An Irish Airman foresees his Death

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This particular poem – “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” – was composed by Yeats for his close friend Lady Augusta Gregory. The poem was written in honor of her son, Major Robert Gregory, who served in the air forces during the First World War. The poem is written as a narrative, from the ‘Irish Airman’s’ perspective, documenting his final thoughts. The title of the poem gives the reader an immediate idea of the subject and content; we know straight away that the poem is about ‘An Irish Airman’ contemplating his impending death.

Yeats uses no elaborate language or ideas to convey the message, and the first two lines bring us straight to the heart of the subject; the airman is facing death – ‘I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above’. He is fully aware of his ‘fate’ (this is emphasized by the use of the words ‘I know’), yet rather than being scared by the thought, his feelings seem to be of resignation. This gives the poem a solemn, resigned tone – as opposed to anger or bitterness.

The next two lines are extremely poignant. In my opinion, they raise a lot of interesting questions about the feelings soldiers had towards their enemy, as well as the country they fought for. Yeats writes, ‘Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love’. He is saying that the airman feels no hatred toward his enemy and no love for those he is fighting for, which is in this case the British.

It could be perceived that the ‘Airman’ does not love those that he guards due to the fact that he is an Irishman fighting for Britain, however I would disagree; I think that such feelings were probably echoed in the minds of many soldiers, whether they were fighting for their homeland or not. I also believe the line ‘Those that I fight I do not hate,’ would have been true to the thoughts of countless soldiers. Is it possible to hate an enemy you have never really met? Did many of the soldiers see that the ‘enemy’ they fought were simply young men doing their duty and struggling for survival? just like themselves.

Lastly, how many of those brave young men fought not out of hatred for the enemy, or patriotism and love for their country, but out of a sense of duty? In this poem it seems that Yeats speaks not only for the ‘Airman’, but for many other young men who fought: Irish, English, French or German. The poem mentions ‘Kiltartan Cross’ – this refers to the region of Ireland the Gregory’s came from. In the following line, Yeats writes, ‘My countrymen [are] Kiltartan’s poor’.

He may be saying that he has no time for wealth and grandeur – such things are meaningless/do not help when facing death? I have researched the Gregory’s and it seems they were certainly not poor! ) The lines: ‘No likely end could bring them loss/Or leave them happier than before’, could relate to two things, although fundamentally the key idea is the insignificance of life. One could interpret ‘them’ as the entire nation, in which case we are dealing with the airman’s insignificance in the War as a whole – his death, or even survival, would have no great effect in altering the course of the War.

Another possible interpretation is that ‘them’ simply means his ‘countrymen’, in which case he is referring to the impact his death (or survival) would have on the lives of those around him. Is his death going to invoke feelings of loss, and would his survival make them any happier? This is a question that, I believe, soldier or not, every human being will ask themselves at some point in their lives. In the grand scheme of things, what impression do we make on the lives of those around us; how important are we really?

The penultimate section of the poem details why the airman chose to fight in the first place: ‘No law, nor duty bade me fight/No public men, nor cheering crowds’. It seems that he did not enlist because of any laws, or sense of duty; he was not urged by anybody or persuaded by propaganda. Yeats writes, ‘A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds’, here we are given the reason behind the airman’s decision to enlist. Some would say that the ‘impulse of delight’ is the feeling he experiences when flying, and his reason for fighting is the ‘joy’ of flying; others may interpret the line differently.

Personally, I think that if you read on in the poem, and look at the last four lines, the meaning becomes clearer. The last section talks about his past, and future, in relation to the present: ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath/A waste of breath the years behind/In balance with this life, this death. ‘ He is saying that his life up to this point has been a waste of time, and his future holds no great promise; the ‘lonely impulse of delight’ could be the airman’s desire to break the suffocating monotony of everyday life – to take his future into his own hands.

The words ‘lonely impulse’ could suggest that this was a fleeting feeling; that his ‘delight’ was short lived and he had not thoroughly weighed up the consequences of his actions; however, this is contradicted by the line ‘I balanced all, brought all to mind’, as it would suggest that his decision was not made in haste. The concept that the airman’s life before the War seems totally insignificant in comparison with ‘this life’ (I presume this means his life as a soldier in the War), seems to be a recurring theme among literature of the period – I noticed this particularly in Remarque’s novel “All quiet on the Western Front”.

Many of the young soldiers enlisted straight from school, and as a result they knew nothing but war. Unlike the older soldiers, they had no real ties to their previous lives (such as wives or steady jobs), which must have created feelings much like those which Yeats expresses in this poem. The final line, ‘In balance with this life, this death’, draws the entire poem together, and at the same time, everything we have read seems to fade into insignificance when we are faced with the idea of ‘this life, this death’. The poem’s is simple in structure; it is 16 lines long and consists of one stanza only.

In addition, the language Yeats uses is not overly complex, and presents the reader with no great challenge in understanding. This use of basic format and wording means that the reader’s attention is focused solely on the content and subject of the poem; the simplicity reflects the simplicity of the matter at hand: death. In conclusion, I believe that “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” is extremely successful in portraying the feelings a soldier would have when facing death, as well as honoring Major Gregory’s life.

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