“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.”
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!
ABOUT THE POET:
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”
“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
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