Irish Poetry II - William Butler Yeats - An Irish Airman foresees his Death

An Irish Airman foresees his Death (1919)
William Butler Yeats (1865-1939AD)

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

The Irish airman in this poem is Major Robert Gregory (1881-1918), only child of Yeats’s friend Lady Augusta Gregory. He was killed on the Italian front. In elegizing him, Yeats focuses on the “lonely impulse of delight” that drove him to enlist in the British Royal Flying Corps and distinguishes his heroic solitude from patriotic duty and other common motivations.
- Notes from Old Poetry

Yeats was deeply moved by the spirit of the pilots of the day, who, time after time, would get back in the cockpit and fly out to meet their fates. He had to describe the airman as Irish as it would have been seen as disrespectful to describe English airmen as fighting other than for King and Country, although there were many airmen from the lower classes in England whose spirit is perfectly described by this poem. In this context, the last two lines are not a message about life in general, but a statement of the power of the passion for flight. Airmen in those days were all volunteers and could turn in their wings anytime. But, the airman, as symbol of them all, would rather live "this life" and die in the air in a week than live to old age on the ground. The contrast is especially stark when you consider the conditions of the foot soldiers in the trenches who could expect longer lives, but had no hope of delighting in the circumstances of their deaths (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori).
- W.B. Yeats - An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

"An Irish Airman foresees his Death" was the first poem I had by heart, and those middle lines on the "lonely impulse of delight" that is the airman's motivation still fill me with that fleeting satisfaction when a feeling or a thought finds its ideal expression in language; or what Yeats might call "something to perfection brought".
- Book Of A Lifetime: Selected Poems, By WB Yeats by Adam O'Riordan

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