Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
In “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” Yeats uses the dramatic monologue to accomplish a dual purpose. Yeats is using the death of an Irish hero to further the prestige of Irish nationalism; Gregory was well-suited for the purpose. He was of the nobility; he was a volunteer in the truest sense of the word; he was a worldly, sophisticated Renaissance man; he was a war hero (recipient of the Military Cross); and he was an Irish patriot. No matter what the true reason Gregory chose to fight in World War I, he was an ideal vehicle for Yeats’s propaganda.
Several ironic facts may be noted about Gregory’s death and about the possible influence that he may have had (if his life had continued) on both the public and private sphere. Gregory was accidentally shot down by an Allied war plane, a fact that Yeats did not know at the time he composed this poem. Gregory also had been active in Irish politics prior to his enlistment. After the war, England sent in the hated Black and Tans to enforce order in Ireland. Because of Gregory’s prestige and power, he may have been able to exert some mollifying control over the chain of events that immediately followed the armistice. His death also led his impoverished wife to sell his ancestral home, Coole, because she was unable to manage the estate.
Yeats’s second purpose is to explore the futility of war and the waste of human life that results. The airman balances his past life and his future, and decides that they are equally wasteful. War will have no effect either on him or on the populace for whom the war is supposedly being fought. The banality of the situation is that the airman is able to see this and is able to ignore the emotional pleas that are normally used to entice men to fight. Yeats was confronted with a complex problem. The traditional language of poetry was of no use in conveying the ghastly horrors of modern trench warfare. Many poets, such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Edward Thomas, developed a new language and form to meet these new demands. For Yeats, an escape back to the traditional romantic hero allowed him to voice his own poignant protest in a world gone mad.