Self-Realization in William Butler Yeats' An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death was written by William Butler Yeats in memory of Major Robert Gregory who was killed in action on January 23, 1918 while fighting on the Italian front during World War I (Ellmann and O’Clair, fn. 154). Yeats was close with the Gregory family, but particularly with Lady Gregory due to their partnership in establishing the Irish National Theatre. Although Major Gregory is never explicitly mentioned in this poem, it is a commonly held belief that the airman in the poem is supposed to be him (Stock 118). This poem is not considered an elegy, but has been referred to as a "tragic soliloquy" (Ramazani 84). It is termed thus because the main character of the poem is speaking throughout, but does not necessarily seem to be speaking to a specific audience. It is considered a "tragic" soliloquy because the airman ultimately meets with death in the poem.
The airman’s decision to enter the war is not based on any deep love for his country or on any fierce hatred for the enemy. He says that "Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love" (Lines 3-4). Nor was he induced by the abundant propaganda of the time to join the war. Many young men entered the war because they desired recognition or because it was what everyone else was doing. The popular media glorified the war and made it seem like everybody was having a grand time fighting in the trenches. They did their best to hide the harsh realities of the war from the public. The following quote is an example of one of the many ways in which young men were enticed into joining the army: "Men and Millwall / Hundreds of Football enthusiasts / are joining the Army daily. / Don’t be left behind. / Let the Enemy hear the ‘LION’S ROAR’. Join and be in at THE FINAL / and give them a / KICK OFF THE EARTH" (Ellmann and O’Clair, fn. 546).
The airman is not affected by this propaganda, though, as he claims that "Nor law, nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men, nor cheering crowds" (9-10). The airman does not enter the war with any personal dreams of helping his own people. He is of the opinion that, no matter what way the war turns out, his people will not be affected too much one way or the other. This feeling is expressed when he says, "My country is Kiltartan Cross, / My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor, / No likely end could bring them loss / Or leave them happier than before" (5-8). The Irish airman does not enter the war hoping to bring about any significant change for his own people.
In many ways, he is very aloof and separates himself from the whole situation. A. G. Stock agrees with this interpretation, saying that "the airman...is presented as a type: he is Robert Gregory, but also he stands for the lonely aloofness which was part of Yeats’ ideal" (118-119). The airman does not seem to care about the politics behind the war. He seems to enter the war on a whim, out of desire to do something "exciting" and reckless with his life. He is going to fight in the war in order to prove to himself that he can do it. He says that it was "A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds" (11-12). "The language itself [of the poem], bleakly indifferent, inexorably denying all public or private causes, encloses, as it were by exclusion, a cold hard centre of the will...in the complete equilibrium that is achieved nothing matters but the solitary, alienated urge to self-realization" (Qtd. in Brunner 40).
The airman has gone into this battle, this "tumult in the clouds," clearly expecting that he will die. He does not fear this death, but rather sees it as a welcome escape from the drudgery of daily life. He does not feel that life has brought him much in the past and has no hope that things will improve for him in the future. His feelings are expressed quite plainly when he says "The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind" (14-15). He feels that things will be much better for him in death than they ever were, or could have been, in life. He comes to this realization as he is fighting in the battle. He "balanced all, brought all to mind" (13) and decided that death was not necessarily a bad thing for him.
The last line of the poem says two different things to me. The line reads "In balance with this life, this death" (16). On the one hand, I feel that in this line the airman is equating his life with death. He feels his life is so pitiful and pointless that it is almost like he is dead. On the other hand, I also feel that in this line the airman is saying that his inevitable death is a new chance at life. He feels that there are better things waiting for him in the great beyond. This interpretation is shared, at least in part, by Jahan Ramazani who says, "Yeats’s Irish airman bespeaks a final illumination, preferring the lonely joy of death to the monotony of life" (204). Although the airman does not fear death and can even be said to welcome it, "he does not regard likely death in battle either as a victory or as a defeat" (Seiden 185). It is simply what is going to happen to him because he chose to go to war in order to be a hero. "For him death holds no terrors, and he simply wills the experience for himself" (Brunner 40).
It is only through our own knowledge of Yeats’ life and associations, as well as of historic events, that we can even say that this poem is about an airman fighting in World War I, for that is never explicitly stated in the poem. The reader is aware that the airman is fighting in a war of some kind, but Yeats never tells us which one. We are left to decide that for ourselves. Yeats does not mention the name of the war because he does not feel that he is the right person to be composing so-called "war poems" or to be making commentaries on the validity of the war. When asked to write war poems Yeats’ response was this: "I think it better that in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right" (Qtd. in Stock 165). In a way, by not mentioning the war itself, and instead focusing on the airman, Yeats is doing the man a great honor. By having the soldier meet his death with such resoluteness and by avoiding discussion of the war that is ultimately causing his death, "Yeats...elevate[s] the speaker [the airman] above the politics of the First World War" (Ramazani 85). This is fitting, as the airman does not seem to have any concern for the politics behind the war anyway. He should be treated separately from the subject of the war itself.
While we must remember that the Irish airman represents Robert Gregory, we must also keep in mind that this character does not necessarily reflect the attitude and opinions of this man. "The Robert Gregory of Yeats’ poems...is the personification of a human ideal" (Seiden 186). This statement can be applied to Robert Gregory as he is explicitly described in such poems as "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" and "Shepherd and Goatherd". This statement can apply as well to how he is described in "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" when we are only led to assume that the title character is Gregory. As Seiden says, "[Gregory] moves us not for what he was but for what in the mind of the poet he became" (186). The sacrifice made by Gregory himself, as well as by Gregory through the character of the Irish airman, is not any different from the sacrifices that were made by millions of young men during World War I or during any war at all, for that matter. Somehow, though, Yeats is able to make us see Gregory as being special and even as being more heroic. Yeats is able to accomplish this because he had great personal respect for Major Gregory (Unterecker 133) and this shines through in the poetry that he wrote in his honor.
In many ways, Major Robert
Gregory symbolized to Yeats "both what he [Yeats] was and what he wanted
to be"(Seiden 185). Yeats often created male characters that were self-delighting,
lonely, well-balanced, and proud (Seiden 185). "In his exaltations of [these
men] he...made up for his many deficiencies; and he enjoyed [a] form of
self-flattery" (Seiden 185). In this poem, Yeats creates a freethinking,
reckless character who fearlessly confronts death. Perhaps this is how
Yeats saw himself acting in a similar situation or, more likely, this is
how Yeats wished that he himself could be. He glorified the life of Robert
Gregory because that man was everything that Yeats wished he could be.
Brunner, Larry. Tragic Victory: The Doctrine of Subjective Salvation in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats. Troy, NY: Whitston, 1987.
Ellmann, Richard and Robert O’Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 1988.
Ramazani, Jahan. Yeats & the Poetry of Death: Elegy, Self-elegy, and the Sublime. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1990.
Seiden, Morton Irving. William Butler Yeats: The Poet as Mythmaker, 1865-1939. East Lansing: Michigan State UP, 1962.
Stock, A.G. W.B. Yeats: His Poetry and Thought. London: Cambridge UP, 1961.
Unterecker, John. A Reader’s Guide to William
Butler Yeats. New York: Noonday P, 1959.