The Isle of Innisfree is indeed a real place. It's a small uninhabited island within Lough Gill, in County Sligo in western Ireland, a relatively peaceful place where Nobel Prize winning Irish poet William Butler Yeats spent his summers as a child.
W. B. Yeats never actually lived on Innisfree. Nor does anyone else. But the little island does serve as a landmark of 20th Century poetry, nevertheless.
Here is the poem, so you don't have to click.
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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 gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.
I was an English lit major in an earlier life, and took an entire university course on the poetry of Yeats. So his best work remains among my favorite poems, especially Innisfree and, in particular, The Second Coming, which is an example of far more pessimistic outlook on modern society that Yeats explored later in his career.
But Innisfree, among his early poems, is a simple favorite. Here, the young man finds a place of escape and natural beauty in the natural environment of a small island – where he can escape the “pavements gray” of city life.
A travel blog might seem an odd place to find a discussion of a poem's structure and meaning, but the English major in me can't always resist paying homage to the brilliance of a favorite poet.
The imagery and important symbols of Innisfree are tough to praise adequately. Imagine the profoundly peaceful life evoked where the bees humming in the glade are the loudest sound heard in the first stanza. In the second stanza, the pastoral visual imagery of the progression from the serene veils of morning and purple glow of noon are enhanced only by the music of crickets and the soft flutter of finches' wings heard at evening.
Only in the final stanza does Yeats reveal that, for him, the Innisfree island is not even a physical location. The entire poem happens really in the “deep heart's core” and is really the expression of the speaker's longing for peace while he stands on the noisy roadway or gray pavement of the city.
And, I haven't even mentioned the young poet's artistry in the back and forth of the abab rhyme scheme and the iambic meter mirrors the sound of the water lapping on the island shore.
Quite simply, Yeats was the consummate poet.
Here's some more information about how you can educate yourself about Yeats and Sligo–and get a fantastic meal while you are at it.
Sligo and the Lake Isle of Innisfree are on the Wild Atlantic Way of Ireland.
Note: this is a September 2023 update to a post originally published in 2013.