The one thing I really wanted to do during my trip to Ireland was to stand near the Lake Isle of Innisfree and recite the William Butler Yeats poem concerning same.
My younger daughter was with me. I thought that this direct encounter with poetry might be instructive for her. “I owe it all”—she would tell reporters later, upon receiving the Nobel Prize in literature—“to that moment on the banks of the Lough Gill when my late father read out loud those majestic words that still . . .” And so forth.
I had thought that Innisfree might be hard to find—it is, after all, a symbol of remote rural harmony—but Yeats is something of a cottage industry in county Sligo, and the way is clearly marked.
“Lake Isle of Innisfree,” the sign said. “Danger: Traffic entering from right.”
As we drove, my wife recited the poem, and the three of us discussed it. That took about 45 seconds; it’s not what you’d call a poem rich in subtext.
“Sounds like Yeats needed a vacation,” said my daughter.
“ ‘In the bee-loud glade,’ ” I said, quoting.
“If there are bees,” said my daughter, “I’m not getting out of the car.”
We followed the signs; we arrived at a stony parking area. County Sligo had thoughtfully provided toilet facilities for Yeats lovers. The day had been dank and wet; we were the only people there.
“Where’s Innisfree?” asked my daughter.
I pointed to the earth. “See the bent grasses, indicative of those who have come before. It is the path to the viewing area. Thus, Innisfree is that inspirational isle to the right.”
“There’s another island over there,” said my wife.
“Wrong direction and too small,” I said.
We tromped over the grass. We sank ankle-deep in muck.
“I can see it from here,” said my daughter, retreating. I went a little farther. I opened my book. “‘I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree; and a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made.’ ”
“What?” shouted my daughter, on higher ground.
“Wattles,” I yelled back. “Slender branches and reeds.” I had looked it up.
I continued to read, gesturing at appropriate moments to the island. “‘And I shall have some peace there—’”
“Where?” my daughter yelled.
“There,” I said, pointing. “Where peace comes dropping goddammit slow.”
I finished the poem and slogged back to the car. As we drove back to the main road my wife leafed through a guidebook. “Listen to this,” she said. “‘The tiny Lake Isle of Innisfree.’ Tiny. It must have been that other one. You had the wrong island.”
“It hardly matters,” I said. “It’s all symbolic. It’s really the idea of islands that concerns the poet here.”
My wife made a small noise in her throat.
“At least there weren’t bees,” said my daughter.
Reprinted from The Aisling Quarterly (#14). Originally excerpted from Near-Life Experiences (Chronicle Books) and reprinted here by permission of the publisher.