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William Butler Yeats’ "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and "Easter, 1916"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

Introduction and Text of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

William Butler Yeats tells of the genesis of his pastoral poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree": he was walking through Fleet Street in the West End of London, when he spied a little shop window. On a jet of water, a ball was balancing, and the water reminded him of the lake in Sligo, the beloved Irish county of his childhood.

The sight rendered his homesickness even more intense. He explains that at this point in his life he entertained the goal of building a Thoreauvian cabin on the island. He remarks that the poem came from that memory of his desire to live on Innisfree.

The poet had been experimenting with a loose rhythm, attempting to divorce his verse from other types of rhetoric. He had determined that he needed to use ordinary syntax without elevated, stylized language.

He asserted that a few years after the composition of his poem, he would not have employed such a "conventional archaism" as "arise and go." He also would never had employed the inversion that he had done in the final stanza.

Composed of three innovative stanzas with the rime-scheme, ABABCDCDEFEF, with an irregular but mesmerizing rhythm, the poem offers a peaceful atmosphere that the speaker creates as he dreams of building a quiet little Thoreauvian cabin where he will live out his days in serenity and simplicity.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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.

Yeats reading his "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

Yeats’ Reading Style

About reading his poems aloud, Yeats has warned that he would be reading his poem "with great emphasis upon their rhythm." He confesses that his style may appear to be odd to those who are hearing him read for the first time.

Yeats then relates a memory of the English poet, William Morris, whom Yeats encountered walking out of a lecture hall.

Morris became enraged by a shoddy reading of a passage from his Sigurd the Volsung; he complained, "it gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get that thing into verse." So he was angered that the reader had failed to respect the piece as poetry rather than prose.

Thus, Yeats determined that he would not read his pieces as prose because like Morris, "It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read." His great emphasis respects the reading as poem not just a mere piece of informative text.

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Listening to such a dramatic reading is likely to give the poem a new shine of specialness; Yeats felt that prose worked under a duller sheen, and thus his reading style demonstrates clearly that he assigned greater drama to poetry.

Innisfree Island in Lough Gill

Innisfree Island in Lough Gill

Commentary on "Lake Isle of Innisfree"

The speaker becomes very specific as claims he will have "[n]ine bean-rows"; his bucolic island paradise will afford him a peaceful life, as he opines, creating a pastoral portrait of a blissful, quite life.

First Stanza: Seeking a Life of Peace

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.

The speaker reports his intention to get up and set forth on his journey to the island of "Innisfree." He announces his plan to construct a "small cabin" of materials from his immediate environment.

He very specifically determines to have "[n]ine bean-rows"; he will also maintain a beehive "for the honey-bee." And he insists he will live alone. His dreamy goal is appealing and offers solace to the crowd-heavy, business-stressed heart and mind.

Second Stanza: Peace Will Come Slow

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.

In the second stanza, the speaker announces with determination that he will, indeed, "have some peace there." But still peace will overtake him slowly, like drops of water from a dewy morning that hangs in veils. The water dripping image and morning veils exist "where the cricket sings."

But at midnight everything will seem to "glimmer" as opposed to the "purple glow" of noon. His evenings will be filled with watching birds fly off in all directions. Thus, he has continued to paint a pastoral portrait of his new life, founded on peace with the assistance of natural phenomena.

Third Stanza: Listening with the Heart

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.

The third stanza finds the speaker still only dreaming about his peaceful life on Innisfree. Even as he claims again that he "will arise and go," he returns to his current living situation where "night and day" he can hear the water lapping the shore.

The speaker has not yet journeyed forth to his island paradise, but instead, he is standing "on the roadway" or "on the pavements" listening to those lapping waters. And those waters touch him deeply; he is listening not only with ears but from the depth of his heart.

He implies that he will keep his wish to one day arise and go build a simple, little cabin, growing his own beans and practicing bee-keeping. He will continue to hope that he will one day feel that peace come over him like droplets of water cascading from the veils of dewey mornings, while listening to crickets.

He will continue to watch for the glimmer of midnight as well as the purple glow of noontide.

And he will listen with hungry ears that feed his very heart’s core with the nostalgic sound of lapping waters upon the shore of the lake—upon the very shore of his soul that yearns for peace and harmony that only nature and solitude can bring.

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats

William Butler Yeats' "Easter, 1916"

William Butler Yeats' poem, "Easter, 1916," dramatizes the Yeatsian musing regarding the Irish uprising labeled the Easter Rising. That act happened one week following the Easter of 1916 in Dublin, Ireland.

Introduction and Text of "Easter, 1916"

On April 24, 1916, a group of Irish rebels seized the General Post Office in Dublin and held it for several days. After they surrendered, sixteen of them were executed, and others were imprisoned.

Although Yeats served as a senator from 1922 to 1928 in the first Irish senate, his attitude toward politics in general is best summarized by the lines from his little poem, "Politics" with the epigraph by Thomas Mann: "In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in political terms":

Politics

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics,
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has both read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms.

As even a cursory perusal of Yeats' "Easter, 1916" will reveal, the poet was more interested in the personal than the political. Instead of asserting a deeply held belief about any political stance, he would make vague dramas out of political issues, even something as profound as the independence of his native land.

