In William Butler Yeats poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ the author presents an idyllic setting. In this lesson, we will both summarize and analyze this 3-stanza poem and discover what drew Yeats to this peaceful place of refuge on Lough Gill in Ireland.

Background on Yeats

Noted poet and playwright William Butler Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1865 and received an education in both Dublin and London. Throughout his career, he was deeply invested in helping Ireland reclaim a literary culture of its own, free from English influence. When Yeats wrote ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ in 1888, his journey into poetry had just begun; he wouldn’t even have anything published for a year (‘Lake Isle’ itself was published in 1890). ‘Lake Isle’ is not nearly as metaphysical or supernatural as Yeats’s most famous works (like his calling card, 1920’s ‘The Second Coming’), but in it we can still see a voice that’s distinctly Yeats. Its subject of natural Irish beauty, for instance, betrays Yeats’s own nationalism. The poem is also personal: When Yeats wrote ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree,’ he was living in London, and one could guess he longed for the beauty and simplicity of the country life he had experienced as a child.

The Actual Lake Isle of Innisfree

The Lake Isle of Innisfree is a real place near the coast of Ireland. It is not inhabited and is on Lough Gill, a lake in County Sligo. The lake itself is approximately five and a half miles in length and one and a half miles wide, so it is very small. Yeats would go to Sligo as a child on vacations, so it was a good memory for him. It is a quiet place. Think of somewhere you know and love, a woodsy place where you can hear the frogs and birds, a place to get away. That might be your Innisfree.

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The Poem

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

Summary/Analysis of the Poem

Yeats makes a decision at the beginning of this poem. He says, ‘I will arise and go now.’ He has decided to make the break from modern society and all of the hectic madness it can bring and go to a place he loves, Innisfree.

Yeats then describes Innisfree. He decides to build a cabin of clay and ‘wattles’ to live in. Wattles are strong sticks that interweave to form a structure. He imagines his garden with exactly nine rows for growing beans, and he wants to have a beehive for honey. He then will live by himself in the ‘bee-loud glade.’ Here Yeats wonderfully expresses that all he will hear is the loud drone of bees, not the drone of civilization.

The next line is really the crux of what Yeats longs for in Innisfree – peace. By saying that ‘peace comes dropping slow,’ Yeats continues to let us know that from the time the morning dawns until evening when the ‘cricket sings,’ there is a gradual pacing of the day until evening falls. There is no stress, no noise. All is an expression of peace.

Midnight is ‘all a glimmer’ with stars, and he calls noon a ‘purple glow.’ There are small birds, or linnets. Once again, Yeats affirms that now is the time to ‘arise and go’ because he always hears ‘lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.’ Yeats lived in London when he wrote this poem, and he didn’t literally hear the lake. He heard it in his memory. He longed for that peaceful place.

He continues to say that when he is on the ‘pavement,’ on the ‘roadway’ – in the city – he hears that lake in the deepest part or ‘core’ of his heart. Yeats’ word choice is so precise here, for the core of a person is where that person is grounded. Yeats realizes that he is grounded and most at peace at Innisfree.

Themes of the Poem

One theme in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is nature versus civilization. What we value in nature is often the exact opposite of what civilization brings. Also, civilization sometimes destroys the peace that nature provides. Another theme may be simplicity versus materialism. Yeats realized that what he longed for was the simplicity that his island refuge could bring. That was the call to his heart’s ‘core.’

Through his use of imagery, Yeats makes us see Innisfree, this lovely, peaceful island. We long for a place like that as well and understand his desire for simplicity in a complex world.

Lesson Summary

‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ is a poem by William Butler Yeats, an Irish poet and playwright. The poem is about an actual place near the coast of Ireland, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, which is a very small, uninhabited island on the lake Lough Gill, in County Sligo. The poem describes the isle as a much longed-for place of peace and natural beauty, a quiet place where the speaker feels most grounded. Because Yeats wrote the poem while living in busy London and remembering his refuge in rural Ireland, two themes of the poem are nature versus civilization and simplicity versus materialism.

Learning Outcomes

When you are finished, you should be able to:

  • Recall who William Butler Years was
  • Summarize Yeats’ poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’
  • Discuss the content and major themes of the poem