The speaker opens the poem by expressing a desire to travel to Innisfree—a small, uninhabited island in a lake known as Lough Gill, in County Sligo, Ireland, where Yeats lived as a child.
Yeats once said that he could not remember if he chose the island for its lyrical name or its association with Irish folklore. Both motives have relevant implications. The island’s name ends with “free,” a fact that is accentuated by its position at the end of the poem’s first line. As the reader will soon learn, the speaker seeks freedom from city life—its sights, sounds, crowd, and obligations. The island’s association with folklore—and in particular with the Danaan quicken tree, which is said to bear the fruit of faeries—plays into its mystical portrayal within the poem.
To the latter point, the phrase that commences the poem is an allusion to the Bible. “I will arise and go” appears numerous times in several forms throughout the King James Bible—in all likelihood the text that Yeats used for worship, as he was a Protestant. As the phrase crops up in many different contexts, it is difficult to say if it is meant to invoke the Bible in general or a particular verse.
One possible origin is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is the best-known story that contains this phrase word-for-word. The Book of Luke tells of a young man, who asks his father for his inheritance, before squandering it and being forced into indentured servitude. Eventually, he returns home to repent, saying “I will arise and go to my father,” who meets him with forgiveness. If this is the story the speaker intends the audience to recall, the direct replacement of “father” with “Innisfree” within the poem suggests that nature is a godly and forgiving force, capable of redeeming a lost soul. In any case, the biblical language establishes that the speaker’s imagined life on Innisfree is part of a spiritual journey.
The repetition of “and go,” an example of anadiplosis, reiterates the speaker’s intention to travel to the island. As such, the speaker comes across as insistent and determined. At the same time, the repetition underscores that the speaker must leave the present locale—get up and go—in order to lead a meaningful life. It also calls attention to “now” and “to Innisfree,” linking them, as each phrase appears directly after “and go,” and directly before a comma. Thus, the repetition emphasizes the speaker’s desire to depart for Innisfree as soon as possible.
This first line establishes many of the formal rules that will govern the rest of the poem. Here is a look at its meter:
I will | arise | and go now, || and go | to In- | nisfree,
This line is in hexameter, meaning it contains six stresses. It is divided in half by a caesura, with three stresses falling before the comma and three stresses falling after it. Furthermore, there is an unstressed syllable on either side of the caesura, and the line ends in a stress, which is followed by an end-stop. Finally, it is comprised of 13 syllables and adheres to a loosely iambic rhythm (da-DUM). Of course, this iambic rhythm is complicated by the unstressed syllable in the third foot, creating a wafting, airy feeling in the middle of the stanza.
The first three lines of each stanza will follow these guidelines, with a just few minor divergences. The rise and fall of the iamb create a chant-like cadence that is punctuated by caesurae and end-stops, which keep it from becoming too singsong. The complexity of the rhythm makes it difficult for readers to put their fingers on what exactly makes the poem so entrancing—its mysteriousness heightening the mystical atmosphere.