In "Easter 1916," the speaker delivers six stanzas of these mild dramas that swirl around the Easter Rising event and the players who took part, some of whom Yeats had known personally.

Easter, 1916

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.


Reading of "Easter, 1916" by Liam Neeson

Commentary on "Easter, 1916"

William Butler Yeats' poem, "Easter, 1916," dramatizes the Yeatsian musing regarding the Irish uprising labeled the Easter Rising. That act happened one week following the Easter of 1916 in Dublin, Ireland.

First Movement: Political Posturing in "Polite Meaningless Words"

I have met them at close of day
Coming with vivid faces
From counter or desk among grey
Eighteenth-century houses.
I have passed with a nod of the head
Or polite meaningless words,
Or have lingered awhile and said
Polite meaningless words,
And thought before I had done
Of a mocking tale or a gibe
To please a companion
Around the fire at the club,
Being certain that they and I
But lived where motley is worn:
All changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

In the first movement of "Easter, 1916," the speaker begins by claiming he had seen his fellow countrymen coming home from work, and "I have passed with a nod of the head / Or polite meaningless words."

The speaker's small talk with his fellows demonstrates apathy that changed after the Easter event because at the end of the first stanza the speaker introduces what becomes a refrain: "All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born."

His speaker notes that the mood of Ireland after the Rising is that people are stirred up and ready to fight for independence from England, but he also demonstrates that he is not as excited about the possibility as they are.

While strong-willed patriots would find independence of their homeland a profoundly beautiful thing, this speaker portrays it as a terrible beauty, about which he remains ambivalent.

Second Movement: Yeats: More Interested in Art than Politics

That woman's days were spent
In ignorant good-will,
Her nights in argument
Until her voice grew shrill.
What voice more sweet than hers
When, young and beautiful,
She rode to harriers?
This man had kept a school
And rode our wingèd horse;
This other his helper and friend
Was coming into his force;
He might have won fame in the end,
So sensitive his nature seemed,
So daring and sweet his thought.
This other man I had dreamed
A drunken, vainglorious lout.
He had done most bitter wrong
To some who are near my heart,
Yet I number him in the song;
He, too, has resigned his part
In the casual comedy;
He, too, has been changed in his turn,
Transformed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road,
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

The people referenced in the second movement are thought to be Constance Markievicz, "the woman whose days were spent / In ignorant good-will" and who "argued politics so vehemently at night that her voice grew shrill," and yet the speaker remembers when her voice was sweet, "When, young and beautiful, / She rode to harriers?"

The others include Patrick Pearse and Thomas MacDonagh—the former founded a school and along with the latter who assisted in the school. But the speaker of this poem is more interested in their possibilities as writers and artists.

About Pearse, "he rode our wingèd horse," an allusion to Pegasus, the winged horse of poetry. About MacDonagh, he claims, "He might have won fame in the end, / So sensitive his nature seemed, / So daring and sweet his thought."

In the second movement, the speaker muses about the usefulness of all that passion that sparked the rebels to make such a bold move. But the speaker emphasizes the fact that many folks and the entire atmosphere have been transformed, even the "drunken, vainglorious lout," whom he hated has been altered.

Subsequently, the Yeatsian speaker then repeats "A terrible beauty is born." Also in the second movement, the speaker focuses his musing philosophically on the hardening of the heart by two roads: one dedicated to the cause, the other just having sacrificed too much for too long a time.

The speaker then poses an important, even vitally important question: "Was it needless death after all?" The speaker remains somewhat uncertain how to think about and feel for his fellow countrymen, who became rebellious, storming government edifices and resisting authority.

Third Movement: The Yeatsian Drama of Musings

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child
When sleep at last has come
On limbs that had run wild.
What is it but nightfall?
No, no, not night but death;
Was it needless death after all?
For England may keep faith
For all that is done and said.
We know their dream; enough
To know they dreamed and are dead;
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse—
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

The final movement finds the speaker reporting that it is possible that England will, in fact, grant Ireland its independence. Will those who died in the struggle then have died in vain, however, if the goal is reached too quickly? Would that not indicate that a much easier, less deadly route could have been taken?

The speaker suggests that whatever happens no one can deny that those rebels will have died for their dreams. This speaker still cannot completely commit to those dreams. All he can admit is that everything has changed and "A terrible beauty is born."

The Yeatsian musing of drama ultimately finds only that things have changed. The speaker cannot say if they have changed for better for worse. He and his generation will have to wait to see how that "terrible beauty" matures.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 21, 2021:

Nice to hear from you again, Patricia. Yes, Yeats is a master poet on many levels. His works add much brilliance and drama to the world of poetry. His little drama about the aspiration to live on the Lake Isle offers a unique view of the universal desire for peace, harmony, and balance in life.

Congrats on your own bean rows and bumble bees. Our beans climb up thin cords, makes picking them easier than bending over the bush-style. Having a vegetable garden is a blessing.

Thank you for sending the angels. Sending back many blessings and good wishes to you and yours!

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on October 21, 2021:

Thank you for sharing...had not read of his Innisfree. I am enthralled by his poetry and that of many others as it is a form of composition that escapes me. I have my bean rows no honeybees but bumble bees aplenty!! Angels are headed your way this morning. ps

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