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An Irish Airman Foresees His Death -- William Butler Yeats

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.
-- William Butler Yeats
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.

33 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

G B said...

I am interested to read that Robert Gregory himself 'was an artist
(painter) whom Yeats respected and collaborated with; he designed
numerous side sets for Yeats' plays.' Perhaps Yeats was more attracted
to Gregory than the other way around - I read a newspaper article a few
years ago that indicated that Gregory did not like Yeats very much,
finding him rather strange, and was not pleased by the frequency of his
visits to his mother's house (Rathcoole, if memory serves me
correctly). If this is true, it is ironic that Gregory owes his place
in history to this striking poem. Shane McGowan of the Pogues and the
Cafe Orchestra have put it to music in a quite remarkable version which
was made available on a CD of Yeats' poems put to music a few years ago.

GB, Ireland

Lt Abhilash Tomy said...

I strongly disagree with Lucas. This is not a poem that mourns the passing of Gregory. In fact it is anything but that. You need to be a pilot to know what it is all about.
There is not greater joy or source of delight for a fighter than to be flying his fighter. In fighting an enemy he is not protecting his homeland though that is how it would appear to the men below. The presence of another is not treated in the same vein as the presence of an enemy. What our airman sees is a competitor, someone who has staked claim to his supremacy in the air. Therefore I fight, to prove who is the better. What the landlubber thinks of me is a myth. I dont protect anyone below, I dont yearn for glory, but the simple delight flying my craft in a manner other men have not. The death of my enemy is immaterial to me. His death is not because he fought for the wrong ideal. For he died because he did not fly as well as i did. Someday I too will die becuase I would not have flown as well as the other did. Yet that death is what I look forward to. Nothing else is acceptable. Its a certainty. There is an inevitability in my death. But that is because I choose it to be so. I know no other delight. There is no greater joy.
The poem is actually very simple. Lucas need not read in between the lines and try to derive meanings that yeats was not intending to imply.
However, the fact that the poem stands in stark contrast to what shaw implies in his play (I cant recollect the name) must be noticed. Shaw (in the chance encounter of a foot soldier with a lady) impresses how experience teaches a soldier that the preservation of ones life is more important thann anything else and how romantic notions attached to war was a purely civilian idea. Yeats on the other hand brings in that same denounced romantic notions into the airman's death in the poem though in a somewhat uncivilian manner.
Fly. You will know. How it feels to be so close to God. So close, you almost feel as if you were God. What then would I care about Kiltartan's poor!

Regards
Lt Abhilash Tomy

McGillicuddy Colin said...

There is more here than the simple love of flying. The Irish airman is
fighting another's war, isn't he? One that he really has no stake in,
and one his countrymen claim no stake in.

Yes, he loves to fly, and yes, he does not fear death - but not so much
out of heroism as out of disdain for what he leaves behind.

Colin McGillicuddy

Principal

St. Thomas Aquinas RCSS

124 Dorval Drive

Oakville, ON

L6K 2W1

PH:FAX:

GaGin1 said...

Comments on an Irish Airman.

Gregory actually spent most of his life growing up in England, going to
Harrow and Oxford, then to the Slade School of art in London.He knew Yeats from
childhood on, because he often visited Lady Gregory's home at Coole Park. The
two were ambiguous about each other. Gregory did not Yeats hanging around so
much, and, when he came to his majority, he inherted Coole Park; but he was
not ready to take over as an Irish landlord; he was In England, where he met
his wife Margaret and they wed in 1907. They had three children, a son and two
daughters. Gregory was quite ready to fight for the British, and Yeats
dislike of the Brits may have produced the line "those that I guard I do not
love." Yeats tried severalpoems before this one, none of which fully satisfied
Lady Gregory, who was pressing Yeats for a poem as it would be all that was
really left of Gregory.Finally Yeats cast the poem in a classic mode, the
eclogue. This gave him distance between himself and the subject, who he knew all
too well personally. Gregory is credited with 19 kills, a fact that Yeats and
Lady Gregory seemed oblivious to. There is a mystery about his death; some
claim friendly fire, but there is also the possibility of anoxia, as the plane
appeared to have fallen from a great height in a spin and was "a complete
wreck."In fact his fellow pilots said he just seemed to faint away, which would
correspond to anoxia; but critics think it is a phoney letter, and that he
was killed by friendly fire. But there is a problem: several witnesses say
there were no Italian a/c in the air that day. Possibly, since the ceilng was
only 1000 feet, if he ducked down to see where he was, Italian groundfire
could have gotten him.But that isa short fall, a crash not a "complete wreck."
Gregory was not feeling well from an innoculation, which could have heightened
his susceptibility to anoxia. Shaw wrote Lady Gregory after the war that
when he had met Gregory when he was in squadron 40, commanded by Robert Loraine,
that although Gregory was recovering from frostbite of the face, he told
Shaw these last six months had been the happiest of his life.

Lannie Liggera

Anonymous said...

You just have the poems background but no practical criticism of the poem. Young readers need the P.C to understand the poem try something better than this.You just have the poems background but no practical criticism of the poem. Young readers need the P.C to understand the poem try something better than this.

Anonymous said...

If Robert was willing to die to avoid an 'unprofitable old age', I'd say he suffered from a sad self-centeredness. Now, if he'd believed in Jesus, he could have seen the whole rest of his life as a blessed opportunity to develop a close relationship with Jesus by Whose Grace he might have worked at reflecting the image of Jesus. If Robert had taken this view he might have instead avoided throwing away his life in one of mankind's endless and useless wars.

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