Last week, I had the pleasure of reading, and discussing with a class of children, The Lake Isle of Innisfree by William Butler Yeats.
Now, Yeats was such a prolific playwright and poet, and he had such a complicated — not to say convoluted — personal philosophy, that in my university days I actually took an entire class just about Yeats. And I didn’t become an expert, either. Taking a class just sort of orients you to the man. Anyway, perhaps I was a bad student, but I don’t recall reading this particular poem.
Yeats was almost a terrorist, but it turns out, he could write an evocative poem about the beauty of nature with the best of them. (Actually, there might be quite a few terrorists who could do that.)
I’m going to analyze the poem first, and then post it down below, so you can see the different elements coming and marvel at Yeats’ mastery of the language. But if you like your poetry straight, no appetizer, feel free to scroll down and read it first.
I could say a lot about finding peace in nature, and how far that’s a valid concept and what its limitations are, but I won’t. The impulse is universal enough that elementary school students can understand it. I’m sure you’ve felt it, and I’m sure you’ve had your own thoughts about it too. What I want to discuss is the masterful way that Yeats slows the reader down.
The most obvious way is his use of three stressed syllables at the end of a line. The first stanza ends with the words “bee loud glade,” and there is no way to read this except slowly and with emphasis. This is also true of the last three words of the poem, which will echo in the reader’s mind: “deep heart’s core.”
Secondly, Yeats makes you repeat yourself a lot. “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” Repeating the verb, and chaining it on to more detail, prevents the reader from hurrying the line, and it gives the impression that the speaker is rather relaxed. (Relaxed would not have been the first word I’d say, if you had said to me, “Yeats.”)
Finally — and I know this may sound a little strange — this poem has a lot of l’s. Glade, glimmer, linnet, slow, clay and wattles, lake water lapping, shall, will, while, always … the list goes on. L is not the easiest sound to say, as consonants go. You have to put your tongue on the roof of your mouth and leave it there for a moment, allowing the air to flow around it … much like water around an obstruction in a lake. Because [l] is voiced, it gives a warm, rich, liquid rather than an airy feeling. In fact, [l] is classified as a liquid, a consonant in which the air flow is not completely obstructed. As you read this poem that keeps forcing you to slow down a bit and to practice your l’s, you can almost feel the peace dropping over you.
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 the lake water lapping with the low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
William Bulter Yeats