The Lake Isle of Innisfree

Did you have a special place as a child? Perhaps somewhere secret and magical? A corner of a city park, a place in the garden, somewhere under the trees or behind the shed?  Do you have one now?

For the artist Paul Nash his first special place was Kensington Gardens, in west London, near where he was born in 1889. He is at pains to point out that this was before it got Peter Panned and turned whimsical by the J.M. Barrie cult. Here’s how he described what it meant to him as a small child:

Kensington Gardens was more than our first playground. It was the first place where we could make our escape. In all other environments you were conscious of circumvention, either imposed or implied…. But in the Gardens it would be different. With a shout and a sudden turn of speed you had broken through the invisible barrier. There you were at last – alone! I remember that sense of freedom. It was an escape, not only from the others, but in some queer way from oneself. Perhaps it was like the bird bursting through the shell of an egg. Certainly it was an immense enlargement of life, for the Gardens were my first taste of country. Here I became aware of trees, felt the grass for the first time, saw an expanse of water, listened to a new kind of silence. (Outline p.26)

Beyond the Round Pond and towards the Tea Gardens Nash had discovered his “first authentic place”:

You might say it was haunted….This place of mine was not remarkable for any unusual features that stood out. Yet there was a peculiar spacing in the disposal of trees, or it was their height in relation to these intervals, which suggested some inner design of very subtle purpose ….

Throughout his life Nash discovered new such mystical and meaningful places and recorded them in his drawings and paintings explaining: “…it was always the Inner life of the subject rather than its characteristic lineaments which appealed to me.”(p. 28).

The secret of a place is there for anyone to find, though not, perhaps, to understand.

As a young artist, Nash had the great ambition to illustrate the poems of W.B. Yeats. Looking for work to pay for art lessons at the Slade Nash sent Yeats a proposal.

I was invited to a strange house in Woburn Place, where in a shadowy room upstairs I found Yeats sitting over a small dying fire. he was…inclined to be suspicious, and as a specialist in such matters, probed me with a few languid questions, peering at the drawings the while and smiling at me with an amused air which I found disconcerting.”Did you really see these things?”he asked. Before the master of visions seated in his own ghostly room which was growing darker every minute, it seemed necessary to be uncompromising. But I did not feel he was convinced, or, if he was, that he was interested enough.

He heard from the publishers that they were not interested.

Yeats had his own special places of escape and spiritual yearning: the lake isle of Innisfree,for example,that calls to him from London city pavements grey.

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 honey-bee;
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 on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939

The Isle of Innisfree is a real place – an uninhabited island on Lough Gill, in County Sligo, Ireland. Yeats spent summers there as a child. He was walking down Fleet Street, London in 1888 when a memory of childhood led to the poem: 

I had still the ambition, formed in Sligo in my teens, of living in imitation of Thoreau on Innisfree, a little island in Lough Gill, and when walking through Fleet Street very homesick I heard a little tinkle of water and saw a fountain in a shop-window which balanced a little ball upon its jet, and began to remember lake water. From the sudden remembrance came my poem “Innisfree,” my first lyric with anything in its rhythm of my own music. I had begun to loosen rhythm as an escape from rhetoric and from that emotion of the crowd that rhetoric brings, but I only understood vaguely and occasionally that I must for my special purpose use nothing but the common syntax. A couple of years later I could not have written that first line with its conventional archaism — “Arise and go”—nor the inversion of the last stanza.

The photographs are of special places in New York: Innisfree Gardens in Millbrook and Central Park in NYC.

The Conservatory Garden, Central Park, NYC June 2017

Harlem Meer, Central Park, NYC, June 2017

Harlem Meer, Central Park, NYC, June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

Innisfree Gardens, Millbrook, NY June 2017

1 Comment

  1. Yeats definitely missed out in not having Nash illustrate his poems.

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