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Posted by on Jul 10, 2007

An Irish Airman foresees his Death by W.B. Yeats


In Michael’s latest addition of why the world should relish poetry more, I give you another of my favorites. The significance of the fact this pilot is Irish is critical to the narration; he is, in actuality, an Irishman in a British army. The year is 1916, during the First World War, and Ireland was not an independent state at the time. The beginnings of the IRA and talk of revolution and independence would rear their head around Easter of that same year, but that couldn’t have been further from the mind of this young man.
He chose to become a pilot and enlist; his was a decision to pursue glory. He is Icarus reborn, flying too close to the sun and surmounted by his own ego. This pilot realizes the error of his choice, yet his fate is sealed. The cheering crowds are far behind, if there ever were any; he is alone with his own mortality. The modern contrast to Icarus is that this pilot recognizes his error in the present, but remains powerless to stop it. Icarus recognized his error on the way down, crashing to the eart in front of his father, Daedalus (not coincidentally, the protoganist in Joyce’s Ulysses and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man).
The last few lines are almost whimsical and I think they sound best as a sort of sigh, a sigh akin to the end of summer or some past nostalgia.

An Irish Airman foresees his Death

by W.B. Yeats

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.
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