A Poem by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)
A Study Guide
The poem is set on the island of Innisfree on Lough (Lake) Gill in County Sligo, Ireland. The island is less than two miles southeast of the town of Sligo, the county seat. The lake is between five and six miles long and between one and one-and-a-half miles wide. A few miles to the west is Donegal Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. Yeats is buried in Drumcliff, County Sligo.
Yeats relies on alliteration (see the poem and annotations below) and nature sounds—the droning of bees, the chirping of crickets, and the flapping of birds' wings—to suggest peace and tranquillity. It appears that the stress pattern of the poem mimics the diastole-systole rhythm of a tranquil heartbeat—or the rise and fall of the ocean tides along the shore of County Sligo. A pause occurs in the middle of the first three lines of each stanza. The stress pattern before and after the pause is usually iambic, as in Lines 1 and 2, with catalexis before the pause:
And.A..|..small.CAB..|..in.BUILD..|..there, [PAUSE]..|..of CLAY..|..andWAT..|..tlesMADE
Peaceful Independence. “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” is one of the most popular poems of Yeats. And no wonder. It takes the reader to a tiny island in the middle of a lake—away from the hubbub of everyday life, away from appointments and schedules—there to live independently, alone, with a garden and a beehive for sustenance and a little cabin for shelter. Such an idyllic retreat is one that everyone dreams of from time to time, as Yeats did on busy London streets when he conceived the idea for the poem.
As an adult, Yeats often yearned for the quiet life in County Sligo, where he spent many boyhood days at Innisfree island on Lough (Lake) Gill. His carefree days there—along with American writer Henry David Thoreau's account of his experiences at Walden Pond—inspired Yeats to write "The Lake Isle of Innisfree."
Yeats was born in Dublin in 1865. Between 1867 and 1880, he lived with his family in London, but he often vacationed in northwestern Ireland in County Sligo, site of Innisfree island. In 1880, he and his family moved back to Dublin, where he attended good schools. In 1887, he returned to London with his family and began writing. One of his earliest works was “Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Critics do not consider it a great poem because of its reliance on traditional poetry conventions rather than on derring-do innovations characteristic of his later poems. However, average readers—pleased with its rhythms and sentiments—generally regard it as an excellent work, perhaps even his best. Yeats, who won the Nobel Prize for literature, commented on “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in a passage in his autobiography about his London days:
A 1952 Academy Award-winning film, The Quiet Man—starring John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara—was set in an Irish town called Innisfree. However, there is no town on Innisfree island; the locale was an invention of the movie’s writers and producers. All the scenes in the film were shot in Mayo and Galway counties. Of course, Innisfree island is quite real. It is on Lough (Lake) Gill, less than two miles southeast of the town of Sligo on Donegal Bay. Yeats spent many a day at the lake and its environs.
By William Butler Yeats
Published in 1893