I read this poem twice, even though I gleaned the meaning of it upon the first reading. I just enjoyed it and wanted to read it again.
Shy one, shy one,
Shy one of my heart,
She moves in the firelight
She carries in the dishes,
And lays them in a row.
To an isle in the water
With her would I go.
She carries in the candles,
And lights the curtained room,
Shy in the doorway
And shy in the gloom;
And shy as a rabbit,
Helpful and shy.
To an isle in the water
With her would I fly.
I feel confident that the “isle in the water” is a reference to Avalon. Yeats was fascinated with legends, myths, and the occult, so it stands to reason that he would incorporate one of the most recognizable symbols of the mystical realm into his poem.
According to the legend of Arthur, Morgan Le Fey brought King Arthur to Avalon to recover from his wounds. Avalon was also where Excalibur was forged.
The shy woman in the poem appears to be a pagan priestess. She is described as working by firelight, laying out dishes (which might contain various herbs or incense), and of lighting candles in a curtained room. The actions conjure images of preparation for a ritual. The speaker, whom I assume to be Yeats, appears passive, almost an observer or possibly a student. My guess is that he is describing an experience where a priestess is allowing him to participate in a ritual and Yeats is eagerly anticipating his glimpse of the magical island that exists beyond the mists.
As far as a Yeats poem goes, this one is fairly easy to interpret. I suspect that is because he was still young and a novice in the occult arts (the poem was written in 1889, which would have made him about 24 at the time). Certainly, his later poems are more arcane and challenging. Still, I enjoyed this poem a lot. It just goes to prove that a poem does not need to be difficult to understand for it to be good.
4 responses to ““To an Isle in the Water” by William Butler Yeats”
Beautiful poem. I suppose we could also look at her as his anima. She has this poetic, immaterial presence as a spiritual guide. I love Yeats.
Hey. Thanks for the comment. I love your interpretation regarding the anima. Certainly adds another layer of symbolism to the poem. And I agree–Yeats rocks! Cheers.
I love the simple beauty of this poem . . . I had never read it. It has a way of settling itself in the mind and heart, and I think that I shall now always remember it. Powerful. Lovely.
Thanks Liz! Glad you enjoyed it. Cheers!