An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

by William Butler Yeats
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How does the poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” deal with the idea of death?

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” deals with the idea of death by presenting it as something to be treated with indifference. The eponymous airman knows that he will be killed in action, yet he takes to the skies anyway due to “a lonely impulse of delight.”

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The Irish airman of Yeats's poem makes it abundantly clear that he was not motivated to go to war by any of the usual factors that made so many young men sign up to fight.

He doesn't fight out of a sense of patriotism; those he guards he does not love, meaning that, as a proud Irishman, he is not fighting for the British Empire, of which his native country is still a part. Nor has he succumbed to the clamor of cheering crowds full of jingoistic fervor at the prospect of a swift, glorious victory.

For good measure, the airman doesn't even hate the enemy. As he tells us, “Those I fight I do not hate.” It transpires that he's only fighting because it gives him “a lonely impulse of delight,” a feeling of sheer joy that he derives from taking to the skies alone.

The airman's attitude to death is one of complete indifference. He doesn't just think that he will die somewhere among the clouds; he knows that he will. And yet, he doesn't seem to care. Death is nothing to him, a matter of supreme indifference.

Looking at the bigger picture, he realizes that, in the overall scheme of things, his death won't make the slightest bit of difference to the outcome of the war, or to the future of that part of Ireland from which he hails, Kiltartan Cross.

When he examines his life, the airman sees it as nothing more than a waste of breath. And if he should survive, the years remaining to him will be exactly the same. This stands in stark contrast to the short life of an airman, which at least can give him something he can't get elsewhere or in any other situation: a lonely impulse of delight.

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