An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

by William Butler Yeats

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In the poem "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death" by Yeats, find examples and comment on the poet's use of contrast.

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In William Butler Yeats's poem "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" (written in 1918 and published in 1919), the use of contrasts highlights the idea that the airman is fighting for little purpose in World War I and, in fact, as an Irishman fighting for the independence of his country, he has more reason to hate the empire he is fighting for, Great Britain, than to hate the enemy.

The narrator of the poem identifies this conflict in the following lines: "Those that I fight I do not hate / Those that I guard I do not love" (lines 3-4). These contrasts mean that the airman does not hate his enemy, the Germans and their allies, and that he in fact has more reason to dislike those he is protecting--the citizens of Great Britain. He goes on to say that the fate of the war will have little effect on the people of the place he's from, Kiltartan Cross. "No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before" (lines 7-8). Again, the contrast is that the fate of the Irish people lies in the hands of Great Britain, not Germany and their allies (who were the enemy at the time). Therefore, the outcome of the war is largely meaningless to the Irish.

The airman only chose to fight, he says, because "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" (lines 13-16). The contrast here is between life, which he thinks is largely wasted, and death. He finds death preferable to a life that has been a waste in the past and will be a waste in the future. Yeats, an Irish poet, did not publish this poem until World War I was over, as the poem is highly critical of Irish people contributing to the British war effort.

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