An Irish Airman foresees his Death W.B. Yeats - Written 1918.Published in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ (1919)
On being asked for a war poem (1915) I THINK it better that in times like these A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth We have no gift to set a statesman right; He has had enough of meddling who can please A young girl in the indolence of her youth, Or an old man upon a winter’s night.‘It is the only thing I have written of the war orwill write, so I hope it may not seem unfitting.’WB Yeats ‘A Reason for Keeping Silent’ Original Title
An Irish Airman foresees his Death (1918)I KNOW that I shall meet my fateSomewhere among the clouds above;Those that I fight I do not hateThose that I guard I do not love;My country is Kiltartan Cross, 5My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,No likely end could bring them lossOr leave them happier than before.Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,Nor public man, nor cheering crowds, 10A lonely impulse of delightDrove 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 15In balance with this life, this death.
The poem is an elegy for Major Robert Gregory RFC, MC, Legion of honour who was KIA on Jan 23rd, 1918. He was the son of Lady Gregory who was a patron and friend of Yeats. (See notes on September 1913 and The Wild Swans at Coole.)The poem is an imagining of the airman’s thoughts just before he dies. It is amonologue that is distanced literally andmetaphorically from the mud, blood andactuality of the War Poets. Yeats dislikedWilfred Owen’s poetry explaining ‘passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ andexcluding him from ‘The Oxford Book of Modern Verse’ that Yeats edited.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hootsOf gas-shells dropping softly behind.Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,But someone still was yelling out and stumblingAnd floundering like a man in fire or lime. Q. This is Owen’s poemDim through the misty panes and thick green light, Dulce et Decorum EstAs under a green sea, I saw him drowning. (1917). How is this veryIn all my dreams, before my helpless sight,He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning. different from the world of the Irish Airman?If in some smothering dreams, you too could paceBehind the wagon that we flung him in.And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,His hanging face, like a devils sick of sin;If you could hear, at every jolt, the bloodCome gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cudOf vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,My friend, you would not tell with such high zestTo children ardent for some desperate glory,The old Lie: Dulce et decorum estPro patria mori.
I wandered lonely as a CloudThat floats on high oer vales and Hills,When all at once I saw a crowd,A host, of golden Daffodils;Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.Continuous as the stars that shineAnd twinkle on the milky way,They stretched in never-ending lineAlong the margin of a bay: Q. This is Wordsworth’sTen thousand saw I at a glance,Tossing their heads in sprightly dance. poem I wandered lonely as a cloud (1815). HowThe waves beside them danced; but they is this very differentOut-did the sparkling waves in glee:- from the world of theA Poet could not but be gay Irish Airman?In such a jocund company:I gazed---and gazed---but little thoughtWhat wealth the show to me had brought:For oft when on my couch I lieIn vacant or in pensive mood,They flash upon that inward eyeWhich is the bliss of solitude,And then my heart with pleasure fills,And dances with the Daffodils.
‘…the airman is symbolic of the subjective or philosophical life. Heaccounts for his reason why he fights and achieves a kind of tragicbalance.’(Greening 2005) ‘Illustrates Yeats’s growing political consciousness…’‘Wordsworth’s poetry reveals the power of the mind overthe body. Wordsworth relieves his isolation through therestorative power of nature. His Leech Gathererperseveres through the simple exertion of his will. Thisindependence is ensured through individual resolution –a democratic and empowering form of liberty.’Richard Ellmann ‘Yeats: The Man and the Mask’ (1985) ‘My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought As if life’s business were a summer mood As if all needful things would come unsought To genial faith, still rich in genial good…’ William Wordsworth ‘Resolution and Independence’ (1807)Q. Write a short paragraph explaining how each of these quotes relate or helpcontextualise your understanding of the poem ‘An Irish Airman...’