‘An Irish Airman Forsees His Death’ by W.B. Yeats is a poem documenting the thoughts of Robert Gregory, an Irish airman who died in a plane crash in WW1. Robert Gregory was the son of Lady Gregory, Yeats’ patron – and she commissioned this poem in remembrance of her son.
It’s a very calm first person monologue, which shows RG’s thoughts as he flies, the enjambment highlights how the poem is a collection of thoughts, yet the rhyme scheme shows how his thoughts are controlled – he isn’t panicking. Robert Gregory is shown as a real hero, as the Irish didn’t have to fight in WW1 – only volunteers were taken, and this makes the tragedy of his death even more poignant as he only went to fly. The tone at the beginning is solemn and peaceful, yet by the end he wonders about the meaning of life.
The poem starts with a statement, “I know that I will meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above”. The use of the word “I” shows how the poem is personal, but the whole statement is calm. Gregory knows he will die in action. We can see that he isn’t in the war for ‘noble’ reasons to defend his country, he is there because he enjoys flying:
“Those that I fight I do not hate.
Those that I guard I do not love’
He shows that he is Irish, being from “Kiltartan”, the use of the word “Cross” could refer to his religion, highlighting that he didn’t have to go to war, as Irish Christians didn’t have to due to religious reasons. The use of the word “poor” contrasts where he lived to the rich nationalists of Ireland at the time.
Yeats distinguishes Gregory from the other fighters by saying “No likely end could bring them loss”. This shows that his impending death won’t affect the other fighters – making the reader empathise with Gregory’s situation. He also says that it wouldn’t “leave them happier” – showing that war has no outcome for him apart from the adrenaline of flying, to him there is no loss or win as it isn’t his fight. Yeats also shows that it isn’t his war by saying:
“Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
This shows that he doesn’t fight for public praise or law. The repetition of ‘nor’ emphasises that there is no other reason than the “impulse of delight” of flying. The word ‘impulse’ makes it sound like a split second, spur of the moment decision, yet Gregory doesn’t seem to regret his decision.
The next few lines shows that he has contemplated life, “I balanced all”. The phrase gives the idea of scales, and weighing up both sides – Yeats seems to question the point of life and war. We see that he thinks that life isn’t needed, only the adrenaline of flying is – “The years to come seemed waste of breath, A waste of breath the years behind”. The repetition of “waste of breath” shows how Yeats (and maybe Gregory) thought that life was unnecessary, and the past and present is too, only life in the moment is real, and not ‘wasteful’.
The last line “In balance with this life, this death” shows that he thinks that both life and death have little point. This is the first time the word ‘death’ is used in the poem – addressing the main issue in the poem directly, almost as if Gregory has realised.
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