English Poetry

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English Poetry

An Irish Airman foresees his Death

This simple poem is one of Yeats's most explicit statements about the First World War, and illustrates both his active political consciousness (“Those I fight I do not hate, / Those I guard I do not love”) and his increasing propensity for a kind of hard-edged mystical rapture (the airman was driven to the clouds by “A lonely impulse of delight”). The poem, which, like flying, emphasizes balance, essentially enacts a kind of accounting, whereby the airman lists every factor weighing upon his situation and his vision of death, and rejects every possible factor he believes to be false: he does not hate or love his enemies or his allies, his country will neither be benefited nor hurt by any outcome of the war, he does not fight for political or moral motives but because of his “impulse of delight”; his past life seems a waste, his future life seems that it would be a waste, and his death will balance his life. Complementing this kind of tragic arithmetic is the neatly balanced structure of the poem, with its cycles of alternating rhymes and its clipped, stoical meter.

The speaker, an Irish airman fighting in World War I, declares that he knows he will die fighting among the clouds. He says that he does not hate those he fights, nor love those he guards. His country is “Kiltartan's Cross,” his countrymen “Kiltartan's poor.” He says that no outcome in the war will make their lives worse or better than before the war began. He says that he did not decide to fight because of a law or a sense of duty, nor because of “public men” or “cheering crowds.” Rather, “a lonely impulse of delight” drove him to “this tumult in the clouds.” He says that he weighed his life in his mind, and found that “The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind.”

Yeats, in an outstanding sensitiveness, has identified before psychoanalysis and 50 years before the "banality of evil", a modern psychopath: the modern technocrat, the moral autistic, the "Homo Faber" interested in the doing rather than the causes and the ends. I can easily see why all interpretations miss this hard message. Fighter flight - in our culture and collective consciousness - is the ultra-knightly profession, where "the few", "the right stuff" to whom "the many owe" is a top. But under this knight's cloak hide a robot, masked by glamorous profession and a forthcoming end. Yeats, he neither worships his hero nor mourns his death.

The poem is seemingly tragic: a young knight, going with open eyes to die in what he sees as meaningless war. In my opinion this view masks the true meaning of Yeats' text. There is something else, complex, in the text. Sober re-reading shows that Yeats doesn't love his hero at all.

Consider his nationality. What kind of Irish is our hero, whose own people have no meaning to him? What kind ...