The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” expresses a set of desires familiar in the modern world: to escape, to achieve peace and solitude, to be at one with nature. Yeats says almost nothing in the poem about what he would like to escape from, but his reader can easily imagine the stressful conditions of modern, especially urban, life. Such desires have been common themes in Romantic literature since the beginning of the nineteenth century, and “Innisfree” is a good example of late nineteenth century Romanticism.

Many of Yeats’s early (pre-1900) poems express the feeling that, in William Wordsworth’s phrase, “the world is too much with us.” Poem after early poem articulates a longing for peace, for escape. The refrain in “The Stolen Child” (1886) is a seductive call to “Come away” from the world (seen as “full of weeping”) “To the waters and the wild.” “To an Isle in the Water” (1889) differs from “Innisfree” by expressing a wish to go away not alone but accompanied by the “Shy one of my heart.” Otherwise, the poem seems to be a study, a preliminary sketch for “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

While “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is an early poem, it is in some respects transitional, pointing toward Yeats’s mature work. As its loosened rhythms contain something of his “own music,” so its images and vocabulary reveal something of his own emerging language. Again, a contrast may be drawn between the middle stanza and those that enclose it.

The middle stanza is vague, not fully in focus. What, after all, do “midnight’s all a glimmer” or “noon a purple glow” mean, exactly? One might guess that the glimmering is moonlight reflected on the lake, but it would be only a guess; and who can even hazard a guess about what glows purple at noontime? One cannot be sure whether “evening full of the linnet’s wings” is meant to appeal to the mind’s eye or ear. Yeats would eschew such imprecise images in his mature poetry. Similarly, “glimmer” is representative of Yeats’s late Victorian diction, rife with such murmurous words which, after the turn of the century, all but disappeared from his working vocabulary.

Yeats never went to Innisfree, built a cabin, or laid out bean-rows. Instead of finding a refuge on an uninhabited island, he helped found and manage the Irish National Theatre; became the central, essential figure in the Irish Literary Revival; became a prolific playwright; became, indeed, a very “public man,” an Irish senator and Nobel laureate. Although “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” with its escapist wish, offers no hint of these future developments, in form and technique it contains the seeds of his future poetry. He was to transform himself from a late Victorian dreamy Romantic into the dominant poet of the twentieth century, and the transitional “Innisfree” offers a preview of that transformation.

Themes

(Poetry for Students)

Nature
“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” expresses the idea that nature provides an inherently restorative place to which human beings can go to escape the chaos and corrupting influences of civilization. In his autobiography, Yeats writes that his poem was influenced by his reading of American writer Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), which describes Thoreau’s experiment of living alone in a small hut in the woods on Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau lived in his one-room house from 1845–1847, gardening, writing, and studying natural history. Thoreau championed the solitary, self-sufficient life lived in harmony with nature, considering it more authentic than a life spent balancing ledgers or working for someone else. He disdained the ways working for a living and acquiring material goods can control one’s life. Explaining his motivation for the experiment, Thoreau writes in Walden:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not,...

(The entire section is 1,154 words.)