The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats

Start Your Free Trial

Download The Lake Isle of Innisfree Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 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.

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 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...

(The entire section is 2,463 words.)