Skip to 0 minutes and 8 seconds 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.
Skip to 1 minute and 3 seconds So, Jonathan, Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree,” famous poem. We all read it as a child. We know it so well. Can you tell the learners something about the circumstances of the composition of that wonderful poem? Yeah. This is one of W.B. Yeats’ early poems. Probably the greatest of all Irish poets, born in 1865, lived on till 1939. This was the first poem he really felt that he found his own voice. It was written when he was living in London in the late 1880s. And he was walking down the Strand, busy shopping street in London, the bustle of urban life.
Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds And he saw in a shop window a sort of advertisement that took the form of a little fountain in which a ball was balanced on the top of the jet of water. And then he heard the sound of the water. And it suddenly made him think of running water. And it made him think back to Sligo in County Galway, back to his own roots, back to the place where he was happy as a child. And he remembered how he had often dreamed as a young man that he would go to a deserted island called Innisfree, which is in the middle of one of the loughs near Sligo.
Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds And he’d imagined that he might live there, as he put it, in imitation of Thoreau. What he was thinking of there was a famous book by Henry David Thoreau, the great American writer, who went to live a simple and thoughtful life in the woods at Walden, just outside Boston. And so the poem is about that idea of being in the city, a time of busyness, a time of stress, but an image reminding him of this safe place, this happy place, this place where he might have lived a life of peace, a life at one with nature in the manner of Thoreau. It’s extraordinary because I think poetry is almost unique in being able to transport you into a different place.
Skip to 3 minutes and 14 seconds The fact, he’s in London, he hears the running water, he’s suddenly back in Ireland. And I think one of the things we’re interested in is that idea of when someone’s feeling stressed or unhappy that an image can take you away from your troubles. You talked about happy place and do you feel that there’s something in that that’s peculiar to poetry, actually, that there’s something about the containment of the words and the images that you feel that you can be transported to another place? Well, you can. I mean, I don’t know whether it’s exclusive to poetry because, of course, there’s a sense in which a painting can achieve that. Although, the thing about the painting is you physically need it there.
Skip to 3 minutes and 57 seconds It has its visual cues. Its visual cues are very specific. The thing about a poem, especially a short poem like this, which you can very easily commit to memory, is that you don’t physically have to have it with you. It’s there in your imagination. And there’s a way in which you can substitute your own images, your own visual cues for Yeats’. You don’t have to know precisely what the real Lake Isle of Innisfree looks like. You don’t specifically have to know what a linnet (a bird he mentions in the poem) looks like. You can substitute your own bird. You can imagine your own beehives.
Skip to 4 minutes and 38 seconds And I think that is the wonderful thing about a poem is that you as a reader can take possession of it. When Yeats died in 1939, his fellow poet, W.H. Auden wrote a wonderful poem on his death in memory of Yeats. And he says in that poem that the words of the poet are given over to the reader. “He became his admirers,” is Auden’s line. “He became his admirers.” He, Yeats, is dead but his words belong to and come back to life as his admirers read and recite his poems. And as you were reading the poem, I just felt myself slowing down. There’s something about the tempo. You almost can’t read it quickly.
Skip to 5 minutes and 30 seconds It sort of forces you to read it very slowly, which I found incredibly relaxing and destressing. What is he doing technically that makes us feel that we’re slowing down? Yeah. I think it’s three things really, it’s the rhythm, the rhyme, and the images. The regularity of the rhythm forces you to slow down. And then the rhyme means that when you hit the rhyme word, you’re always looking back to the previous rhyme word. You can’t rush forward. But then also the imagery that he’s feeding you all these words associated with natural calm, with natural ease, words to do with quietness, to do with calm, and transporting you with him. It’s a particularly powerful poem I think in that regard.
Skip to 6 minutes and 25 seconds And it’s interesting also that its voice in some ways is quite conversational. He said when describing this poem it was the first poem where he thought that he was beginning to loosen his language, loosen his rhythm and his rhetoric. When Yeats began writing, the prevalent Victorian poetry was a little bit grandiose in style. And he’s gradually sort of simplifying his style. Having said that, of course the question of the pace at which you read it, whether you do speed up or slow down, that’s very variable. It’s one of the lovely things about poems is that you can read them at different paces and in different ways. So we’ve got an exercise that our learners might like to undertake.
Skip to 7 minutes and 18 seconds We’ve got some links to different readings of the same poem. And indeed one of them is by Yeats himself. A very, very old crackly reading of Yeats as an old man. And he reads it in an astonishing sort of incantatory voice, like a magician weaving a spell. It sounds terribly old fashioned. But then there are other readings of it. There’s lots of versions of this have been recorded. There’s a wonderful Antony Hopkins– Antony Hopkins, the great actor. I think he reads it too quickly. Well, I think that’s the point, isn’t it? That you really can read it at different speeds.
Skip to 8 minutes and 1 second And it’s a nice exercise maybe to even to get the second hand of your watch out and just see how long it takes to read from beginning to end. I think I read it a little bit more slowly than both Hopkins and Yeats. I like the incantationary quality of the Yeats. There’s a couple of tiny things. We’re quite interested in this idea of – starting from that image of Poems on the Underground that in the chaos, in the busyness of life, you read a poem and you’re transported, you’re calm. But I was also thinking a bit as you were talking about Yeats being in London and then writing the poem about Ireland.
Skip to 8 minutes and 41 seconds I was thinking about how Chinese poetry, that contention between the court, the intrigue of the court and the city, and then going out to the countryside and calm. There was something about the way you were talking about that reminded me of that great ancient tradition. Well, it’s a great tradition in Chinese poetry, the classic Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty is often written by these court officials, who get terribly caught up in intrigue at court. And then they head off to the mountains or a lake or a bamboo grove and find a kind of peace. And that’s in Western classical poetry as well.
Skip to 9 minutes and 20 seconds The great Roman poet Horace, a lot of his poems are, again, about intrigue in the world of politics and business and commerce. And then he retreats to a rural farm. It’s a theme throughout literature, the sense that poetry can help transport you to a calmer world, a greener world, a place of ease.
'The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ by W.B. Yeats
For the rest of the week, we’re going to focus on some poems that might be helpful in managing stress, starting with W. B. Yeats’ ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. Yeats’ poem is about escaping into peaceful, natural haven, and we’ll be thinking about how the words of his poem can transport us to that haven as well.
We’ll start by listening to the poem, and then we’ll discuss the circumstances of its composition, and talk about how features of the poem, such as its regular rhyme and natural imagery, can help us to de-stress and take a break from a busy lifestyle.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
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.
W.B. Yeats (1865–1939)
In our discussion we mention an exercise you might like to take part in. As well as listening to the reading in this video, try listening to some other readings of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, by W.B. Yeats himself and by the great actor Anthony Hopkins. Which of the readings do you prefer? You could also try reading out the poem for yourself. Do you read it more slowly or more quickly than it is read in these three versions?
- Click here to hear ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ read by W.B. Yeats
- Click here to hear ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ read by Anthony Hopkins
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