Saturday, June 13, 2015

William Butler Yeats: A birthday

William Butler Yeats
Born: June 13, 1865
Died:  January 28,1939

William Butler Yeats is another of those poets of whom I have heard much but sadly have read very little of his poetry.  However, of the little that I have read, the following is one of my favorites, and probably one of his most frequently anthologized.

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 l have some peace there, for peach 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.
                                               --  William Butler Yeats --

If you find this somewhat familiar, the following quotation from Yeats may help explain why:

"I had still the ambition," he wrote, "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 trickle 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."

Thoreau begins Walden Pond with the following words:

"WHEN I WROTE the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only.  I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again."

And,  for those readers who are interested in something a long time ago in a place far, far away:

I chose a secluded place to live
Tientai says it all
gibbons howl and the stream fog is cold
a view of the peak adjoins my rush door
I cut some  thatch to roof a pine hut
I made a pool and channeled the spring
glad at last to put everything down
picking ferns I pass the years left
  -- Han-shan --                   

from The Collected Songs of Cold Mountain
trans by Red Pine (Bill Porter)

Han-shan is translated in English as Cold Mountain.
Tientai: as the result of the popularity of a 4th century work, Mount Tientai became symbolic of a "remote and magical wilderness."

Han-shan is a legendary hermit poet who lived during the T'ang Dynasty, possibly in the 9th century.  Aside from several stories and brief references to him by others, little is known of him today.  He lived on Cold Mountain and took that as his name. 

Among the many themes that seem inborn in the human psyche is the desire to escape civilization and live by oneself in remote places.  It's found in an American and an Irishman of the 19th century and a hermit poet from a thousand years earlier in 9th century China.  I don't doubt that it can be found in other cultures and in other eras.                 


  1. Very nice posting. I am very fond of the Yeats poem; it is one of my favorites and the first poem in literature class assignments.

  2. R.T.,

    Yes, it would seem to be a good poem to start off a class.