🎤POEM: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats

“The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats, Irish (1865-1939)


I first studied this poem in sixth grade. My teacher, Mrs. O’ Brien, was a fervent Yeats enthusiast, placing him on an Irish poetry pedestal like a mythical, Celtic god. In her opinion, Yeats was the greatest poet ever to walk on Irish soil, and woe betides any child who disagreed with her. Having analyzed and learned the poem by heart–we memorized everything in those days–Mrs. O’Brien instructed us to write a three-page essay on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” identifying and discussing the aspects of nature. Apart from writing about bee hives, the linnet’s wings, and the lapping lake, I also declared that Yeats was unrealistic in planting nine bean rows. After all, beans spread like crazy, and he would have had enough beans to feed an army. And besides, what about cabbage, potatoes, and carrots? A person couldn’t live on beans, not on an island–not even a poet. You may wonder at my knowledge of beans at the tender age of twelve. Suffice it to say that my father was an avid gardener, and he had “experimented” with beans, carrots, lettuce, and various other vegetables and berry bushes that spread like plagues in our back garden every year. I asked my father about the bean problem.

Nine bean rows? Yeats, you say?  What was he thinking?”
“Dunno, Dad. Need to write something.”
“Maybe two.  Two rows would be enough.”
“Well, we had to give them all away last year.  Remember? The beans, I mean, or was it peas? Anyway-”
“I remember, Dad.”
“Sure, it was enough to feed an army!”  Dad leaned on the handle of his spade, shaking his head.  “Yeats!  What did he know about gardening? Probably never dug a hole in his life!”

Now that I had done my official research on the growing habits of beans in a fertile Irish garden, I quoted my Dad, word for word. Mrs. O’Brien was not amused by my newly found horticultural knowledge. She shook her head, muttering, “You never question Yeats!” and gave me a big red “D” for my efforts. My mother said, “See, Sarah? That’s what happens when you think for yourself.” She smiled. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

W. B. Yeats

W. B. Yeats

All these years later, I revisit Yeats’ poem with fresh eyes. I realize, now, that his poem is not a realistic description of Innisfree: it is Yeats’ dream of a mythical place where “peace comes dropping slow.” Like Henry Thoreau, who built his cabin in the woods of Walden, Yeats creates his imaginary cabin on Innisfree–his Utopia–where he can live a simple life, and, I presume, survive on beans and honey!

William Butler Yeats is one of poetry’s towering figures and beloved Irish poets of the 20th century. He founded the Abbey Theater in Dublin and participated in the Irish Celtic Revival. While a Senator, he devoted much of his time to The Irish Free State. As a poet and a romantic visionary, his verse is very straightforward and direct–full of passion and yearning. Yeats wrote:

“A line will take us hours maybe,
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.”
William Butler Yeats

Some of my favorite poems by Yeats include:
“The Wild Swans at Coole”
“Easter 1916”
“He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”
“Down by the Salley Gardens”
“When You are Old
“The Song of the Wandering Aengus”

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Sarah M. Fredericks © 2015

Carpe Librum!📚 Seize the Book…and let the page-turning begin!


Filed under AUDIO🎤, Ireland, POEM

14 responses to “🎤POEM: “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” by William Butler Yeats

  1. John Rieber (aka John Karlsson)

    Lovely! I was first introduced to Yeats’ poetry listening to Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers and the Irish/American Folk Singer, Poet, Mystic, and TV voice actor (“The Smurfs”), Hamilton Camp. When I was in graduate school, I bought a book of Yeats’ poetry, and “A History of Modern Ireland” by one of the professors at the University of Washington, where I was supposed to be studying Computer Science. (I never did finish my thesis.)


    • I am not familiar with the poet/actor, Hamilton Camp. However, I occasionally enjoyed Makem and Clancy’s music on the radio while growing up in Ireland. I also remember my mother reading Yeats’ fairytales/myths to me and my younger siblings. Oh…the good old days!😊


  2. Sarah,
    Your literature reviews are so rich in content and historical background, beautifully illuminating the author and his work. I particularly love your recollections of your parents in this article and will forever think of them when I read Yeats.
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Richard

    Hi Sarah
    Lovely reading of Yeats’ poem. I think there are many times when all of us would like to find some peace in an idyllic setting, away from the noise and bustle…growing beans, or not! Recent reports have suggested that Yeats’ remains are not in his famous burial site! I love the quote on his gravestone: “Cast a cold eye on life. On death…Horseman pass by.” 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad you liked the audio, Richard. How could I ever forget this beautiful poem? Mrs. O’ Brien drummed it into our pre-adolescent brains as though it were an incantation to Ai Mac Ollamain, the Irish mythological god of poetry (Yeats would have appreciated that, as he was particularly fond of mythology).

      Yes, I also read that perhaps the body in Yeats’ grave is not his at all. He died in France and was buried there for a year. His family then moved his bones to Sligo (at his request). Regardless where his bones rest, Richard, his beautiful poetry lives on. I also like his epitaph and think the following line from his poem “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” might be appropriate on his grave stone:
      “Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.”


  4. Sue

    Your anecdote about research on Yeats’ 9 rows of beans is adorable. Too bad the teacher didn’t appreciate your work.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Sue. Mrs.O’Brien was a terrific elementary schoolteacher, for she introduced me (and the other sixth grade students) to a lot of great literature. We had interesting classroom discussions, and she encouraged us to express our opinions – except when it came to Yeats!


  5. Lisa Vernon

    Beautiful website and so rich in content. I really enjoyed your story about Yeats, your parents, and your 6th grade teacher. Thank you, Sarah!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yvonne

    Very nicely read Sarah, and such a lovely story about your father, a practical man by the sounds of it. We did Yeats in school. I think he wanted to be an artist like his brother, if I recall correctly? He was certainly a very interesting man.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Yvonne,
      You are right in saying that Yeats was interested in art. His father and brother were artists, and his two sisters were involved in the Arts and Crafts movement in Ireland. I was fortunate enough to view some of Jack Yeats’ paintings in a Waterford art gallery on a recent visit home.

      Yes, my father was very practical, but, like Yeats, he was also a bit of a dreamer.😊


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