The Lake Isle of Innisfree

by William Butler Yeats

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The Poem

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“The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” a twelve-line poem divided into three quatrains, is a study in contrasts. The most obvious contrast is between two places: one rural (identified in the title and described throughout much of the poem), the other (alluded to only in the second-to-last line)—by implication—urban.

Innisfree is a small island at the eastern end of Lough Gill in County Sligo, Ireland. William Butler Yeats spent part of nearly every year in Sligo while growing up; he often walked out from Sligo town to Lough Gill. His father having read to him from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), he daydreamed (as he says in The Trembling of the Veil, 1922, incorporated into his Autobiography, 1965) of living “a life of lonely austerityin imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree.” In 1890, while living in London, he was “walking through Fleet Street very homesick [when] I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-windowand began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem Innisfree.”

Yeats imagines escaping from the city to the solitude and peace of a pastoral retreat, there to live a simple life, close to nature. The first stanza states his intention and provides a prospectus for the home he will make for himself, specifying the rustic construction for his cabin and exactly how many rows of beans he will plant. The second stanza, more fancifully imagining what living there will be like, pauses over images that he associates with four different times of day: morning, midnight, noon, and evening. The third stanza reiterates his intention and for the first time suggests what motivates it: the (implied) urban setting and Yeats’s nostalgia for Sligo.

The contrast between the matter-of-fact first and last stanzas and the fanciful middle stanza reinforces the contrast between the quotidian city, with its “grey” pavements, and the idealized country. The opening stanza employs no figurative language; the only figurative language in the closing stanza is the sound of waves “lapping” in “the deep heart’s core.” Otherwise, the language in these stanzas is straightforward and literal, emotionally neutral.

The second stanza, on the other hand, is brimming with metaphors and other figures: “peace comes dropping slow,” as if it were dew; the morning wears “veils”; the cricket “sings”; the “evening [is] full of the linnet’s wings.” Language, imagination, and emotion all rise to a rapturous brief climax in this middle stanza before subsiding. The opening words of stanza 3, echoing the opening words of the poem, cue a return to the everyday world.

Forms and Devices

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The poem’s rhyme scheme is regular; all of its rhymes are exact. In each stanza, the first three lines are in hexameter, the last line in tetrameter. In these respects, the poem is perfectly regular. Its meter is iambic, though only the last line of the poem precisely conforms to the iambic pattern. In each of the other eleven lines, Yeats introduces an extra unstressed syllable just after the midpoint, and the extra syllable is in each case a one-syllable word: “now” in line 1; “there” in lines 2, 3, and 5; and so forth. Virtually all of these words could be deleted without altering the meaning of the poem. Their purpose, clearly, is to contribute not to the poem’s meaning but to its sound and its tempo.

Yeats called “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” “my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric.” The added syllables in lines 1 through 11 contribute to this loosening of rhythm (line 3 adds still another syllable; line 6 adds two more syllables); so, too, does Yeats’s occasional relaxation of and variation from the basic iambic pattern. The loosening of rhythm prevented the poem’s meter from being too mechanical. Absolutely regular cadence produces a monotonous, singsong effect (an aspect of what Yeats called “rhetoric”); and Yeats’s “own music” was not timed by a metronome.

If “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” has something of Yeats’s “own music” in it, it is not—he later realized—fully in his own voice. When he wrote the poem, he was young, and, as he recalled, “I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I would not have written that first line with its conventional archaism—‘Arise and go’—nor the inversion of the last stanza.”

“Arise and go” (in line 9 as well as line 1) echoes the parable of the homesick Prodigal Son: “I will arise and go to my father” (Luke 15:18). Alexander Norman Jeffares points out that line 9 also echoes Mark 5:5: “And always, night and day, he was in the mountains” (A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats, 1968). Such scriptural sonorities, added to the Thoreauvian quality of the first stanza’s humble images and the self-consciously “poetic” diction of the second stanza (“the veils of the morning” for fog and dew; “all a glimmer”), render the poem more literary, more “conventional” than a more mature Yeats would prefer.

Historical Context

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In the 1880s, when Yeats wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Ireland was in economic and political turmoil, and Yeats and his family were struggling financially. It is not surprising that the sound of a water fountain on a bustling London street would remind him of the lapping water of Lough Gill and stir the boyhood dream he had of living on Innisfree, unencumbered by the demands of modern urban life.

