An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

by William Butler Yeats

Start Free Trial

The Poem

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

“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 war affect the lives of the Irish peasants with whom he identifies.

The third quatrain indicates the selfish desire for adventure that was the airman’s reason for enlisting to fight. His rugged individualism made his choice preordained; only his method of fighting was open. True to a romantic tradition, the airman chose the imagined “chivalry” of single combat in the rarefied heavens over the anonymity of the wholesale slaughter which the ground soldier confronted on the battlefield when faced with the advancements of modern warfare. Gone were the traditional concepts of bravery and honor; the arbitrariness of artillery, machine-gun fire, and poison gas killed randomly.

In the final line of the last quatrain, Yeats leaves the first person when he says, “In balance with this life, this death.” Particular attention should be paid to Yeats’s shift to “this” life, “this” death as opposed to using “my.” He is universalizing the airman’s experiences, transcending the politics of World War I and moving to the realization of the futility of all wars, all waste of human life.

Throughout the poem, the airman feels no sense of disappointment, no misgivings about his fate, no disillusionment about his outcome. He has accepted the challenge in the tradition of the romantic hero and will continue on toward his preordained end.

Forms and Devices

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

At first glance, the structure of the poem seems awkward, almost as if Yeats made punctuation errors by omitting periods. There are also two locations where he has used semicolons rather than commas (after “clouds above” in line 2 and after “clouds” in line 12). Yeats uses these semicolons to provide positive links with the thoughts immediately following. He links (and contrasts) the serenity in the line ending “clouds above” with the agitation among the populace, figuratively “below” him both in space and temperament. In line 12, he uses the semicolon to link (and contrast) the “tumult in the clouds” with the clear, rational balancing of his mind.

Yeats, always the quintessential Irish nationalist, uses this poem as a vehicle to allude ironically to the part that the Irish played in World War I. When the airman...

(This entire section contains 462 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

states, “Those that I fight I do not hate,/ Those that I guard I do not love,” he is showing implicitly that the Irish, who were constantly at odds with British domination, were forced into the war on the Allied side with ambivalent feelings. They had no more sympathy for the British than they had for the Germans.

Voluntarily fighting as a British ally, the airman may be grouped with the “Byronic heroes,” the literary epitome of Romantic individuality. True to this metaphor, the airman comes to realize his own self-destruction and embraces it with composure and aristocratic nonchalance. He did not have to fight, but when “A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds,” he joins the legions of Byronic heroes (Robert Browning’s Childe Roland, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses, and Lord Byron’s Manfred, to name a few) who are a combination of boundless energy and fatalistic recklessness.

The airman knew that his death was predestined; it can be compared to the death of Icarus from Greek mythology. Icarus, ignoring his father’s (Daedalus’s) warnings as they were escaping from Minos in Crete, flew too near the sun on the wax and feather wings that he and his father had constructed. The heat from the sun melted the wax, and Icarus fell to his death. The airman knows that as he continues to be driven to the “tumult in the clouds” he, too, will eventually meet his death.

This foreknowledge of fate is effectively used, as is the juxtaposition of contrasting thoughts throughout the poem. Two prevalent examples are the airman not hating the enemy and not loving the Allies. The airman is placing himself above such emotions and continuing on his personal “quest” for adventure. In the age of technologically advanced weaponry, it would be impossible for the Byronic hero to pursue his adventures on the ground; it was left to the Yeatsian hero to turn to the skies.