An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

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An Irish Airman Foresees His Death is a poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats written in 1918 and first published in the Macmillan edition of The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919.[1] The poem is a soliloquy given by an aviator in the First World War in which the poet describes the circumstances surrounding his imminent death. The poem is a work that discusses the role of Irish soldiers fighting for the United Kingdom during a time when they were trying to establish independence for Ireland. Wishing to show restraint from publishing political poems during the height of the war, Yeats withheld publication of the poem until after the conflict had ended.[2]

Poem[edit]

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.

Background and interpretation[edit]

The airman in the poem is widely believed to be Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats and the only child of Lady Augusta Gregory.

Structure[edit]

The poem contains 16 lines of text arranged in iambic tetrameter. The rhyme scheme is arranged in four quatrains of ABAB.

Summary[edit]

The aviator, of whom Yeats writes as in the first person, is convinced that the flight he is about to take will be his last, and he thinks of why he has chosen to fly. He flies for different reasons than most, not out of sense of duty or patriotism, nor for prestige or for those he has left behind. He reasons that he made his decision on the basis that his life so far has not compared to the thrill of annihilation, and can see nothing to convince him that his life to come will do any better.

Allusions[edit]

The poem is featured on the Yeats tribute album Now And In Time To Be, where it is sung by Shane MacGowan of the rock group The Pogues. The British rock group Keane based their song "A Bad Dream" (featured on the album Under the Iron Sea) on it, and a recording of the poem, read by Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, is played before the song at live venues, explaining their reasons for the lyrics. Hannon appeared in person to read it at the Keane gig at The Point Depot in Dublin (now known as the O2) on the 19th of July 2007 and again at The O2 on 21 July 2007, though the poem's title and author went unmentioned. In 2011 the poem was included on the Waterboys album 'An Appointment with Mr Yeats', a collection of Yeats poems set to music by Mike Scott.

In popular culture[edit]

In the movie Memphis Belle, the character Sgt. Danny Daly recites the poem, omitting the lines referring to Ireland. In the movie Congo, Dr. Peter Elliot says that his reason for teaching the ape to talk is "a lonely impulse of delight." It featured again in popular culture when the final four lines are quoted in the first episode of the second series of the BBC Three zombie drama In the Flesh.[3]

See also[edit]

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

  • Cole, Sarah. "The Poetry of Pain". The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry. Ed Tim Kendall Oxford University Press: 2007
  • Foster, R.F. The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making it Up in Ireland. London: Penguin 2001 ISBN 0-7139-9497-5
  • Pierce, David. Irish writing in the twentieth century: a reader. Cork University Press: 2000 ISBN 978-1-85918-258-1
  • Vendler, Helen. Our Secret Discipline. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2007 ISBN 0-674-02695-0