"The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

William Butler Yeats

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 honeybee,
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 crickets sings;
There midnight's all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnets' wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake 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.

Yeats said this poem came to him in a moment one day in 1888. He was standing on a London street, watching a ball balance on a jet water in a shop window. Its sound reminded him of water lapping at the shore of a lake, and suddenly he was overcome with longing for his childhood home in Sligo, in the north of Ireland.

This is one of the first poems I ever learned by heart, decades ago. I have said it to myself, to lovers lying beside me and to babies resisting sleep; I've said it trudging through snow, sitting on beaches and wending my way through the New York subways.

Yeats's rhythms and imagery are so subtle--both insistent and delicate--that I can't imagine ever forgetting the poem or tiring of it. It yields to many interpretations: it can be said wistfully or with passionate anticipation; it can be read so as to progress from the one to the other as its stanzas unfold. Try saying it every day for a week, and its music will be indelibly printed on your mind.

If someone asked me what distinguishes poetry from prose, I'd recite these dozen radiant lines of longing.

This is the landscape in Sligo that Yeats was thinking of.

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