The Magazine

History vs. Nature

For Yeats, the natural world is the symbol of his times.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By JOHN FELSTINER
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"I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree."

Born in 1865, rooted in west Ireland's County Galway, William Butler Yeats died shortly before World War II broke out in 1939. Spanning the decades from Victorian to modern, his poems took on every question: love, sexuality, transience, age, death, local place and legend, mythic past and visionary future, nobility vis-à-vis common folk, country and city, dreams and responsibilities, private as against public, spiritual and earthly life, nature versus history. All this mattered in the world at large and vitally in his craft. "Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric," he said, "of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry."

One day in London, feeling homesick, Yeats suddenly remembered a small island in a lake near Sligo, and Thoreau at Walden Pond. Published in 1892 (the year John Muir founded California's Sierra Club), "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" springs from that Romantic yearning toward a distant mythic place.

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 gray,

I hear it in the deep heart's core.

Though Yeats's yen for Innisfree (pronounced "Innishfree," meaning Heather Island) hasn't much in common with the cabin Thoreau actually built on a pond near Boston, he feels a kindred impulse to get away from society and revive the spirit. As Thoreau says in Walden, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

I will arise and go now. Knowingly or not, Yeats is echoing Robert Louis Stevenson's A Child's Garden of Verses. "Travel" begins, "I should like to rise and go / .  .  . Where below another sky / Parrot islands anchored lie." Stevenson himself had gone to Samoa, whence he wrote praising Yeats's "artful simplicity" in "The Lake Isle of Innisfree." He doesn't mention the borrowing. In any case, Yeats reaching toward islands "below another sky" taps into childlike genius.

About poetry we often wonder, Does style drive content or vice-versa? The answer is yes. "Innisfree" was Yeats's first lyric with "my own music," for music means every bit as much as meaning here. An early draft even has noontide not midnight "all a glimmer," and midnight not noon "a purple glow" of heather! Evidently the facts of nature yield, to help get him from "pavements gray" to "lake water lapping."

Happily for the music, Yeats recited "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" on the BBC, an old man voicing a young man's poem. "I am going to read my poems with great emphasis upon the rhythm," he announces. "It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get [them] into verse, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose."

We then hear a throaty resonant chant of weighted cadences and Irish inflections: "Oy will uhroy-y-se ond go now, ond go-o-o to Innishfree-e-e . . . " Each stanza gets a startling music on the last word, raising the pitch for "bee-loud gla-a-ade" and "linnet's wi-i-ings." Then three stressed syllables close the poem, "deep heart's core," rising from a profundo "deep hahrt's" to a higher drawn-out tone on "caw-w-wr."

Poetry is not ordinary speech, it partakes of inspiration, vision, oracle, carrying us from humdrum here to a mythic there. Yeats's "there" itself resounds four times in six lines.

Civilization's dream is to get away from it all to another place, classical Arcadia, Coleridge's Xanadu, the "Country-green" of Keats's nightingale. Yeats goes into Celtic woods: