The great Irish poet, WB Yeats made this contribution to the rich body of First World War poetry, along with Siegfried Sassoon, Guillaume Apollinaire and many other fine warrior-poets. The title of this poem “An Irish airman foresees his death” sets a tone of impending and inevitable doom, which is immediately reinforced by the first line which talks of the airman’s foreknowledge of his unavoidable fate.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
W. B. Yeats, 1865 – 1939
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.
However, while many first world war poems focus on the combination of horror and futility , this has a slightly different tone. The futility of the war is suggested obliquely, by stressing the airman’s indifference and detachment regarding both the enemy and his own side – neither represent his own place or his own people, from Kiltartan Cross, in Ireland.
Instead the poet is conscious and accepting of the inevitability of death in this combat which is not his own. This is fatalistic but also evokes “a lonely impulse of delight” as if there is some aesthetic quality pleasing to the poet in this seeking out of danger and coming face to face with death. And that somehow the moment and manner of death foretold has more importance than anything in the life that preceded it.
The poem many well reflect the experience and attitude of many of the troops on either side in this terrible conflict, a stoicism of carrying out their duty despite not understanding the reasons. It is nonetheless somewhat unsettling to find the poet writing of death in these terms – but of course a good poem should make us reflect.
The Poetry Dude