An Irish Airman Foresees His Death By W.B Yeats

Introduction of the Poem

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death By W.B Yeats is rather a thought-provoking poem on Major Robert Gregory, who was the son of one of Yeats’s friends. Robert Gregory was killed in Italy during the First World War in 1918. The poem was written during the First World War (1914-1919) when many Irish men fought for the cause of Englishmen. The poem is taken from the collection The Wild Swans At Coole. During the first World War, Ireland was a part of “Great Britain”. It became a separate nation later in1922. Therefore, when Gregory died, he actually died for the “English”, not for the “Irish”. The pilot sees his forthcoming death yet he does not seem regretful or scared but rather accepts the fate he is going to encounter.

Explanation/ Summary of the Poem

This poem captures the mind of an airman confronting death. This insight is what makes the poem memorable. This poem is about an Irish pilot fighting in the war and anticipating his imminent death. He is prepared to die after reflecting on his life. He realises that it has been a waste of time. This is reflected in the line, “A waste of breath the years behind / In balance with this life, this death.” (Yeats).

It was the life of adventure that prompted the Irish airman to fight. He was totally disgusted with the monotony of daily life and he sought the thrill of the Air Force. He explicitly states that it was not under any obligation for the country nor the inspiring speeches of the leaders or the cheering of the crowds that provoked him to fight in the battlefield. It was simply the thrill of the battlefield or adventure that pushed him to take up the job of an Airman.

Its must be noted that being an Irish-man Robert Gregory did not have any deep love for England. His country is Kiltartan’s Cross, his countrymen “Kiltartan’s poor”. He says that whatever is the outcome in the war it will make their lives no worse or better than before the war began. The airman lists every factor weighing upon his situation and his vision of death. He rejects every possible factor he believes to be false: he does not hate or love his enemies or his allies, his country will neither be benefited nor hurt by any outcome of the war. He does not fight for political or moral motives but because of his “impulse of delight”. His past life seems a waste, while his future life promises to be the same and his death will balance out his life. He feels that only death in war can balance his life of dullness.

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Don’t you think that the expression, “A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds” contains the entire perception of W. B? Yeats? Don’t you think that this poem is inspiring and can rouse plenty of its readers from lethargy? It can serve as the stimulus or incentive to take up a life of adventure.

Style and Language

The language of Yeats’s poetry is plain and has the simplicity of everyday speech. He expresses ideas briefly and sharply. The language of the poem is simple and suggestive. The poem is recited in the first person which makes the poem more interesting to read. The poem is written in a colloquial, pointed, epigrammatic and conversational style. This short sixteen-line poem has a very simple structure: lines are metered in iambic tetrameter, and four grouped quatrains of alternating rhymes: ababcdcdefefghgh. Words were chosen carefully to fit the rhyme scheme and to make it more interesting to the reader. The simple form of the poem reflects the simple theme of the poem.

You have already learnt the poem “When You Are Old” by Yeats. By now you must have understood how the poet employs some poetic techniques. In this poem, he uses metaphor to make contrasts and comparisons. The metaphor “Drove to this tumult in the clouds”. (Yeats) explains that the speaker had reached the zenith of his flight as well as the zenith of his life. From here he will encounter his death.

Another example of a metaphor presented in this poem is “A waste of breath the years behind.” (Yeats). This is a metaphor which compares the years that have passed and how they were a waste of time. An example of irony found in the poem is when he says he does not love or want to protect the people of his country, yet when people go to war they usually fight for the honour of their country. Don’t you think that the title of the poem is suggestive? The title of the poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” reflects the fact that the airman foresaw his impending death. This is significant because it reflects the fate of many people fighting on the war front anticipating their death.

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You can see that this poem is recited in first-person. The poet is recounting the thoughts that are going through his mind as his death approaches. This choice of voice i.e. “active voice” is important because it gives an insight into the thoughts of the airman fighting on the verge of death. It is the poet who is imagining these thoughts. As he does so he brings up related ideas and questions

Important Points

Airman: pilot or member of an aircraft
crew, especially in an airforce.
Kiltartan’s Cross: a name typical of Irish
villages. The Kiltartan Cross was a group of Roman Catholics that were directly related to the Air Force.
Meet my fate: I shall be killed in action.
Fight, Guard: Here it refers to Airman of
the defence services
Cheering crowds: crowds of people who applaud.
Impulse: sudden inclination to act without thinking about results.
Tumult: disturbance caused by battle.
Brought all to mind: considered everything.
Waste of breath: useless.
Epigrammatic : concise and wetly.
Iambic tetrameter: an unstressed syllable followed a stressed syllable with four feet.
Quatrains: A stanza of four lines,rhymed or unrhymed.
Metaphor: a figure of speech in which an expression is used to refer to something that it does not literally denote in order to suggest a similarity.
Irony: the use of words that say the opposite of what you really mean.

QUESTIONS TO CHECK YOUR PROGRESS

Q.1. Explain the importance of the lines “Those That I fight I do not Hate / Those that I guard I do not love”.

Q.2. Explain what the poet mean by ‘A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds’.

Q.3. Fill in the blanks :

Nor ……………, Nor ………………..bade me fight,

Nor ……………….., Not ……………….cheering ………………..
A ………………..impulse of………….. Drove to this ………………..in the clouds.

Q.4. “I know that I shall meet my fate?’’ What is the “fate” he will meet? Is it going to be death with honour?

Q.5. Explain the metaphor “Drove to this tumult in the clouds.”

Q.6. Explain :

a) “Cheering crowds”

b) “impulse”

c) “tumult”

Q.7. Why does he call the impulse, an “impulse of delight”? What does “delight” imply here?

Q.8. The poem is written in ……………..style (tick
the most appropriate one)

a) complex b) pointed c) musical

Q.9. Can you find out which syllables are

stressed in: “A waste of breath the years behind”?

Q.10. What are the main thoughts of the speaker in the lines “A waste

of breath the years behind”

Answers
Ans to Q No 1: Refer to Explanation of the Poem.

Ans to Q No 2: Refer to Explanation of the Poem.

Ans to Q No 3: Law, duty, public man, cheering crowds, lonely, delight, tumult.

Ans to Q No 4: Refer to Explanation of the Poem and Style and Language.

Ans to Q No 5: Refer to Style and Language.

Ans to Q No 6: Cheering Crowds: crowds of people who applaud

Impulse: sudden inclination to act without thinking about results.

Tumult: Disturbance caused by battle

Ans to Q No 7: Refer to 5.4.2 Explanation of the Poem.
Ans to Q No 8: (b) Pointed

Ans to Q No 9: Refer to 5.5 Style and Language

Ans to Q No 10: A metaphor which compares the years that have passed and how they were a waste of time (to elaborate.)

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