THIS IS ONE OF MY ALL-TIME FAVORITE POEMS!!! I think this poem exemplifies a simple beauty while still portraying the poignancy of the moment. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
I know that I shall meet my fate
I have been rather surprised by the relative number of inquiries I have gotten regarding this poem. Before I give my interpretation of the poem, let me state the facts about the poem (as I know them). I am NOT a Yeats scholar. I know only that information which I have gathered here and there due to personal interest in Yeats' poetry. Anything on this page, no matter how factual it may appear, should be verified by the reader.
Yeats wrote the poem in honor of Major Gregory, who fought and died in the air war against Germany in World War One. Major Gregory was the son of Lady Gregory, an Irish aristocrat who was a strong supporter of the arts (especially Irish arts) and a very close friend of Yeats. Kiltartan, mentioned in lines 5 and 6 of the poem refers to the region that Lady Gregory lived in.
Yeats writes the poem as though he is the aviator, about to meet his demise. The first two lines prepare the reader for what lies ahead. The pilot will die. Yeats doesn't dally with that point because he has more important thoughts to convey. He moves on to establish the pilot's motives. The pilot chose to fly and fight in the war, not because he hated the Imperial Germans, nor because he loved his country; and he didn't do it for fame or fortune. The pilot flew for one reason only; the sheer joy of flying. Yeats does not try to portray Major Gregory as an heroic character, sacrificing life and limb for the greater good of mankind. Again, for Yeats to emphasize this would defeat the purpose of the poem.
With the line, "I balanced all, brought all to mind," Yeats begins to tell the reader what Major Gregory has to tell us about life and death. But let us linger at this line a moment. In it, Yeats is not merely saying that Major Gregory saw his life pass before his eyes. He balanced ALL, brought ALL to mind. Important news is at hand! Indeed! It is a waste of time and energy to live in the past, as well as to live always for what might be (the future). In reality, and especially at that moment before death, all that matters is the present. Perhaps that moment before death is the only moment when one can truly realize and wholeheartedly believe that. For it is exceptionally difficult to look at one's own life without hoping it will be better in the future or thinking about "how nice it was when . . ." Indeed, I don't believe that one should live wholly in the present. Both the knowledge of the past and the extrapolation to future events are extremely important guides through life. But what Yeats is trying to convey, is that any moment may be your last, so live it to it's fullest. Live like you mean it!
Since I added my interpretation of 'An Irish Airman . . .', several people have written me with their comments. I would like to thank them for sharing their knowledge and point of view with me. I have learned a lot from them. I've posted the comments of those who have given permission to do so below. I would like to make clear, however, that, like my own interpretation, it is just that, and some individuals make statements that I have not fact checked. This page is not meant to be the gospel of W.B. Yeats. Read what is on this page knowing that not everything written here is the verified truth.
Iftach Spector writes:
The poem is seemingly tragic: a young knight, going with open eyes to die in what he sees as meaningless war. In my opinion this view masks the true meaning of Yeats' text. There is something else, complex, in the text. Sober re-reading shows that Yeats doesn't love his hero at all.
Consider his nationality. What kind of Irish is our hero, whose own people have no meaning to him? What kind of person doesn't love his friends nor hate his foes, and past and future are all futile for him? He is so remote from the classical knight, having no beloved one nor any target, and the call of duty, the law, leadership or any other ideal or motive are nothing to him. What motivates this man, why is he going out to fly (flight has two meanings)? The answer is: A lonely impulse of delight. His only objective is – himself. Delight, personal satisfaction. He flies solitarily to seek delight with himself, with no wish for any fruit and no interest in result. Put clearly - to masturbate in the sky. And in an astonishing parallel to Freud's Thanatos, death desire, in this way he wishes to die. His death is his final orgasm.
Yeats, in an outstanding sensitiveness, has identified before psychoanalysis and 50 years before the "banality of evil", a modern psychopath: the modern technocrat, the moral autistic, the "Homo Faber" interested in the doing rather than the causes and the ends. I can easily see why all interpretations miss this hard message. Fighter flight - in our culture and collective consciousness - is the ultra-knightly profession, where "the few", "the right stuff" to whom "the many owe" is a top. But under this knight's cloak hide a robot, masked by glamorous profession and a forthcoming end. Yeats, he neither worships his hero nor mourns his death.
Richard Walsh writes:
It's Remembrance Day today and it made me reflect on this poem. As an Irishman who has lived in England for many years. I think the issue for Major Gregory is the fact that he is part of the ascendancy or Anglo-Irish. He is not English, not one of "Those that I guard I do not love" and in Ireland he is not part of the Catholic Irish nationalist majority on the island. While his countrymen may be "Kiltartan's poor" he is far removed from them by religion, class and history. In the sky as a pilot he is free of the difficult issues of his homeland and his class. As others have written this poem was written against the background of the Easter Rising. Yeats wrote of the rising in his poem Easter 1916 that "All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born" this "terrible beauty" signalled the end of Major Gregory's world
WEBMASTER'S NOTE: Someone commented on this poem but I did not receive a reply when I asked for permission to post the persons comments. The following is a summary, in my words, of what the person said. I have not made any attempt to verify or validate the comments in any way, and I will state them in as bare a way as possible so as not to imply anything beyond what the commenter stated.
