The Imaginary Life: "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," W.B. Yeats

The Lake Isle of Innisfree
W.B. Yeats

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.


I have been reluctant to write about this poem mainly because of the first stanza. Those “nine bean rows” (why nine?) and the “bee-loud glade” confuse me. I am pretty sure they are a direct evocation of Virgil in the Georgics, and given the last two lines of this poem, that makes sense to me. Rome and its Empire was defined in no small part by roads that went everywhere, carrying with it the forces of motion, of forced sociability.

Our speaker wants to build his own house, and make his own meal, and live alone. Just beans, that’s all – where are the wine and grain an Empire, both in its military and domestic capacities, thrives on? (Although: I have had honey wine, and it was good). There is a sociability in being alone in a weird way: bees in Homer and in the Aeneid are the symbol of the many at work. In the Iliad, the Greek armies are buzzing with rumor as they move towards Agamemnon for a speech; in the Aeneid, a bee-hive upon a laurel tree is the earthly manifestation of the Golden Bough, which is pure gold placed upon a dead, black branch. If the Golden Bough symbolizes the crude relation between soul and body, where it is as if soul is something that much greater than body in its potential eternality, then the idea of the bee brings into play the idea that the gold is directly contingent on the darkness, no matter how cynical we might be.

Our narrator is not so much divorced from the many, but rather sees them in their proper place. Concerned with the necessitous, they do surround him in his simple lifestyle in a sense. But they are clearly demarcated. The nobility of the speaker’s lifestyle shines through, in that his life is clearly contingent on his work with Nature alone. Modern life, it goes without saying, suffers from a lack of such a demarcation.

Take note, furthermore, of the “peace” the speaker says he will have. Peace doesn’t come from triumphant victories over slain enemies, or make itself manifest in lavish parties. It comes slowly in a realm where time seems frozen. The colors of the sky in the second stanza seem to be inverted: the morning is veiled, and such a veil is a place, just like where the cricket sings is a place. It almost sounds like morning is dark; midnight, of course, is “all a-glimmer,” and evening is full of birds, and noon is a purple glow? This realm the speaker is brings both death and the imagination to play, but the reversal of the colors of the sky implicit in the details about light and animals has got to make us think that time is stopping here. No one is dying, even as death hovers over. Whether any of this is real, of course, is another question.

The animals and plants of the first stanza give way to animals associated with color in the second stanza, and then there is a further movement to mere sounds in the third stanza. That alone is our hint that the Lake Isle, the world which is eros removed from its own eros, is not real. The sound of the tides is all the speaker hears in the heart of hearts; his world, of the pavement gray, of roads instead of color, where the animals have gone, where life is artificial, still is connected in some way to this other realm. The key is his imagination. We can go to Innisfree any time we wish, as long as the material world is put in its place, and we recognize our desires for what they are.


  1. I came to fill a post left vacant
    But find myself too small
    Around me all are slow and complacent
    Silence builds an unseen wall
    and those walls grow ever thicker
    while I become but a miser
    Sitting in this vacant place
    as small as I find myself
    I cannot help but quicken my pace
    and leave their tools on the shelf
    For inside hope still will flicker
    and I know I am the wiser.

  2. Summary
    The poet declares that he will arise and go to Innisfree, where he will build a small cabin “of clay and wattles made.” There, he will have nine bean-rows and a beehive, and live alone in the glade loud with the sound of bees (“the bee-loud glade”). He says that he will have peace there, for peace drops from “the veils of morning to where the cricket sings.” Midnight there is a glimmer, and noon is a purple glow, and evening is full of linnet’s wings. He declares again that he will arise and go, for always, night and day, he hears the lake water lapping “with low sounds by the shore.” While he stands in the city, “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,” he hears the sound within himself, “in the deep heart’s core.”

    “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is written mostly in hexameter, with six stresses in each line, in a loosely iambic pattern. The last line of each four-line stanza shortens the line to tetrameter, with only four stresses: “And live alone in the bee-loud glade.” Each of the three stanzas has the same ABAB rhyme scheme. Formally, this poem is somewhat unusual for Yeats: he rarely worked with hexameter, and every rhyme in the poem is a full rhyme; there is no sign of the half-rhymes Yeats often prefers in his later work.
    “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” published in Yeats’s second book of poems, 1893’s The Rose, is one of his first great poems, and one of his most enduring. The tranquil, hypnotic hexameters recreate the rhythmic pulse of the tide. The simple imagery of the quiet life the speaker longs to lead, as he enumerates each of its qualities, lulls the reader into his idyllic fantasy, until the penultimate line jolts the speaker—and the reader—back into the reality of his drab urban existence: “While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.” The final line—“I hear it in the deep heart’s core”—is a crucial statement for Yeats, not only in this poem but also in his career as a whole. The implication that the truths of the “deep heart’s core” are essential to life is one that would preoccupy Yeats for the rest of his career as a poet; the struggle to remain true to the deep heart’s core may be thought of as Yeats’s primary undertaking as a poet.

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