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Critical Analysis of Poem 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' by W.B.Yeats

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.



'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' Analysis

'The Lake Isle Of Innisfree' is perhaps the best known of all Yeats' poems. It has been a popular choice of anthologists since it was first published in 1890 and has made Innisfree, a tiny island in Lough Gill in County Sligo, Ireland, now a place of pilgrimage.

This green and watery landscape is where the young Yeats spent time as a child and the idyllic imagery remained strong in his memory. He wrote the poem when he was in his early 20s, stuck in the metropolis of London, homesick, struggling to get his name known and his poems out in suitable form.

  • Unbeknown to many, the basic theme is based on the daydreams of a character in a novel Yeat's wrote in 1891, John Sherman. And the catalyst for the poem was a jet of water in a shop window on the Strand in London. Yeats saw and heard the water spout, set up for a drinks advertisement, and the tinkling sound reminded him of Lough Gill's Innisfree. And don't forget that Yeats had also been influenced by the writings of H.D.Thoreau, who wrote Walden.

When Innisfree was finished, Yeats finally declared that it was 'my first lyric with any thing in its rhythm of my own music.'

It had taken him a long time to complete the poem. Originally it had a different rhythm and many more syllables in long rambling lines but, with perseverance and skill, he cut and polished the lines to reach a final successful outcome.

As he matured, however, he became disenchanted with his earlier work, including Innisfree, and said to his publisher in 1920 that 'the popular poems I wrote before I knew better' ought to be included in an anthology about to be published, to maximise sales. Yeats thought that his celtic period, so called, was not modern or cutting edge enough.

Yet he still did important readings in the 1930s of this poem and others written at around the same time. His highly formal aging voice can be heard on the BBC as he reads out the lines with 'great emphasis on the rhythm'. Seamus Heaney thought the readings were great, saying that Yeats' speaking voice was like an 'elevated chant.'

Some poets, and many people, will always yearn for quiet, out-of-the-way places, where noise, pollution and crowds do not exist. 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree', with its Irish folk resonance and liturgical undercurrents, taps into the soul's desire for peace, harmony and natural surroundings.

'The Lake Isle Of Innisfree'

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.

Literary Devices in the Poem

'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' is a three-stanza poem, each quatrain made up of three long lines and one short. The rhyme scheme is abab and all end rhymes are full. This brings a sense of closure and order.

  • What is striking about this poem is the lilting rhythm within each line, the way the caesura play a vital role in slowing the rhythms down and the stressed repetition of certain words and phrases.
  • The syllabic content of each stanza is worth looking at too. Note the pattern: 13,13,14,9 / 13,15,13,9 / 13,13,13,8 so this is definitely not a poem of fourteeners (regular 14 syllable lines) as many would have us believe. The caesura occurs after 7 syllables in the first three lines of each stanza, except for line 6, which is exceptional.
  • The opening line, with the narrative verb, will, implies that the speaker is looking into the future, promising himself peace and an ideal existence. He wants to escape now, while he's in the present, standing in the midst of the traffic, in the crowds, in the dreary hubbub of the city. So the poem's progress reflects an inner wish, to get away from the anxiety of the current life to the harmony of a rural idyll.
  • Alliteration, assonance and consonance all occur in the poem. Look at lines 10, 3 and 4 for examples. Listen for: live alone in the bee-loud glade/all a glimmer/purple glow/full of the linnet's/lake water lapping with low sounds.
  • Anaphora, or repetition of words and phrases, occurs throughout the poem.
  • Take note of: build there/have there/peace there.

Metrical Analysis of the Poem

This is a poem of strong rhythms and unexpected stresses which combine with caesura to produce long lines that surge forward and then loosen off, a little bit like the waters washing around Innisfree.

A complex musicality adds to the idea of a rural idyll filled with birdsong, bee and cricket sounds. Contrast this with the tension induced by varied syntax and stress, reflecting the slight anxiety the speaker feels about life in the city, as his vision pulls him away.

Fundamentally built of hexameter and tetrameter, with six feet establishing the longer lines and four feet in the shorter, there are important variations in certain lines that merit closer study.

Structural repeats help reinforce the idea that the speaker wishes to get away from the grey prison of the city and escape to the dream.

Line 1

Let's focus on each line. The first line can be read as a straightforward iambic:

  • I will / arise / and go now, / and go / to Inn / isfree,

This works as an iambic hexameter, with an extra beat before the comma, the punctuated caesura. The third foot becomes an amphibrach (u x u).

