Thursday, April 25, 2024

The Poetry Corner

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By Norah Christianson

The Lake Isle of Innisfree

~ William Butler 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 grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

And a happy St. Patrick’s Day to you! William Butler Yeats is, of course, the finest Irish poet of all. Born in 1865, Yeats spent his summers as a boy near the Isle of Innisfree, a small uninhabited island near County Sligo in Ireland. (“Innisfree” is an anglicization of the Irish words “Inis Fraoch,” which means “Heather Island.”) 

Yeats was associated with the Celtic Revival, which was interested in bringing about a new appreciation of traditional Irish literature, poetry, art, and music in the late 19th and early 20th century. Before this, the Celtic culture had pretty much disappeared. The Germanic tribes from the North-East had assimilated the Celts, while the Romans, under Julius Caesar, had launched a military campaign which killed thousands and thousands of Celts and all but destroyed their culture. 

In the poem, Yeats expresses his longing for a simple life. Yeats has said that this poem came to him in 1888 while he was walking down Fleet Street in London. There he heard “a little tinkle of water,” he’s said, saw a fountain, and “began to remember lake water.” Yeats had always longed to live as Thoreau had, living a solitary life, finding peace in nature. But here he was, walking down the busiest street in London.  Noise. Mobs of people. High buildings cutting off the sun. All clatter, clutter, and crush, which makes a man feel alienated. Anxious. Tired. Alone. 

Add to that, his homesickness. He was twenty-three at the time of his writing “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” and very homesick for Ireland, his spiritual home. The human feeling of homesickness is a universal experience and seems, in my opinion, to be innate. The Greek physician Hippocrates believed that homesickness was caused by a surfeit of black bile in the blood. Recent pathogenic theories support the possibility that homesickness reflects both “insecure attachment” and a variety of “emotional and cognitive vulnerabilities.” But whatever the non-science of psychology avers, I do not believe homesickness is an abnormal emotion (except in very extreme cases). 

I have lived in Stratford for 55 years now. Though my hometown of Pawtucket, Rhode Island was a small mill town, not big on culture or nature, still I am lonesome for it. I am very content where I am, but often long for my parents’ little cottage, the Ten Mile River at the end of our street, Mike’s 5 and 10¢ store, Bonaventure’s Ice Cream, the old Notre Dame graveyard where my parents rest. 

Once the residence of our hearts, now our old hometown lives in us, in our “deep heart’s core.” 

Please read this beautiful poem one more time. Linger on the simple but moving images—the bean-rows, the bee-loud glade, linnet’s wings, crickets, the lapping of lake water. The peace. And if you have yet to experience homesickness, you will now feel it for the Isle of Innisfree.

*Note – In 1938, Yeats left Ireland for the Riviera for his health, which was failing. There he died of heart failure in Roquebrune, in the hills above Monaco. His funeral and burial were held there. But in 1948 his remains were taken home at last to Sligo where he was buried in the churchyard of Drumcliffe. 

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