Last time we had a young man, an American walking in Paris in 1913 who came upon his poem leaving the Metro. Today, another young man, an Irishman in London in 1890, is walking too. He comes to a shop window, drawn by the sound there of water splashing. Looking in, he saw a fountain on display, its upward spray buoying up a ball.
The sound of water instantly brought memories of his childhood home on the coast of Ireland—and as he had been reading Thoreau’s account of his stay at Walden Pond, a small personal fantasy occurred to him of building and living in a self-sufficient cabin on a tiny island back home. Because that Irishman was William Butler Yeats, a poem came from that shop-street window, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”
If one can’t have a solitary wattled cabin, at least one can have books
That poem is now one of those beloved “Poetry’s Greatest Hits.” A few years back it topped a survey by an Irish newspaper as its readers’ favorite poem, and though I can’t find a picture of this, I’ve read that it’s been printed on a page of Ireland’s passports since 2013.
Ireland’s favorite Irish poem was written in a foreign country
Of course, like most any Yeats poem it sounds lovely. Its language is straightforward, and there’s not much that needs explication. For a sound medium, it’s not always that a poem’s strongest images are sounds, but here the sounds of lapping water, bees’ hum-resonance, crickets, and a bird’s wings in flight carry the story.
Pound too, with his “In a Station of the Metro” chose to use nature images in his Paris subway poem; but Yeats makes it plain that he’s stuck in the city, walking the grey pavement, not some country path. Thoreau had presented himself as the practical man in his book, making empirical living experiments. Yeats presents himself as the Romantic, helping imagine an Ireland—then viewed conventionally as a poverty-blighted colony—as an Eden, another locus amoenus. Another unusual choice Yeats makes is switching around the way we might describe night and day: night “a glimmer” and noon “purple glow.” Even though this was written before the dawn of urban lights dimming the night starfield, that’s the glimmering I sense, and if Irish coasts are foggy, noon could have a diffused glow. 1890 London might have fog and coal-fired air pollution too, maybe London fog didn’t glow, and maybe something beyond “light pollution” dimmed the stars.
This weekend’s St. Patrick’s day has become an occasion for the Irish diaspora to look toward its former homeland; and this poem, which speaks with Yeats’ humble yet beautiful specifics, invokes generally the homesickness of travelers, exiles, and immigrants. The specific in poetry often does that, the personal history that’s included standing for us all. This morning, as I filled my mouth with the word “peace” that Yeats wrote down twice in his poem, I could think of the island of New Zealand, and other travelers, exiles, and immigrants.
To hear my performance of Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” use the player gadget below.