I observed recently how the rise of the internet has eliminated letter writing and so caused some of the wells of correspondence that historians and biographers have relied on down through the ages to fall into disuse. But the internet is not all bad as far as reaching into the past is concerned. In fact, it can preserve and propagate memories in ways that are a huge improvement on what went before. We forget every day how lucky we are.
When I was twenty-one years old I visited my uncle in California. During my visit he gave me an audio cassette of W.B. Yeats reading some of his poems, including perhaps his most famous verse, The Lake Isle of Innisfree. Yeats, who died in 1939, had made the scratchy recording for the BBC in 1932. The sound quality is rather poor but Yeats’ sonorous voice rises clearly enough above the rustling bed of noise. I treasured that cassette. It seemed a miracle that Yeats could be brought to life from so long ago.
And then, a few years later, I lost it. In a thoughtless moment I left the cassette on a plane and never saw it again. But thanks to the internet Yeats’ voice is back, and will always be here from now on. I hope the ready access of the web will not breed a contemptuous familiarity. I write this to remind myself of the loss that went before.
I remember studying The Lake Isle of Innisfree at school and it has stayed with me ever since. Not every day, of course, for life brings too many distractions, but every now and then, especially when I escape from London, it floats back to me accompanied by the music of Yeats’ own voice.
Why has it endured so well? I make no pretensions at literary analysis; my understanding of the form and function of poetry has barely advanced since I was at school, so students of English should look away now. For me, the appeal of Yeats’ poem lies partly in its simplicity; partly also in the fact that it was inspired by a memory of his Irish childhood evoked on the streets of London, and so resonates with the ache of the emigrant; and partly from Yeats’ insistence in his reading on the rhythm of the verse, which pulses with the rhythms of nature that are too easily forgotten in the city.
Yeats explains his reading style and choice of poem at the beginning of the recording:
“I am going to read my poems with great emphasis on their rhythm and that may seem strange if you are not used to it. I remember the great English poet William Morris coming in a rage out of some lecture hall, where somebody had recited a passage out of his Sigurd the Volsung. ‘It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble,’ said Morris, ‘to get that thing into verse!’ It gave me a devil of a lot of trouble to get into verse the poems that I am going to read, and that is why I will not read them as if they were prose.”
“I am going to begin with a poem of mine called The Lake Isle of Innisfree because if you know anything about me, you will expect me to begin with it. It is the only poem of mine which is very widely known. When I was a young lad in the town of Sligo I read Thoreau’s essays and wanted to live in a hut on an island in Lough Gill called Innisfree, which means ‘heather island’. I wrote the poem in London when I was about twenty-three. One day in the Strand I heard a little tinkle of water and saw in a in a shop window a little jet of water balancing a ball on the top. It was an advertisement I think for cooling drinks but it set me thinking of Sligo and the lake water. I think there is only one obscurity in the poem — I speak of noon as a ‘purple glow’; I must have meant by that the reflection of heather in the water.”
Here is the poem itself, though please take the time to listen to Yeats’ reading:
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 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 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 by the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.
The poem has come back to me recently because I managed to quit London for a couple of weeks during the summer and spend time at the coast, in places where Nature still asserts herself. It’s not that I am ignorant of the natural rhythms of the planet when in London. I see the dawn and the dusk. And we are lucky enough to have a small garden. But the sunrise and sunset are washed out by street-lights and our garden is hemmed in by trees which, though they shield us from our crowding neighbours, truncate the horizon severely.
I know of no better place than the coast for opening your eyes and cupping your ear to the murmur in the ‘deep heart’s core’. The distant horizon divides a canvas of sea and sky seemingly made for the play of light that accompanies the rise and fall of the sun. Closer to shore the pull and push of the tide speak of celestial forces that are not easily tamed. Closer still I found myself attending to the toil of insects (including the honeybee) and the swell of summer blackberries. My gaze followed gulls sailing on the air spilled upwards as the wind from the sea blundered into the cliffs.
The rhythm of nature soothes, as does the rhythm in Yeats’ recitation of his poem about retiring from the world to Innisfree. The notion is romantic, of course. Hopeless. There is work to be done. And yet, his words and the sounds of nature have a gravitational pull, weak but insistent, that draws us back to an essential truth: we are part of this world, not separate from it. Our grandiose cities and technologies might distract, but the rhythms of the planet have endured a long time and, momentary perturbations such as pollution and climate change aside, are likely to outlast us.