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W.B. Yeats Poetry | An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

winwoodedu | Wednesday September 21, 2011

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Context

This poem was first published in 1919. It is widely believed to be a tribute to Major Robert Gregory, the only child of Lady Gregory; he joined the Royal Flying Corps in 1916 and was shot down in 1918 over Italy.

Structure

This is a 16 line poem written in iambic tetrameter (4 quatrains of alternating rhymes). The title reflects the reality of life for airmen in WWI. This may have happened to many people fighting during wars: they know their death is approaching but there is little they can do about it. There is no real sense of ‘foresees’ as a psychic event or premonition in the poem.

This is a young man’s poem. The narrator is likely to be Robert Gregory (1881-1918). The poem is written in the first person; thoughts are recited that are going through the mind as his death approaches. Word choice is important as it gives insight into the thoughts of the airman fighting on the verge of death.

‘I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above.’

Here there is a sense of fatalistic acceptance (‘I know’), perhaps even of fate. The use of ‘fate’ suggests that events are beyond the control of the airman. ‘Somewhere’ is vague; it could be anywhere and nowhere. ‘Clouds above’ is a rather romantic vision; idea of clouds as a barrier between life and death or heaven and earth. If the airman is above the clouds he is in another world, separated from the rest of the world.

‘Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;’

There is a sense of political consciousness but no jingoism here. The airman is not driven by hatred of Germans or love of English; there is an ambiguity about why he is fighting. The two lines act as mirrors of each other; by replacing ‘fight’ with ‘guard’ and ‘hate’ with ‘love’ we see the ambivalence that the airman feels about the war. It is ironic that although he doesn’t care either way about the war, it will be the war that...


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