Ireland was an agricultural country in the nineteenth century, but British landlords controlled many farms. Farmers had fought for almost three centuries for greater say in their livelihood. In the 1880s, they finally achieved some success. The leader for Irish land reform and Home Rule (i.e., a subordinate parliament for Ireland) was Charles Steward Parnell (1846–1891), often referred to as the “uncrowned King of Ireland.” Parnell, a wealthy Protestant landlord who empathized with the plight of the Irish, was elected to Parliament in 1875 and became head of the Irish Party.

With the backing of Parnell, along with Catholic labor activist Michael Davitt (1846– 1906), liberal British Prime Minister Gladstone enacted the Land Act of 1881, which guaranteed tenant farmers fair rent, protection against eviction, and the freedom to sell or transfer the lease on their farm. Parliament also passed a “franchise act,” adding some 500,000 new voters to the rolls, most of whom were middle-class and poor Catholics who supported Parnell. Still, a Home Rule Bill was defeated in Commons in 1886, and in 1890, Parnell was disgraced when a court revealed he had been “living in sin” with the wife of William Henry O’Shea, a politician and fellow member of the Irish Party.

A second Home Rule Bill was introduced in 1893 but also defeated, this time in the House of Lords. After this defeat, many Irish nationalists, such as Yeats, turned their attention to developing a greater sense of Ireland’s contributions to culture and the arts. For example, Douglas Hyde, who later became president of the Irish Free State, founded the Gaelic League in 1893. The League spear- headed efforts to revive pride in Irish ethnic and national identity, supporting various initiatives to publicize Gaelic language and culture. The “Irish Ireland” movement also included organizations such as The Gaelic Athletic Association, formed to promote traditional Irish sports such as hurling and football.

Almost as soon as the Yeats family moved to London in 1887, Yeats became homesick. The new home, a dark squalid row house in a lower-middleclass neighborhood of Kensington, depressed the entire family, and Yeats often dreamt of returning to Ireland. However, Yeats finally found a measure of solace in the literary scene in London. Not more than a mile from the Yeats’s house lived William Morris, poet and father of the Arts and Crafts movement, whose large house and stables were a meeting ground for writers and artists. Morris befriended Yeats, and the poet wrote for Morris’s socialist magazine, Commonweal.

Yeats returned to Ireland in mid-August, 1887, and stayed there through the end of the year. During this time, he wrote his first major poem, “The Wanderings of Oisin,” crafted from Irish folklore. When Yeats returned to London in 1888, he deepened his associations with London’s writers, including Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. A few years later, along with Ernest Rhys, Yeats formed the Rhymers Club, founded to help young poets get their start. From this group, Yeats became involved with the Irish National Literary Society, whose members he sparred with on and off in the coming years. Yeats was also involved during this time with Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and later with the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn. Blavatsky was an occultist and major figure in England and Ireland in the late nineteenth century; her book, The Occult World, was wildly popular among artists and writers. Blavatsky held séances, practiced magic, and encouraged followers to pursue “union with the absolute.” Her emphasis on the spiritual aspects of existence resonated with Yeats’s own anti-materialist sentiments.

Literary Style

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“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is written with an abab rhyme scheme corresponding to each of the three quatrains in the poem, which are defined as a stanza composed of four lines which may or may not have a set line length. Also prevalent is the use of alliteration and assonance, both of which emphasize the musical tone and rhythm of the piece.

When a stanza in a poem has a pattern of rhymes it is called a “rhyme scheme.” “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” utilizes end rhyme in an abab rhyme scheme. This means that the end of the first line of a stanza rhymes with the end of the third line, and the end of the second line of a stanza rhymes with the end of the fourth line. All three of the quatrains in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” display an abab rhyme scheme.

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” uses “alliteration” and “assonance” to emphasize the sound and mood of the poem. Alliteration is the repetition of certain consonants in a poem which are often used in order to stress a word or phrase. Notice the sound of the consonants ‘l’ and ‘s’ in the following line:

“I hear lake water lapping with the low sounds by the shore.” Read the line aloud and notice the emphasis on the words “lapping,” “low,” and “shore.” Assonance occurs when the vowel sounds attached to different consonants are repeated in a poem. Notice the sound of the vowels ‘i’ and ‘o’ in the following line:

“I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.”

