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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 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...

(The entire section is 462 words.)