gained through an association with the magic and the mystery surrounding the Tuatha da Danaan and the poet who answers the call of the fairy people.

Whereas the first stanza of the poem establishes the general nature of the bonne vaux or sacred combe, the second stanza delineates the benefits derived therefrom. The peace that descends on the speaker in the second stanza is not described in explicit detail, but the colouring and tonality of the stanza, as well as the presence of the linnet, suggest that it is more than a sense of physical relaxation. On a superficial level the imagery of the stanza suggests a quiet rural Irish scene, complete with linnets at evening, mist in the morning, and particular colourations in the skies. The presence of the linnet, however, suggests that the peace achieved is more than physical repose. The linnet occurs in only one other poem by Yeats, “A Prayer for my Daughter,” written some thirty years after the composition of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” In the “Prayer” the linnet functions as a symbol for the purity and sweetness Yeats hopes will be his daughter’s lot:

May she become a flourishing hidden tree That all her thoughts may like the linnet be, And have no business but dispensing round Their magnanimities of sound . . .

The linnet, like the bees in the first stanza of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” is connected with sweetness and beauty. In the second stanza, it is the sound and the sight of the linnet’s wings that attracts the speaker, and in this case suggests an analogy of a spiritual nature, drawing on the traditional association of birds with the soul. This would suggest that the peace achieved through intercourse with the Aes Sidhe is a peace that transcends the merely physical and stands sharply in contrast with the urban, mundane images of the final stanza of the poem.

In the final stanza we are returned from the speaker’s world of reverie to the world of reality. The resolution of the poem’s first line is reiterated, but this time with an insistence not present in the somewhat nostalgic initial statement. Instead we find that now the motivation to return to Innisfree is there “Always night and day” because of the sound of lake water. “To this day the Tribes of the goddess Danu that are in the waters beckon to men . . . ” Yet the beckoning comes not to the physical ear; instead it is heard by “the deep heart’s core.” The sound that lures the speaker back to Innisfree is less a sound that is audible to the physical ear than a prompting to the ear of the spirit. The speaker is drawn back to Innisfree by the fairy magic of the tribes of the goddess Danu. In the choice of words and the use of images in the final stanza, Yeats skillfully makes explicit a contrast both between the rural and the urban and between the physical and the spiritual that has been implicit in the first two stanzas. In reading the final stanza the reader comes to see the noumenal nature of Innisfree.

Through an examination of the precise detail and specific symbolism of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” the reader can come to see that, for Yeats, this small island in Lough Gill, just “opposite Slish Wood”, is more than just a physical place and that the desire to return to that spot is more than simply the homesick reaction of a young man far from his native soil. When one stops seeing the speaker as the author, when one stops viewing the poem simply as a nostalgic lyric, when one looks instead at the poem as an expression of the nature of the artist and his relationship to both the physical and symbolic aspects of his nature, land, and tradition, one begins to see that the lake isle of Innisfree is more than a place; like Byzantium, Innisfree is a state of being. Like Daniel Martin’s Thorncombe, like the Burgundian valley of Monsieur Nicholas, Innisfree is another bonne vaux, a valley of abundance, a sacred combe. In that it is an island, and in that it is enchanted, it is beyond the normal world. As an island it is surrounded by the wall of water, and as a magic place it is enclosed by its superstitions. Green and fertile, it clearly is both a physical garden and a garden or nursery of the spirit. As the former site of the Danaan Quicken tree, it is haunted by the children of the goddess Danu and still exercises its haunting power on those few who will listen through the sound of the lake waters that lap its shores. It is thereby dominated not only by a sense of nostalgia but also by a sense of the magical and mysterious way in which the Aes Sidhe, through the wattles of the dwelling, through the nine bean rows, through the power that the Celtic tradition displays, still influence the life of man. For Yeats, the speaker’s return to Innisfree is a journey in search of poetic wisdom and spiritual peace, a wisdom and peace that can be realized through a poetic and spiritual grasp of the parity that exists between the legendary past of Ireland and the present day, between the tradition and the mind that the spirit of the poet who is attuned to the numinous qualities of la bonne vaux.

Source: C. Stuart Hunter, “Return to la bonne vaux: The Symbolic Significance of Innisfree,” in Modern Language Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer 1984, pp. 70–81.

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Critical Overview