The Lake Isle of Innisfree

by William Butler Yeats

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The Lake Isle of Innisfree Themes

The three main themes in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” are nature, imagination, and nostalgia.

  • Nature: The speaker longs to go to Innisfree, a place where he can experience the restorative powers of nature and escape the corrupting influences of civilization.
  • Imagination: In keeping with the Romantic emphasis on the imagination, the poem describes the speaker’s vividly imagined daydream.
  • Nostalgia: The speaker’s desire to return to Innisfree is a nostalgic one, based upon Yeats’s recollection of Lough Gill in County Sligo.

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Themes and Meanings

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“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.


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“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, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary.

Yeats also expresses this sentiment when he writes of building a small cabin “of clay and wattles” and living alone “in the bee-loud glade” of Innisfree. Yeats seems to refer to Walden when he writes of the “Nine bean-rows I will have there,” and he underscores the contrast between rural and urban lifestyle in the last lines, when he places himself “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.” Both of these images symbolize the destructive, joy-deadening forces of modern life. Yeats emphasizes the authenticity of the desire to live close to nature, writing that he hears the call to go to Innisfree “in the heart’s deep core.”

A primary feature of Romantic poetry is the idea of the imagination as a faculty that can generate alternate realities. The speaker of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” exercises this faculty by daydreaming about life in the country. The entire poem describes a life that he “will” live, not one he is currently living. The detail of his fantasy suggests that the speaker has entertained this desire previously. Readers can clearly picture the haven the speaker imagines. He enumerates the bean-rows he will have, describes the building materials of his cabin, and lists particular creatures he will hear, i.e., bees, crickets, linnets.

Ever since William Wordsworth’s lyric poems about nature’s beauty and power helped define Romantic verse, poets have used their imaginations to conjure worlds in which they would be more content and where their “true” selves could find peace. But for Yeats, this imagined world remained a fantasy: unlike Thoreau, Yeats never lived the rural life. Rather, he was an urban man of letters, an Irish senator, and a Nobel laureate. Moreover, his later poems never exhibited the degree or kind of romanticism shown in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”

Less than a hundred years before Yeats penned “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” William Wordsworth wrote in a sonnet that “the world is too much with us,” meaning that the human mind and heart are too preoccupied by the material or worldly seductions of urban living. Yeats experienced the urge to return to a simpler, more familiar life as a kind of homesickness which expressed itself as a desire to “return” to Innisfree, a small island at the eastern end of Lough Gill in County Sligo. The poet regularly visited Sligo while growing up, and the inspiration for the poem came when Yeats was living in London and walking Fleet Street, a busy commercial section of the city. The sound of a fountain’s water reminded him of the Sligo lake, and the poem was born. Two other early poems by Yeats which deal with nostalgia and escape are “The Stolen Child” and “To an Isle in the Water.”

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