By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is one of W. B. Yeats’s best-known poems: it is simultaneously both a war poem and a poem about Irishness, and yet, at the same time, neither of these. To unpick these paradoxes, a bit of analysis of the poem is required.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
A traditional, and rather breezy and superficial, analysis of ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ might go something like this: an Irish pilot fighting for Britain in the First World War predicts that he will die in that war, but he feels no sense of patriotic duty towards Britain, the country he fights for. He is fighting for Britain because, although he is Irish, Ireland was under British rule at the time (independence, leading to the formation of the Republic of Ireland, would not be achieved until 1922, four years after the end of the war). Instead, he identifies as an Irish patriot, rather than a British one.
What’s wrong with such an analysis? Nothing drastic, perhaps, and the essential details of Yeats’s poem are captured. But it all goes awry when we reach that final sentence, which is too glib for its own good. For it is not true that this ‘Irish airman’ feels patriotic towards Ireland rather than Britain: ‘My country is Kiltartan Cross, / My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor.’
Despite Yeats’s title, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, there is little sense of patriotism at the national level displayed by the speaker. Instead, his allegiance is to his Kiltartan Cross, a small parish in the county of Galway in Ireland, a remote part of the British ‘empire’ which is unlikely to be greatly troubled by the war: this Irish airman’s sacrifice (or heroic victories) matter little to the ‘poor’ of Kiltartan, who are likely to remain poor whatever happens in the mighty clash of empires that was the First World War.
The idea that soldiers in the First World War fought ‘for King and Country’ made for good propaganda, and was undoubtedly true in the case of many English poets (Edward Thomas, for instance); but it wasn’t true of everyone, and many were motivated by more regional or local pressures (fighting to protect their loved ones, or to avoid the scorn of their neighbours incurred by not fighting).
And this was even truer, Yeats seems to suggest, of Irish fighters, who had less invested in England or Britain than, say, a young man from Shropshire or the Home Counties. His Irish airman fights out of a sense of duty, rather than national pride, whether British or Irish.
Why an airman? Air travel was still relatively new in the First World War (the Wright Brothers’ famous flight at Kitty Hawk was in 1903, eleven years before the outbreak of the war), and H. G. Wells’s vision of aerial warfare in The War in the Air (1908) was realised in WWI, the first major war in which aeroplanes were deployed. There was an excitement and exhilaration to flight, and the sense of boundlessness and freedom it suggested. Man, for the first time since Icarus’ failed attempts in Greek mythology, could finally soar among the clouds like a bird. The airman seems unperturbed by the fact that he will give his life in the war – something which the word ‘foresees’ presents as inevitable – because, much as with John Gillespie Magee’s sonnet from the next war, the ecstasy and liberty of aerial flight is worth it.
A few notes towards an analysis of the poem’s form: ‘An Irish Airman’ is written in iambic tetrameter, rhymed abab, with a fair bit of syntactical balance and poise (perhaps suggesting the poise of the plane in mid-air, but also arguably echoing the airman’s joint-status as ‘British’ and ‘Irish’): note the antithesis of ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love’ and the chiasmus of ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind’.
About W. B. Yeats
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the greatest of all Irish poets. His first collection, Crossways, appeared in 1889 when he was still in his mid-twenties, and his early poetry bore the clear influence of Romanticism. As his career developed and literary innovations came with modernism in the early decades of the twentieth century, Yeats’s work retained its focus on traditional verse forms and rhyme schemes, but he became more political, more allusive, and more elliptical.
His late work, such as his 1927 poem ‘Sailing to Byzantium’, about growing old, show a thoughtful and contemplative poet whose imagery and references defy easy exegesis (what exactly does the ancient city of Byzantium represent in this poem?). And yet, at the same time, there is a directness to his work which makes readers feel personally addressed, and situates his work always at one remove from more famous modernist poets (such as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound).
Yeats died in 1939. Throughout much of his life, a woman named Maud Gonne was his muse. Yeats asked her to marry him several times, but she always refused. She knew she could be of more use to him as a muse than as a wife or lover. Yeats was in favour of Irish independence but, in poems such as ‘Easter 1916’ which respond to the Easter Rising, he reveals himself to be uneasy with the violent and drastic political and military methods adopted by many of his compatriots. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.