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.
Author William Butler Yeats
William Butler (W.B.) Yeats was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1865. He lived during a period of great change in his native country as it fought to achieve full independence from Britain. Some of the events Yeats experienced and wrote about were the 1916 Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War. World War 1 broke out during the latter struggle and many Irishmen went to fight for Britain.
In this poem, Yeats tries to show how they struggled with their identity as Irishmen who were risking their lives fighting for a country they did not feel was their own.
He believed passionately in a brand of Irish Nationalism where art and literature revived myth and legend, and where political figures were courageous people who would give Ireland a sense of what it was to be Irish. The question of national identity was never far from the poet’s mind.
The airman in the poem may well be based on Major Robert Gregory, son of Yeats’ patron Lady Augusta Gregory.
Subject and Structure
In this poem an Irish airman weighs up his reasons for taking to the skies in his plane to fight the enemy. The war he writes about is World War 1 when the allied forces fought a combined army led by Germany.
The soldier in the poem knows he will die fighting. This is seen in the line “I know that I will meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above” and yet he seems willing to accept this.
The poem has an unusual perspective in that this airman feels no sense of duty to those he fights or guards. The issue of patriotism is not what drives him into battle and he does not identify with those who sent him to fight.
Rather he identifies himself with the people of Kiltartan Cross – a village in County Galway, Ireland. The question of national identity is important to the poem as it suggests a sense of apathy towards Britain and its enemies.
The soldier does not desire to fight on Britain’s behalf but rather he wants to follow “a lonely impulse of delight”.
He seems to desire this as the act of flight itself is above any political or moral duty.
The airman is ultimately resigned to death because he feels that the “years to come seemed a waste of breath/ A waste of breath the years behind”.
This is a dramatic monologue arranged in 16 lines of iambic tetrameter grouped in four ‘quatrains’; these quatrains develop the thoughts of the airman as he reflects on his life as a fighter pilot in the British forces.
Each quatrain has an alternating rhyme scheme.This structure reflects the sense of balance that is an important part of both the act of flying and of the airman’s thoughts on his reason for fighting.This balance is particularly evident in the line “‘Those that I fight I do not hate,/Those that I guard I do not love;’”.
The opening lines of the poem suggest a tone of resignation on the part of the airman who knows “that I will meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above”. He accepts that he may die.
“Those that I fight I do not hate/those that I guard I do not love.”The language in the opening lines is very direct and negative, it conveys a sense of apathy towards the war. He seems very sure of his thoughts and expresses his indifference towards those nations fighting in the war. His tone is detached.
In the line: “My country is Kiltartan’s Cross/My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,” the airman establishes his own identity which is neither British nor indeed Irish.
He asserts that “No likely end will bring them loss/Or leave them happier than before.” Here he conveys the sense that ‘his’ people will be largely unaffected by the outcome of
the war he is taking part in. This seems to reflect the question of national identity that Yeats was interested in. Young Irishmen fought for Britain in World War 1, ironically the very nation they wanted to be independent from. These lines have a wider significance as the question of why soldiers risk their lives in warfare is a common theme in poetry, not only in World War 1, but in other conflicts.
In the air he is free to determine his own fate and he is above the “public men” and “cheering crowds. ” These phrases refer to those who start wars and call upon citizens to fight and defend their countries.
The speaker establishes that it is not patriotic duty he follows but his own desires. This is captured in the line “a lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds.” The word “lonely” is important, as in the air there is a sense of both the airman’s resignation to whatever his fate may be but also the pleasure in being free to consider his life and death.
The word “tumult” seems detached from the airman’s cool weighing up of his thoughts and emotions as he flies into battle, contrasting with the otherwise balanced language of the poem.
There is a sense of resolution in the final four lines when the airman asserts that he has “balanced all/brought all to mind”. This sense of balance reflects the movement of flight itself as he balances the plane in the air and the lines seem to reflect its movements.
He reflects on his life and his future, “the years to come seem waste of breath/a waste of breath the years behind”. The phrase “a waste of breath” is repeated to again reflect the balance of the plane he flies in and the sense of the airman balancing his fate, “In balance with this life, this death.
Written as an elegy to Major Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Gregory – Yeats’ good friend, that lived at Coole Park, with whom he led the artistic revolution in Ireland (for more information on Augusta Gregory see the blog page on Yeats’ Women).
It has been inferred through the remaining letters written by Major Robert Gregory that he did (perhaps) not much like Yeats.
Gregory lived in the small town ‘Kiltartan’ which is referred to into the poem
– ‘My country is Kiltartan Cross,/My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,’
Those that fought for the British in World War I were considered traitors to the Irish people by the IRB. There are reports to the fact that many that survived the war (or their families if the men themselves had not survived the conflict) were later murdered by the IRB/A for choosing to align themselves with the ‘enemy’ during those years of conflict. The British recruited vigorously for soldiers from Ireland – even encamping outside pubs to recruit men who often were not in a sober-enough state of mind to refuse the enlisting process.
Prolific uses of personal pronouns – the use of such pronouns suggests that it was intended as a personal poem, not public. Yeats is possibly mourning his loss.
The poem, written in the persona of Gregory (or at least a soldier in a similar mound to Gregory), contemplates his motives for, and the worth of, his seemingly inevitable death. The poem is certain from the beginning that he ‘shall meet [his] fate/Somewhere among the clouds above,’ – he has signed up for the British Army, certain that he will die.
The ‘airman’ attempts to find the elusive meaning that he fights for through a process of elimination;
‘Those that I fight I do not hate’ – Ireland did not feel threatened by WWI and the Germans.
‘Those that I guard I do not love’ – He was fighting for Britain, who had oppressed the Irish for centuries.
‘No likely end could bring them [his countrymen] loss’ – Stoic philosophy – Life will moves on, he will be forgotten and if they lose the war that he is fighting for, may not be effected at all.
‘Or leave them happier than before’ – winning the war would not benefit Ireland in any way, may just refocus English attention and military presence on them.
No ‘public men’ ‘bade [him] fight’ – As Yeats frequently refers to himself as a public man (see notes on ‘Among School Children’); these lines may be Yeats’ attempt to distance himself from any involvement in Gregory’s motivations to align himself with the British and thus ultimately for his death.
The airman concludes, phrased as if he is writing posthumously, that it is ‘A lonely impulse of delight’ that he pursued, that drove him to fly and fight and that as ‘the years to come seemed waste of breath,/ A waste of breath the years behind’ all that’s left is for him to balance his wasted life, with his death. (‘In balance with this life, this death.’)
The ‘lonely impulse of delight’ is slightly ambiguous; it is most likely the Lakists’ Romantic ideal of a moment of pure emotion, as in ‘The Cold Heaven’ – ‘Ah!’ This moment he experiences away from all other humans flying in the clouds, transcending the physical limits of humans with the ethereal feel that flying ‘somewhere in among the clouds above’ has. It is almost as if the persona has touched/felt something forbidden to most mere mortals; this highly Romantic statement echoes the great Romantic poets (Shelley/Keats/Wordsworth).
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.”
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.