Assonance is less clear than either rhyme or alliteration, but its use is similar. It links important words or phrases in the poem together.

Compare and Contrast

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1880s: Unionists and Catholics are locked in battle over the sovereignty of Ireland. Scores of people die in riots.

Today: Despite progress in talks, violence continues between Unionists and Catholics in Northern Ireland, with numerous casualties on both sides.

1880s: Groups advocating occultism and magic gain a high degree of popularity in England and Ireland. Yeats himself participates in a number of these groups, including the Theosophical Society and the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn.

Today: The western world experiences a renewed interest in occultism and various forms of magic. The Order of the Golden Dawn remains in existence and now has its own web site.

1880s: The Celtic Revival, a movement against the cultural influences of English rule in Ireland, seeks to promote the spirit of Ireland’s native heritage.

Today: Irish Americans flock to Ireland to explore their ethnic roots and cultural heritage.

Media Adaptations

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• As part of their Caedmon Treasury of Poets, Harper Audio has published an audiocassette of poets reading their own poems. Poets include e. e. cummings, W. H. Auden, and Yeats reading “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The tape is 155 minutes in length.

• Yeats reads “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” and “Song of the Old Mother” on In Their Own Voices (1996), on the Rhino Word Beat label.

• Judy Collins sings “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” on her 1971 album Judy Collins: Living. Hamilton Camp wrote the music for the song.

• John Aschenbrenner’s song cycle To an Isle in the Water (1998) comprises settings of Yeats’s poems including “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” The album is published by Isle Enterprises.

• In the video The Poetry of William Butler Yeats actors Stephanie Beacham, Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands, Minnie Driver and others read Yeats’s poems and discuss his life.

• The Yeats Society of New York, online at, contains a wealth of information about the poet and links to other Yeats sites on the web.

• In 1953, Audio-Forum released an audiocassette of poet Stephen Spender reading Yeats’s poems. The title is W. B. Yeats. The tape can be purchased from Jeffrey Norton Publishers, 96 Broad St., Guilford, CT 06437.

• The video Yeats Country (1965) juxtaposes Yeats’s poetry with scenes of the Ireland he wrote about. It is distributed by International Film Bureau.

• Insight Video distributes the documentary Yeats Remembered, a biographical film using period photographs and interviews with the poet and his family. It can be purchased from Insight Media, 2162 Broadway, NY, NY 10024.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Ellmann, Richard, Yeats: The Man and the Masks, Norton, 1978.

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation of Dreams, edited by James Strachey, Avon, 1983.

Leavis, F. R., “The Situation at the End of the War,” in New Bearings in English Poetry: A Study of the Contemporary Situation, AMS Press Inc., 1978, pp. 27–74.

Merritt, Henry, “Rising and Going: The ‘Nature’ of Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ ” in Journal of the English Association, Vol. 47, No. 188, Summer, 1998.

Thoreau, Henry David, Walden: An Annotated Edition, edited by Walter Harding, Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

Tindall, William York, W. B. Yeats, Columbia University Press, 1966, p. 31.

Wilson, Edmund, “W. B. Yeats,” in Alex’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930, Charles Scribner’s, 1931, pp. 26–63.

Yeats, W. B., The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, Collier, 1967.

Further Reading
Alldritt, Keith, W. B. Yeats: The Man and the Milieu, Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1997. This is a very accessible study of the ways in which Yeats carefully constructed his public image as poet, nationalist, and literary activist. Alldritt explores the ways in which Yeats’s social environment contributed to his identity.

Graves, Robert, The Common Asphodel: Collected Essays on Poetry, 1922–1949, Hamilton, 1949, pp. 186–88. Graves’s reading of Yeats’s poem is one of the harshest pieces of criticism written about it.

Jeffares, Norman A., W. B. Yeats: A New Biography, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1988. This is Jeffares second biography of Yeats. His first appeared just ten years after the poet’s death. In this biography, Jeffares charts the stages of Yeats’s career, telling the story of his turbulent personal and public lives.

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Critical Essays