The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

In the 1880s, when Yeats wrote “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” Ireland was in economic and political turmoil, and Yeats and his family were...

(The entire section is 660 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is written with an abab rhyme scheme corresponding to each of the three quatrains in the poem, which...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

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


(The entire section is 146 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

• Parodies are imitations of another work, written to deflate the subject matter of the original. Read Ezra Pound’s poem “The Lake...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

• As part of their Caedmon Treasury of Poets, Harper Audio has published an audiocassette of poets reading their own poems. Poets include...

(The entire section is 263 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

• Yeats was a playwright as well as a poet. To sample some of Yeats’s plays, read The Variorum Edition of the Plays of W. B. Yeats...

(The entire section is 453 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

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

Freud, Sigmund, The Interpretation...

(The entire section is 257 words.)