By Dan MacCarthy
IT DOESN’T follow that just because it is one of our best-known, most-quoted poems that the locale which inspired it should also be one of our best known.
Innisfree, about which WB Yeats created a literary masterpiece and the ultimate escape from a troubling life, is in Lough Gill in Co Sligo. The 8km-long lake lies just to the east of Sligo town and is connected to it by the Garavogue River. It has about 20 islands, including several vastly superior in size to Innisfree, such as Beezie’s Island and Church Island.
The heavily wooded lake surroundings have an abundance of rare plants including the strawberry tree and a species of orchid of which there are some gorgeous specimens on Innisfree itself. Odd perhaps that Yeats didn’t mention them in the poem. Ours is not to reason why.
Many people can quote the poem of this sylvan dream in full without pause but, for those who can not, here is its opening verse. The notion of a simple life pared down to its essential needs of food and shelter is alluring. But why nine bean rows?
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.
The poem can be seen to represent the hundreds of similar-sized islands on Irish lakes which have never been lived on and possibly even where no one has ever set foot. Serene but lonely places. The poem is an idea rather than an actual representation of Innisfree — Heather Island. The island is just about 300m away from the shore. A small concrete jetty was built there but that is the only sign of human activity. When viewed from the shore it seems minute but there are several paths that wind off in different directions between the towering oaks.
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.
No argument with the peace. A deep, soul-penentrating calm. Crickets: three species in Ireland and related to the grasshopper. The linnet is of the Finch family whose “song is a variety of twittering, trilling, fluty notes”. Kingfishers and terns are more popular there.
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.
As romantic as it may sound, Yeats was not on the shores of Lough Gill when he wrote the poem but was living in London. Relatively far from home, his mind drifted home to Co Sligo. The poet wrote in his autobiography that walking along Fleet St in 1889 he noticed a drop of water teetering on an artificial fountain and the poem came to him: “I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living an 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 upon its jet, and began to remember lake water.”
London, surprisingly, is not island-free and has around 15 including Eel Pie Island and Frog Island. None sufficed for Yeats. “I will arise and go now and go to Eel Pie Island” doesn’t have the same ring to it.
American poet Henry David Thoreau, along with the likes of Walt Whitman ,were modern transcendentalists who believed in the primacy of Nature. Yeats absorbed some of their notions and fused them with a Celtic mythology to form his art. He even spoke of retiring to live on Innisfree because, an island, as critic Richard Ellmann wrote, “was neither mainland nor water but something of both”.