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William Butler Yeats was kind of a messy guy. By which we mean that he grew up with a lot of contradictions in his life.
He was an Irish city boy (living mostly in Dublin, and later London), but he visited his mother's hometown in County Sligo (totally country) every summer.
He received the best, most progressive education but was also drawn to good old fashioned Irish folklore.
He often wrote in traditional English styles, but also understood the Irish's desire for independence, and tried to write poems that reflected that, too.
You get the picture.
There were so many opposing forces pulling him in different directions, and it really shows in his poetry. One poem might be influenced by Greek mythology and another by Irish folklore. One might be about the end of the world, and another might be the quiet end of his career.
He's a hodgepodge poet, and "The Lake Isle of Innisfree," published in 1893, is yet another example of his tendency to compare and contrast. It's a country-lovin' poem that actually takes place in a crowded, bustling city. It's all about how the speaker's dreams for the future don't quite reconcile with his present situation. As in, he wants something really bad, but he probably won't have it anytime soon. It's all about the mishmash clash between dreams and reality.
Sure, it probably wasn't too much of a stretch for Yeats to write about a city slicker who longs for the peace of the countryside, considering that as a boy he lived in Dublin and London and visited County Sligo (where the actual island of Innisfree is located) every summer for some much needed rural R and R. But this isn't just a poem about wanting some peace and quiet, and being stuck in the city. It's a whole lot more.
It's about the contradiction we have to live every day. We're stuck in one place, while we long for another. The grass is always, always, always greener on the other side of the fence, and Yeats was no stranger to that idea. His speaker is on the cusp of crossing that fence, but in the poem at least, he never quite gets there. So he lives the dream in his mind, while his body's stuck in the lackluster reality.
Shmoop's feeling a little nosy, so we're gonna get personal and ask you a prying question: where's your happy place? Come on, you know what we're talking about. Where do you go—in your mind, or in reality—when you need to get away from it all? You can tell us. We won't spill.
Cell phones, iPods, video games, car alarms, doors slamming, people talking, laughing, shouting. It's a noisy world out there. Regardless of whether we're city folk or country people, we all need a little peace and quiet sometimes, and it seems it's getting harder and harder to come by.
Yeats wrote this poem in the late nineteenth century, and even then he was feeling crowded by busy city life. The poem is, if anything, even more relevant in today's world. If you've ever dreamed of a place of your own where you could get a little R and R—a tropical island with crystal-clear water and white sand beaches, maybe, or, like Yeats, a cozy cabin in the woods—then you can relate to this poem.
It's all about the wish to turn the volume down a bit and even press pause. And hey, maybe poetry can be that special, quiet spot for you. Maybe Yeats is your new happy place. Ommmmmm.
Yeats the Poet
Poets.org has all kinds of scoop on your new favorite Irishman.
If Poets.org doesn't cut the mustard for you, check out the Poetry Foundation's take on the guy.
The Nobel Lecture
Um, guys, Yeats was kind of a big deal. Want proof? He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923. Check out Yeats's Nobel Prize lecture in full, including notes.
For the Super Fan
Find some fellows at the Yeats Society, and check out what they do in memory of the great writer.
The Nobel Prize
Watch Yeats roll in to Stockholm to take home the win in one smart chapeau.
Yeats Reads His Stuff
See the man behind the verse, who wasn't averse to reading said verse.
Yeats gives a theatrical reading of "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" and more.
Not Just Yeats
Hear Yeats (along with a chunk of other famous poets) read his poems aloud.
Yeats's grave, with a seriously eerie epitaph.
A portrait of Yeats in his later years, sporting some Harry Potter specs.