The poem is politically charged by trying to eliminate politics.
Yeats is trying to make Major Gregory Irish, when in fact the Major Gregory felt akin to England and empire. Lady Gregory was somewhat separate from the Irish separatist movement, and the poem tries to make the Gregorys more Irish. The poem says Gregory is Irish, not British, even though Gregory's own self-identity is the opposite, but calling him Irish is politically helpful for Yeats and Lady Gregory.
The poem puts Yeats into the aircraft and is more about him than Gregory.
Damien Haining writes:
There is a deep existential core to this poem, a commentary on the manner in which one makes choices about life and an implied claim that such choices are, by their very nature, few and simple. For example, if I choose to join the army then I can make subsequent choices within that social setting, to the extent they are permitted, but they all occur as derivatives of the original decision.
What determines the direction of that original decision is what I might term the "original sentiment," an affective impulse expressive of the basic character or moral inclination of the person. The "moral" aspect I refer to here is used in the broadest sense as an expression of a person's primitive perceptions of the world and their responsiveness to it.
The same physical decision (to become an airman) may reflect different moral expressions reflecting different "original sentiments".Thus, if I, unconsciously and primitively, perceive the world as untrustworthy and hostile to me then I may choose to be an airman to avoid conscription, trench warfare and physical discomfort. If I perceive the world as a process of social identification then I may choose to be an airman to identify with my nation against its enemies. If I perceive the world as pre-eminently a social hierarchy then I may choose to be an airman to identify with soldiers having a glamorous or "hero" status in the eyes of the public. And, as many argue in the case of the Irish Airman, I may eschew all social considerations, a world gone mad with war, even the inevitability of death, and take delight in the joy of the skies.
This has a lot of appeal as an explanation yet it is not what Yeats is saying.
A lonely impulse of delight
The Airman does not obtain his delight from the clouds. Rather, he chooses the clouds as an expression of his "impulse of delight." The joy comes first, the clouds after. Moreover, the delight is not just a feeling but an "impulse", a movement of his being. It is an expression of his inner self from some deep, unconscious level. How the Airman found or released this "delight" is never conveyed. He tells us that it is not derived from his social identity -- not enemies, countrymen, duty or crowds. There is no evidence of any reasoned analysis or personal reflection producing his "lonely impulse of delight." Rather, it is presented to us as an epiphany, a spontaneous emergence of his inner being, a simultaneous discovery and release of an existential judgement on life itself.
The Airman also accepts without rancour that there is "tumult in the clouds". I am reminded here of Socrates and Jesus who accepted death sentences from what they fully recognized to be unjust societies acting in bad faith. In a sense they affirm their moral commitment to those corrupt societies, with all their failings, even unto death, while still holding true to their moral principles as supreme expressions of their "original sentiment". It's like a partner who stays with an undeserving spouse out of love.
Humans are affective creatures driven by simple impulses and we often gather supporting explanations for basic decisions at an unconscious level after the fact of those decisions. We may even believe that such decisions are "rational", but as modern scientists find when they examine brain scans, decision making takes place before it enters the conscious realm. Thus the primitive generator of existential decisions is neither reason nor even emotions but a basic character disposition of the person that tends to persist through life and determines many derivative choices. I see the Irish Airman as a man who acknowledges to himself and the world that he has a core which is free from whatever is around him. He chooses to let the world in on his little secret: that he is a person who believes in joy without reason, unrestrained joy untrammelled by society, that he has kept it alive and now presents it to the world so that they can see who he really is and do with him what they will.
It is a similar sentiment to that of Paul Baumer from Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front:
"I am very calm. Let the months come, and the years, they'll take nothing more from me, they can take nothing more from me. I am so alone and so devoid of any hope that I can confront them without fear. Life, which carried me through all these years, in still there in my hands and in my eyes. Whether or not I have mastered it, I do not know. But as long as life is there it will make its own way, whether my conscious self likes it or not."
J Gerrity writes:
I read the interpretations of Yeats "An Irish Airman Forsees His Death" and while some of the insights were interesting, others were a stretch. The lines "Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love" should be taken literally, at face value. Yeats was an Irish nationalist. Ireland at the time of WW1 was still a part of the UK, though treated as a red headed stepchild at best by England. At the outbreak of war, there was a split within Irish nationalism; the official position of the leadership of the Irish Volunteers was to support the British effort to recruit Irishmen for the war effort, on the basis that after the war, Home Rule would be granted to Ireland along with Commonwealth status. The Sinn Fein (Ourselves Alone) position was one of complete seperation from Britain; not Commonwealth status but an independent Irish Republic. The split gave birth to the IRA and the Easter Rising of 1916. In that rebellion, key points in Dublin were seized by rebels, a Republic was proclaimed and Irish rebels killed British troops with Mauser rifles supplied by Germany. Sir Roger Casment, who had been Knighted by the Queen, was arrested on the west coast trying to rendezvous with a German ship carrying more Mausers. He had come ashore in a rubber raft from a German sub. To Irish nationalists, the enemy of their enemy was their friend. Their enemy was England. Consider Yeats lines and in fact the entire poem in that light and I think we are closer to the truth of his meaning. Even those who enlisted in the war effort had mixed emotions .....but then, as always, war has a lure for young men. The irony is that the radical nationalists wanted no part of any foreign war, but they were quite willing, even eager, to kill Crown soldiers. That attitude became the official policy of Ireland once they won their freedom. They were nuetral in WW2 and that is still their policy.