Yeats gave emphasis to the go now when he read out his poem on radio:

  • I will / arise / and go now, / and go / to Inn / isfree,

This still scans as iambic but the third foot becomes a bacchius (u x x). Yeats placed great importance on the rhythm of his poem, which was traditional at the time, and read it in a slow, regimented way. Nowadays, people are not so focused on the detailed technicalities of stress and beat, but it is vital to remember that the rhythm still counts.

  • Note the repetition of and go which completely alters the pace of the line after the caesura, slowing it down. The long vowel of the now also has the same effect. It's as if there is a sigh as the speaker pauses to recollect his initial thoughts, before moving on to the actual place he intends to journey.

Line 2

The second line again sees seven syllables take the reader to the caesura, with further information given by the speaker. He wants to build a small cabin with clay and wattles (a framework of branches/sticks woven together and covered in clay or cement to help in building walls):

  • And a small / cabin / build there, / of clay / and wat / tles made;

The second clause of this line is regular iambic, the first clause a mix of anapaest (u u x), and two trochees (x u). Again, there is the emphasis on moving forward, with strong stress offset by long vowels, and the second clause slowing everything down.

Line 3

As the poem progresses, the speaker builds up the imagery, creating a wish list in readiness for life on this distant island. He will need sustenance, so wants to grow fresh food and have honey:

  • Nine bean- / rows will / I have there,/ a hive / for the hon / ey-bee,

Note the anapaest among the iambs in the latter clause and the opening spondee.

Line 4

The fourth line is a tetrameter, concluding the previous three lines as the speaker declares that he will live a solo life on this dream island:

  • And live / alone / in the bee- /loud glade.

Iambic with an anapaest and spondee. The soft alliteration and long vowels bring the first quatrain to a peaceful yet pulsing end.

More Line By Line Analysis

Line 5

The opening of the second quatrain affirms the speaker's need for solitude and quiet. He wants peace:

  • And I / shall have / some peace there, / for peace / comes drop / ping slow,

Again, a split of 7/6 syllables, with an extra beat which can be scanned as an amphibrach (u x u) in an otherwise iambic line. The narrative verb will has changed to shall yet the sentiment is the same - the speaker's desire to escape the confines of the city strengthens.

Line 6

As if to further deepen the peace, the speaker adds almost as an afterthought that this peace is like a liquid, it comes dropping:

  • Dropping / from the veils / of the / morning / to where / the crick / et sings;

Fifteen syllables and no punctuation - the caesura is a natural one - after morning there is a pause. Note the opening trochee and anapaest, and pyrrhic, to alter the rhythm and pace of this rather musical heptameter line.

Line 7

The reader is taken yet further into the speaker's vision of the near future. The opening word There is a sure indication that it is foremost in the mind's eye:

  • There mid / night's all / a glim / mer, and noon / a pur / ple glow,

Mostly iambic with an anapaest. Again we have the alliteration and the assonance, which reinforce the effects of the long and short vowels. The second clause slows the pace down.

Line 8

The last line of the second quatrain brings a delightful image, that of the small finch, a songster, flying across the island as the sun sets:

  • And eve / ning full / of the lin / net's wings.

So, a line of iambic tetrameter with an anapaest.

Line 9

The final quatrain begins with the speaker repeating the initial desire from the first line - he wants to go to Innisfree now - as if there is no time to lose:

  • I will arise and go now, for always night and day

So basically the same iambic hexameter line with that different third foot, that extra unstressed word just before the comma, the caesura. Note the enjambment - no punctuation to end the line, it carries on into line two, so the reader's voice hardly pauses.

Line 10

  • I hear / lake wa / ter lapping / with low / sounds by / the shore;

Similar to the first line, mostly iambic, only with natural caesura after lapping which alliterates with lake and low, as does sounds with shore. Note the imperfect echo of hear in shore.

Line 11

  • While I stand / on the / roadway, / or on / the pave / ments grey,

Mostly iambic, with an anapaest, pyrrhic and trochee, and a definite caesura. Perhaps the least musical line of the whole poem. Note the inverted syntax - pavements grey - which today sounds a bit old-fashioned but is a poetic necessity in this poem, giving the additional internal rhyme.

Line 12

  • I hear / it in / the deep / heart's core.

The final line, a tetrameter, breaks the iambic hold, and there is a stress-fest at the end which could be the speaker's heart thumping.


Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

100 Essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee,2005

The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005

© 2017 Andrew Spacey