The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is a short dramatic monologue, originally one of four poems written by William Butler Yeats to commemorate the death of Major Robert Gregory, son of Lady Augusta Gregory (Yeats’s onetime patron and later his colleague). Gregory, never a close personal friend of Yeats, was a multitalented Renaissance man, titled Irish gentry, athlete, aviator, scholar, and artist who, even though over the age for compulsory military service, enlisted in World War I. He did so because it was a magnificent avenue for adventure.

The poem is equally divided into two eight-line sentences with four iambic tetrameter quatrains. Yeats writes in the first person, donning the persona of the airman as he prepares to go into battle in the sky. In the first quatrain, Yeats shows the airman’s ambiguous feelings about fighting in the war; he has no strong emotions concerning either those he is fighting against or those he is fighting to protect. Even with these mixed sentiments, however, he is sure that he will die in this adventure. Not only is death from enemy contact possible but also, with aviation in its infancy, the chances for mechanical error multiply the dangers he faces.

The second quatrain continues this ambiguity as the airman realizes the fruitlessness of his participation in the war. He knows that no matter what the outcome of his personal battles, they will not affect the overall war effort—nor will the outcome of...

(The entire section is 463 words.)