The Lake Isle of Innisfree
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.
Now I hope that before you realized what you are doing, you’ve read a poem by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats, winner of the Nobel prize in literature.
This is a poem I love to teach for perhaps unusual reasons. When the poet reads this thing, it is really a preposterous reading. Don’t take my word for it.
I ask the students, who are a bit dazed by this high theatrical reading, what stood out the most for them. Bee-loud glade? “What is a glade, Miss?” they ask. We get through the glade, the crickets, and midnight and noon. Then I turn the screen off. The poem is gone. “Where are we in the poem?” The answer is obvious and hard to forget: “Bee loud glade,” obviously, a student says. The kids look at each other, like, what does she think we are, dim? I ask them, “Are you sure?” OK, well definitely that isle. “Miss, what is an isle?” Dear reader of this blog, where are we? (Just like the tramps in Godot wonder repeatedly.) Don’t look!
In fact, the speaker of the poem is on some road. He’s not only thinking of his isle or longing for it, but he is re-creating it on the spot. The kids are like, what road? And sure enough when we look back, there he is, on the pavement. Amazing, they say.
I’ve found that the best way to teach poetry is to startle the students into something they hadn’t thought of.
Another reason I love this poem is because of the first line. And the way Yeats reads it is so over the top and yet so earnest at the same time, I always laugh. ” I will arise,” he begins, the word floating off into the sunset, “and go now.” How often do you use the word, “arise”?
Recently I wrote a piece where I wanted to showcase a character struggling with something. But you can only go on for so long in that mode. I know that because once I went to a writers’ group when the opening couple of chapters of a novel I had started were critiqued. “Really,” said a man who had just won a prize for a story most like a Hemingway story, (interesting criteria no doubt). “I am surprised this character has not committed suicide by now.” I responded by saying, “Oh, I thought the characters were supposed to have problems!” I think that look-alike Hemingway had a point. So in this recent piece, I got to place where it was time to change the key. I thought, Where could this struggling character go? And, lo and behold, she thought of the Yeats’ poem and the line, “I will arise and go now.” Can you imagine? A normal person spontaneously hanging on to these words and being lifted up and off to Innisfree?
WHAT IS MY POINT?
My point is that this poetic worldview, that began with Wordsworth and the Romantics, to both half remember and half create an important experience they had in nature, has a lot of heft. So, I invite you, whenever you are miserable, to laugh at Yeats’ ridiculous way of saying, “I will arise and go now.” And then arise and go. Or not. Of course, it’s possible that one does not move. This is the dilemma in Godot, where the impulse arises but they cannot follow it. Because waiting for Godot is the most important thing. So, you can arise or stay put, and you are in a win-win situation.
WHAT IS MY POINT? THE SEQUEL
We have established Innisfree as this iconic moment in the history of English littraTOOR, published in 1890! And Yeats himself, an icon for that matter. Serious Irish poet. With Nobel credentials.
In fact, once I took a group of students from France to Ireland, to Sligo, where Yeats lived. There is a Yeats museum there, and it fits the word to a tee. The floors of the house-turned-museum slope every which way. The octogenarians, of whom there were many, sat idly in the main room, waiting to welcome the students, except they forget to interact with us and continued talking animatedly among themselves.
We were treated to a reel-to-reel tape of Yeats and his girlfriend Maud Gonne. We might have gone back in time to 1891.
It is time to look a little further. You may remember Kevin Barry, the Irish writer who failed his driving test? Well, he would visit Innisfree for a swim and an ice cream. It exists! For those of us not Irish, it seems as though a part of heaven descended so that Kevin Barry could tell us about it.
INTERVIEW FROM PARIS REVIEW WITH KEVIN BARRY (SEPT 2019)
I notice that Lough Arrow is not far from Innisfree. Do you ever go there? Is Yeats’s face one of the “presences on the landscape” you mentioned at the start?
We pass by Innisfree often when we’re heading north of the border on our rioja-buying missions to the town of Enniskillen—wine is much cheaper in Northern Ireland than it is in the Republic. Brexit may soon end the idyll of these lovely outings.
I love the fact that as a young man Yeats used to buy tincture of cannabis oil—which was then legal—from the pharmacy in Sligo town and roll around naked under moonlight on the strand at Rosses Point, stoned as a coot, conversing with the underworld, seeing fires in the sky, ad lib to fade. I swim at Rosses all the time and love to think of him there. The work is immortal, of course, but I especially like Yeats as a character in his own right, the way he operated, made connections. He was a kind of stoner-entrepreneur type, I think—if he were alive now he’d be organizing festivals.”
WAIT, WHAT? YEATS?
I thought we were in the hazy, dazy days of 1890? Innisfree lives! And Yeats, a man for our times! Proof of his relevance today comes from the movie, Late Night in which here is a famous quote from another Yeats poem, “Cloths of Heaven.”
Cloths of Heaven
W. B. Yeats – 1865-1939
Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.
Here’s the clip from the movie.
Why not a book of poems for our book this week?