Guest poem submitted by Amit Chakrabarti
(Poem #32) An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above; Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love; My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan's poor, No likely end could bring them loss Or leave them happier than before. Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, Nor public men, nor cheering crowds, A lonely impulse of delight Drove to this tumult in the clouds; 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.
Simple, almost mundane language, and yet resonant. There is little need to add "explanations" to this poem; it speaks for itself. However, I can't help mentioning that the last stanza -- especially the repetition of the words "waste of breath" -- is one of my all time favourite poem slices. Although the poem can be enjoyed on its own, it is interesting to learn the circumstances that led to its creation. The unnamed narrator in this poem was meant to be Major Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Augusta Gregory, the single most influential person in Yeats' life and writings. Robert himself was an artist (painter) whom Yeats respected and collaborated with; he designed numerous side sets for Yeats' plays. In this poem Yeats celebrates the self-chosen nature of Robert Gregory's death (he did die fighting, while an airman). For more glimpses of this man's life and his influence on Yeats' read the (somewhat longish) "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory". [ Info from "The Yeats Companion" by Ulick O'Connor ] Amit [Chacko has asked me to supply the rest of the annotation, so.... -m.] Biographical Notes: Yeats was born in Dublin on June 13, 1865, the eldest of four children. [...] Yeats' mother Susan Pollexfen Yeats, the daughter of a successful merchant from Sligo in western Ireland, was descended from a line of intense, eccentric people interested in faeries and astrology. From his mother Yeats inherited a love of Ireland, particularly the region surrounding Sligo, and an interest in the folklore of the local peasantry. Not until he was eleven years old, when he began attending the Godolphin Grammar School in Hammersmith, England, did Yeats receive any type of formal schooling. From there he went on to the Erasmus Smith High School in Dublin, where he a generally disappointing student - erratic in his studies, prone to daydreaming, shy, and poor at sports. In 1884 Yeats enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin, where he met the poet George Russell. With Russell, Yeats founded the Dublin Hermetic Society for the purposes of conducting magical experiments and promoting their belief that "whatever the great poets had affirmed in their finest moments was the nearest we could come to an authoritative religion and that their mythology and their spirits of water and wind were but literal truth." This organization marked Yeats' first serious activity in occult studies, a fascination which he would continue for the rest of his life, and the extent of which was revealed only when his unpublished notebooks were examined after his death. Yeats joined the Rosicrucians, the Theosophical Society, and MacGregor Mathers' Order of the Golden Dawn. Frequently consulting spiritualists and engaging in the ritual conjuring of Irish gods, Yeats used his knowledge of the occult as a source of images for his poetry, and traces of his esoteric interests appear everywhere in his poems. In 1885 Yeats met Irish nationalist John O'Leary, who helped turn his attention to Celtic nationalism and who was instrumental in arranging for the publication of Yeats' first poems in The Dublin University Review. Under the influence of O'Leary, Yeats took up the cause of Gaelic writers at a time when much native Irish literature was in danger of being lost as the result of England's attempts to anglicize Ireland through a ban on the Gaelic language. -- excerpted from Exploring Poetry, Gale, 1997. see <[broken link] http://www.nelson.com/gale/poetry/yeatsbio.html> for the whole essay. Criticism: "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is one of the three poems written on the occasion of the death of Yeats's friend Robert Gregory. Critic John Lucas, in his book 'Modern English Poetry - Hardy to Hughes: A Critical Survey', mentions that this poem was not only used to mourn the loss of Gregory but also to "affirm his commitment to values that are, so it seems, to become time's victims." According to Lucas, Yeats wished to show that Gregory chose death in order to escape the waste of age. He explains, "Yeats implies that Gregory knew his work to be finished in one brief flaring of creative intensity and that he therefore chose death rather than wasting into unprofitable old age." Lucas goes on to mention that the poem is essentially concerned with the balance between life and death. "Yeats presents Gregory in the act of balancing all, seeing himself poised between 'this life, this death.'" -- Exploring Poetry, Gale, 1997.