‘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 men, 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.
This poem is a eulogy to Major Robert Gregory, a man whom Yeats greatly admired. In it, the dead man (who was killed in action with the Royal Flying Corps over Italy) is given voice by Yeats. The airman’s joy in flight, it is found, transcends all other claims on him and provides his sole motivation and justification for going to war.
An Irish Airman foresees his Death: Yeats wrote four poems in total about Robert Gregory, two of which feature in the anthology (the other being the later, sourer ‘Reprisals’). Gregory’s mother, Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole, was a much admired friend of Yeats. She was an important figure in the Irish literary revival, a dramatist whose interest in the Irish language and Irish mythology helped convert her to cultural nationalism (which would in turn inform Yeats’ own outlook). Robert Gregory in his turn was admired by Yeats as a “painter, classical scholar, scholar in painting and modern literature, boxer, horseman, airman”. Yeats declared that “his very accomplishments hid from many his genius”. This poem is a eulogy to the dead man. The title contains a remnant of Yeats’ early mysticism— Gregory “foresees” his own death (Yeats had been fascinated by the occult as a young man). The notion of Gregory foreseeing his fate and choosing it nonetheless allows this poem to reflect on death, service and an Irishman’s sense of purpose in the British military.
“I know that I shall meet my fate / Somewhere among the clouds above”: A surprisingly romantic beginning to the poem, perhaps. The “clouds above” carry traditional associations of dreaming and sublime transcendence in the skies above: the sense that, in flying, we move into a realm beyond earth, and beyond material things.
“Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love;”: A renunciation of patriotic or xenophobic motivations for war. Gregory does not hate Germans, but neither does he love those he guards— the British, Italians, or even Irish people? The sentiment can be interestingly compared with Edward Thomas’ feelings for England in ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ (“I hate not Germans, not grow hot / With love of Englishmen, to please newspapers”). In Yeats’ work– as in Thomas’– there is a strong sense of rhetoric in the parallel phrasing used.
“My country is Kilkartan Cross… Kilkartan Poor”: Kilkartan was a small town, part of the Gregory’s barony, and home to the Gregory family in Ireland. Two readings suggest themselves here: that the reference to Kilkartan is specific, and that Gregory feels he belongs not to a nation but a specific locality, Kilkartan; next, that Kilkartan stands for the whole of an ideal Ireland (in literary terms this would be an example of synecdoche, where part of something stands for the whole). The voice given to Gregory declares solidarity with the poor of this area. Yeats seems to be suggesting that the Gregory family’s relationship with the peasantry of the district is sympathetic and friendly (we are entitled to ask, however, how far this imagined solidarity really extended between landlord and peasantry. Is this a false note?).
“No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before”: the poor are so poor, the voice seems to declare, that they could lose nothing of material value; yet their fortitude in bearing their poverty is such that they cannot be made miserable. These lines suggest a number of things: that Yeats understood the peasants’ lives in the same fatalistic terms he conceives Gregory’s fate; that the poor in fact understood their lives in just the same way, fatalistically; and that despite poverty, the poor were happy. That this is an ideological rather than a realistic point of view seems likely, given the tendency of people the world over since money was invented to choose not to be poor— one presumes because it is not a particularly joyous state to be in. Again, there seems a romantic tone to Yeats’ eulogy.
“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds”: The voice given to Gregory declares that neither conscription nor social obligation was a motivation to fight— nor ephemeral patriotism. The “public men” are politicians. There’s a hint of contempt here, perhaps, like Edward Thomas’ “hate for one fat patriot”.
“A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds”: Here we find expressed the true motivation for Gregory joining the Flying Corps, as ascribed by Yeats: “A lonely impulse of delight”. There is an almost instinctive personal need to experience the pleasure of flying. “Delight” emphasises some of the high, giddy joy of flying, an intoxicating pleasure in the new sensation (and it is interesting that the pleasure Yeats ascribes as a motivation to Gregory is, in a sense, the pleasure of the modernist artist— an aesthetic motivation, rather than simply martial or pragmatic).
“I balanced all…”: Here is a justification for ‘choosing’ death in the skies— Gregory weighs up his choice, accounting for his decision. Note the ‘balance’ is reflected in the line; the alliterative ‘b’ sounds and the repetition of ‘all’ establishes a formal balance that Yeats uses until the end of the poem.
“The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind”: The formal balance continues here with the use of a technique known as chiasmus. On your book, draw a line in the poem from “the years” to “the years”; then from “waste of breath” to “waste of breath”. Between the two lines you’ll notice that you’ve just drawn a cross. Now, ‘chi’ (pron. ‘Kai’) is what the ancient Greeks used to call the letter ‘X’. Chiasmus creates this ‘crossing’ structure, where the beginning of the first part of a line is repeated or rephrased at the end of the second; while the end of the first line is found repeated at the start of the second (you can find this structure in a well known phrase like “nice to see you, to see you, nice!”). Here, the effect Yeats creates is a balancing of the claims of the future with the past in Gregory’s mind: neither seem worthwhile, compared to the moment between the two.
“In balance with this life, this death”: The careful formal balance of the end of this poem (the word ‘balance’ is even repeated here) is retained until the end. “This life” is counterpoised with “this death”. The poem ends with this graceful and calm poise— reminiscent, perhaps, of a fearless man in a plane in flight who has chosen his fate.
[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is an interesting poem: the ending in particular shows off Yeats’ massive formal and technical skill. It particularly bears comparison with poems that examine soldiers’ motivation for fighting. From outside the anthology, Edward Thomas’ ‘This is no Case of Petty Right or Wrong’ bears comparison; within, poems like Asquith’s ‘The Volunteer’ and Brooke’s ‘The Dead’.]