An Alphabet of Poets – Y is for Yeats

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) from Selected Poetry, 1976

First poems. First poems that attach poetry to memory, to music, a language that is familiar and not. I first heard Innisfree from my father in the late 1950’s. He taught us to memorize it. Later as I attended school I learned it was “early Yeats” and perhaps a touch too romantic, sentimental, not quite it! But even in the 1930’s when Yeats read it on BBC he somewhat ruefully admitted it was even then his best known poem.

For me it opened up the power of the music that words could be. It also connected with my deep longing for my Innisfree, the cottage on Lake Rosseau in Muskoka, Ontario we knew as Rockholme. I ached for that place during the ten months a year we lived in the city. I wasn’t sure what a linnet was but the dragonflies at Muskoka were a good substitute. And I sure heard, in my heart’s core, the music of that place, its waves, the wind in the white pines and the jolt and snap of the frequent thunder storms.

Even more than its music and the spiritual geography it evoked for me this poem forged a connection with my father, a connection I have long overlooked and ignored. Although he was not in general interested in poetry it was my Dad, through Innisfree, who opened me to poetry’s possibilities. It seems so strange to me now that I have never before credited him with this. Too long I have focused on our differences not our similarities.

Yeats, this Irish poet, playwright, spiritualist and eventually, statesman, is
considered by many the finest English speaking poet of the 20th  century. He was the awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923. While others of his poems are considered greater than Innisfree which was famously parodied by Ezra Pound in his poem Mauberley, it still retains a large appeal. I was gratified to see the poem thoroughly embraced by Jane Hirschfield, the celebrated American Poet in her wonderful book of essays on poetry Nine Gates. published in 1997.

Commenting on the poem’s musicality and superb craft she describes the poem as a work that sounds like water over rocks or wind in trees, it holds not only the music of human thought and feeling but also the music of earth in its words.

Here is what Yeats says about the poem during a recording of the poem for the BBC in 1937:

Perhaps you will think that I go too near singing it. That is because every poet who reads his own poetry gives as much importance to the rhythm as to the sense. A poem without its rhythm is not a poem.

And in his autobiography he tells how he came to write it:

I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem “Innisfree,” my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric and from that emotion of the crowd that rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I could not have written that first line with its conventional archaism — “Arise and go” — nor the inversion of the last stanza.

While Yeats remains celebrated by many poets today he is especially remembered and his poetry captured in the well-known tribute written by W.H. Auden just after Yeats died. I include Auden’s poem here because it may be the way some first came to Yeats. The line in Auden’s poem that has haunted me since I first read it is: Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.

In Memory of W.B. Yeats


He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.

Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays;
By mourning tongues
The death of the poet was kept from his poems.

But for him it was his last afternoon as himself,
An afternoon of nurses and rumours;
The provinces of his body revolted,
The squares of his mind were empty,
Silence invaded the suburbs,
The current of his feeling failed; he became his admirers.

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities
And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,
To find his happiness in another kind of wood
And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.
The words of a dead man
Are modified in the guts of the living.

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.


You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.


Earth, receive an honoured guest:
William Yeats is laid to rest.
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace
Stares from every human face,
And the seas of pity lie
Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

W.H. Auden from Another Time, 1940

A few years ago I happily happened upon a book called First Loves, an anthology, published in 2000, based on first poems that inspired some well known contemporary poets. I was pleased to see that three of the poets chose Yeats – Heather McHugh, Eavan Boland and Robert Pinsky.  Yeats was the only poet to get more than one mention.

Boland first discovered Yeats when she was 15. For her the poem that defines Yeats for her is The Wild Swans at Coole:

The Wild Swans at Coole

The trees are in their autumn beauty,
The woodland paths are dry,
Under the October twilight the water
Mirrors a still sky;
Upon the brimming water among the stones
Are nine-and-fifty swans.

The nineteenth autumn has come upon me
Since I first made my count;
I saw, before I had well finished,
All suddenly mount
And scatter wheeling in great broken rings
Upon their clamorous wings.

I have looked upon those brilliant creatures,
And now my heart is sore.
All’s changed since I, hearing at twilight,
The first time on this shore,
The bell-beat of their wings above my head,
Trod with a lighter tread.

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb the air;
Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander where they will,
Attend upon them still.

But now they drift on the still water,
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they build,
By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake some day
To find they have flown away?

from First Loves edited by Carmela Ciuraru, 2000

Boland from First  Loves: Here is the Yeats I first knew. Fiercely musical. Lost in control. It seems impossible that a man and a poet could become more real the more he becomes a master of artifice, but that is precisely what his poems achieved.

For Heather McHugh the poem that first captured her was The Second Coming. And perhaps not so surprisingly, knowing how literate McHugh is, she says that she read it first by age eight or nine and by the time she was eleven or twelve the poem was like second nature:

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

from First Loves

McHugh is captivated by the craft and the historical scope of the poem. She says: What I loved then (when she was eight or nine) I love today, at fifty: that deaf falcon and blank gaze, the perspectival pivot at the words  ‘but now I know,’ the turn from the desert’s vertiginous pinpoint to an overarching mind’s capacity to hold all twenty centuries.

Robert Pinsky too, fell under the spell of Yeats at an early age. He says, Sailing to Byzantium – is the first poem of its caliber that I recognized with an inner conviction, and the first that I got by heart. I was seventeen. When I ask myself now, in my late fifties, about the poem’s central place for me, it seems obvious that I must have been attracted by the way it implies a definition of what became my vocation, the study and pursuit of poetry.

Pinsky goes further: In Yeat’s words and images, some forty years ago I sensed at once, before I learned anything about his ideas – some of them foolish in themselves- the vision of a spiritual reality that includes historical religion, but reaches beyond it.

Sailing To Byzantium

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
—Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

First Loves

Yeats wrote his poem close to the end of his life and was editing them within days of his death. Just a year before he died he wrote his own epitaph in his poem Under Ben Bulben. Another late poem was The Circus Animal’s Desertion – its celebrated last stanza contains the oft-quoted lines that became the title, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, for a celebrated  Anthology of Poems for Men edited by Robert Bly, Michael Mead and James Hillman.

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

from The Circus Animal’s Desertion in Selected Poetry


  1. Posted June 1, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Just beautiful Richard. Thank you. Every time I write a poem, I am looking for Innisfree. There are physical locations too on Lake Huron in Ontario, in a tiny village called Mochlos on the island of Crete, by an old stone wall near Indian Beach, Nanaimo.

  2. Richard
    Posted June 1, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Thanks so much M-A – A poem that has echoes for me of Innisfree is Why I AM HAppy by William Stafford. See S for Stafford! All best, R

  3. Posted June 1, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Now I am thinking of Czeslaw Milosz’s “Gift”: A day so happy./Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden./Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers./There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess . . . When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.” The poem reminds us to be right here.

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *