07 Yeats – Irish Airman

An Irish Airman foresees his Death
W.B. Yeats - Written 1918.
Published in ‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ (1919)
On being asked for a war poem (1915)
I THINK it better that in times like these
A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth
We have no gift to set a statesman right;
He has had enough of meddling who can please
A young girl in the indolence of her youth,
Or an old man upon a winter’s night.
‘It is the only thing I have written of the war or
will write, so I hope it may not seem unfitting.’
WB Yeats
‘A Reason for Keeping Silent’
Original Title
An Irish Airman foresees his Death (1918)
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 man, 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.
The poem is an elegy for Major
Robert Gregory RFC, MC, Legion of
honour who was KIA on Jan 23rd,
1918. He was the son of Lady
Gregory who was a patron and
friend of Yeats.
(See notes on September 1913 and The
Wild Swans at Coole.)
The poem is an imagining of the airman’s
thoughts just before he dies. It is a
monologue that is distanced literally and
metaphorically from the mud, blood and
actuality of the War Poets. Yeats disliked
Wilfred Owen’s poetry explaining ‘passive
suffering is not a theme for poetry’ and
excluding him from ‘The Oxford Book of
Modern Verse’ that Yeats edited.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
Q. This is Owen’s poem
Dulce et Decorum Est
(1917). How is this very
different from the world
of the Irish Airman?
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden Daffodils;
Beside the Lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:A Poet could not but be gay
In such a jocund company:
I gazed---and gazed---but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
Q. This is Wordsworth’s
poem I wandered lonely
as a cloud (1815). How
is this very different
from the world of the
Irish Airman?
‘…the airman is symbolic of the subjective or philosophical life. He
accounts for his reason why he fights and achieves a kind of tragic
balance.’(Greening 2005)
‘Illustrates Yeats’s growing
political consciousness…’
‘Wordsworth’s poetry reveals the power of the mind over
the body. Wordsworth relieves his isolation through the
restorative power of nature. His Leech Gatherer
perseveres through the simple exertion of his will. This
independence is ensured through individual resolution –
a democratic and empowering form of liberty.’
Richard Ellmann ‘Yeats: The Man and the Mask’ (1985)
‘My whole life I have lived in pleasant thought
As if life’s business were a summer mood
As if all needful things would come unsought
To genial faith, still rich in genial good…’
William Wordsworth ‘Resolution and Independence’ (1807)
Q. Write a short paragraph explaining how each of these quotes relate or help
contextualise your understanding of the poem ‘An Irish Airman...’

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