Billy Collins, one of America’s most celebrated poets, was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003. He’s published 10 books of poetry including The Art of Drowning and Horoscopes for the Dead. His poem “Grand Central” appeared on the back of millions of New York City MetroCards. He teaches at Lehman College and spoke to me by phone.
Billy Collins: I first came across “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in college, with other anthologized poems by Yeats. At that time, I found some of his work difficult—especially poems like “Sailing to Byzantium” and “Easter, 1916” that required historical context. But “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” this little twelve-liner, had immediate appeal.
The sentiment is very clear: the speaker has committed to go off to an island, and imagines himself there. The language is gorgeous—it has a beautiful, rhythmic, almost hypnotic spell. It also has a very tightly organized structure, despite its lyric quality. Each four-line stanza makes its own argument, starting with the first grouping of four lines:
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.
First, he puts you on the island in this idealized retreat, where he’s going. He talks about the physical place, and his physical needs. He needs shelter—so he’ll build a cabin. And he’ll need food: he describes the beans he’ll raise and the bees he’ll keep for honey. (I don’t know why kind of dish you can make from beans and honey, but—okay.)
In the second stanza, the poem escalates. He pivots away from his material needs and addresses his spiritual needs:
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.
In addition to honey and beans, then, he’ll have peace. And we see how this feeling manifests, as he takes us through the day from the “veils of the morning” until very late at night. He runs around the clock, showing how peace spreads in this diurnal way.
In the final stanza, he recommits, reiterating his intent to leave:
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.
He continually hears this “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,” but then there’s the shock: he hears this island sound in the city. He hears it “on the roadway,” and “on the pavements grey.” It’s all wishful thinking. He says “I will arise,” but he never does arise. He hears the sounds of the water lapping at the shore, but he hears it in the city. He hears it in London. And we begin to understand that Innisfree is an internal place, a fictive place, a refuge that calls to him from than inside, not a place that he can physically go and visit. The poem ends with a strong sense of this internal motion, going in and down, in the final line: “I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”