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Poetry and anxiety – Why you should read “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”


Tod Worner - published on 01/24/18

“What’s the point?,” I asked.

Their eyebrows collectively rose.

“Why should we read a poem like this on an internal medicine rotation?”

Four medical students and two residents looked at the printed copy of W.B. Yeats’ The Lake Isle of Innisfree in their hands.

Twelve lines in three quatrains stared back at them.

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.

And here is how they answered.

“It reminds me of my home back in Hibbing. I am an outdoors person and I think of the trees and wide-opened spaces. Here I feel a bit trapped by the concrete, the buildings and the lack of time to even be outside. This poem brings me home even when I can’t physically be there.” “I love this poem. I’ve read it countless times and even remember singing choral version once upon a time. It is a vision of where you can go amidst stresses to find peace. Simple, but beautiful.” “It got me thinking about all the times I say to myself, ‘After the MCAT, it’ll be better.’ or ‘After Boards, I can relax.’ or ‘Once I’m through with residency, my life can begin.’ I’ve come to realize that I can’t live that way. You need to live now…or else you wake up at eighty and realize you’ve wished your life away.” “I think it is the phrase ‘I will arise and go now’ that struck me most. It reminds me that I don’t have to physically go to a place of peace – I can go there emotionally. And I can find peace in the midst of my stresses.”


They got the point.

Awash in a sea of information and parched a desert of time, coping with an excess of stress and a shortage of support, these students and residents need a Lake Isle of Innisfree. Because too often they are “standing on the roadway or on the pavements grey.” Too often their lives are inundated with pagers buzzing, nurses with quick questions, family members anxiously arriving, attending physicians awaiting the presentation. They are expected to be efficient and caring, cool and engaged, wise and approachable, confident and humble, well-rounded and singularly focused. It’s quite simple: they are to be nothing less than superhuman and infinitely human.

But they are only human.

These young men and women need to find peace. They need to fill up their tank. They need to remember why they chose to do this – to eat Ramen noodles, and carry backpacks and study in empty libraries and live in apartments and work over Christmas and Thanksgiving and miss their families and sleep through the first movie they have seen in months while their friends have houses and time with their spouses and 401Ks and energy. They need to remember that spark which informed the personal statement they wrote for their medical school application. That was the statement where they talked about a personal joy, tragedy or journey that made them want to help someone, to make a difference, to change the world one person at a time.

But one thing I have learned is that every person makes it through the trials of life by having their own personal Lake Isle of Innisfree. It is that deeply personal place of peace and wholeness. For one it is the outdoors of Hibbing, for another it is with friends singing choral music. Perhaps, for one it is playing with their giggling children and for another it is engrossed in a book by a roaring fire. We all have that visual that pulls us through. It is the place we can (and must) arise and go now. 

The famous writer and wilderness guide, Sigurd Olson, once wrote about what he heard and saw among his stressed out clients after a week of canoeing and camping in the Boundary Waters wilderness.

“What gets me,” [said] the surgeon, “is the peace and quiet up here. In the big hospitals a man is apt to forget that there is anything but tension in the world. You come back here, and the tension is gone. The world is quiet and peaceful again, and there is no pressure.”“You’re right,” agreed the judge. “It’s good just to know that a place like this exists. When I get all tied up in a knot over some legal problems, I’ll shut my eyes and remember.”I watched these men for a week. Now freed of the mental strain, taking vigorous, pleasurable exercise, and breathing pure air twenty-four hours a day, they became normal human beings…I have found that people go to the wilderness for many things, but the most important of these is perspective.

That’s what these students, these residents – heck – what we all need. Perspective. We need to shut our eyes and remember. We need to sense the quiet and peaceful world that we are overlooking every day. Every day.

Oh, sure. We have jobs to do, demands to meet, people to satisfy. But we need to find peace while we do it. We can’t obsess about what we are doing to the utter exclusion of why we are doing it. Every so often, we need to “arise and go now” to that place that reminds us of our deeper purposes. Periodically, we need to reclaim our humanity and the sense of what our life is truly all about.

As the judge on the trip said, “It’s good just to know that a place like this exists.”

“What is the point? Why should we read this poem?” I asked.

It seems that these students and residents knew.

More than I ever expected.

Photo credit: Pixabay

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