Mark McCann writes:
WWI historically coincides with the Irish War of Independence, a time when centuries of oppressive British rule was about to end, and it was in this atmosphere and tone Yeats wrote this poem. The airman who is about to die, as he sees himself is fighting in the air force of a foreign occupying power (those I guard I do not love) against an enemy that is not his. The airman stresses that "his country" is Kiltartan's Cross, his people is "Kiltartan's poor", which is euphemistically a reference to Ireland.
The Irish at home also did not see WWI as "their fight" so he did not get a rousing sendoff. He did it for the excitement and glory, and realizes, too late, it was all for naught.
Therefore, we should see this poem as Yeats intended, an Irishman about to die for a country that was not his against an enemy that was also not his, and as his life is about to end, he has that one last realization that his real enemy was the British, not the Germans. He wasted it all fighting the wrong enemy.
Jan Eklöf writes:
I have read with interest your and others interpretations of "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" by Yeats. English is not my native language, so I will not venture a lengthy interpretation of my own. However, there is one thing that has not been mentioned and that I find particularly beautiful with this poem. For an aircraft to fly, the forces of lift and gravitation have to be in balance. This fundamental concept is present in the poem in several places: The uplifting forces of love, happiness and life are balanced by the gravitational pull of hate, loss and death. To me, Yeats manages to give the whole poem wings.
Steve Hawes writes:
. . . it is clear that none of the comments that you posted were written by pilots.
To a pilot, there is no question that the "lonely impulse of delight" is the joy of flying. The life expectancy of new pilots in 1917 was only about 17.5 flying hours or about eleven days.
Yeats knew this and so did all the airman of the day, Irish or otherwise. Yet, the airman in this poem, was willing to risk almost certain death, not for duty, honor, glory or out of any sense of obligation and knowing that neither his survival nor his death would make any difference to the outcome of the war.
For the chance to live among the clouds, however briefly, and the chance to die there, doing what he loved.
The same sentiment was expressed most memorably by Robert Gillespie McGee, Jr. in his poem "High Flight" ("Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds . . .)
Yeats may have written the poem in memory of Major Gregory, and it may describe how Major Gregory felt, but I believe that it is a mistake to suggest that it was written to describe Major Gregory specifically.
I believe that Yeats was deeply moved by the spirit of the pilots of the day, who, time after time, would get back in the cockpit and fly out to meet their fates. He had to describe the airman as Irish as it would have been seen as disrespectful to describe English airmen as fighting other than for King and Country, although there were many airmen from the lower classes in England whose spirit is perfectly described by this poem.
In this context, the last two lines are not a message about life in general, but a statement of the power of the passion for flight. Airmen in those days were all volunteers and could turn in their wings anytime. But, the airman, as symbol of them all, would rather live "this life" and die in the air in a week than live to old age on the ground. The contrast is especially stark when you consider the conditions of the foot soldiers in the trenches who could expect longer lives, but had no hope of delighting in the circumstances of their deaths (Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori . . .)
If you haven't already, you might take a flight in a small airplane on a sunny day. Perhaps (I hope) you will get a sense of how those airmen felt.
Roger Baltimore writes:
I was still in the secondary school that I happened to listen to the poem. All that I remember back then was the line ‘those that I fight I do not hate’ and ‘those that I guard I do not love’ and the word ‘Irishmen’. It was though one of the BBC program. The radio reception was poor during that time making my effort of try to fully listen to the program fruitless. It was when I come to the city to further my education that for the first time I have access to the internet as there were no reference books or the internet concerning the poem from the place where I came from.
The line ‘those that I fight I do not hate’ and ‘those that I guard I do not love’ lingers in my mind for years. What was most striking to me about the poem was the fact that, to me at least, the two lines were and is powerful enough to convey the weight of the day to day struggle of many a man. Forget about the plane, forget about the war, just concentrate on the neutrality of the person. I can’t help to wonder, how many people on earth have to do things that they don’t like everyday. The yield they acquired for their reluctant efforts comes only as side effects. They don’t want it. The same dilemma has happened to me. It is only to please other people. The poem therefore has deep impact in me. To me, Yeats has achieved something greater than he hoped to achieve in the little poem. Instead of explaining the mind of an airman, he has explained the mind of many a man beautifully, and impeccably than men like me could ever have done.
For a view of one prose writer's attitude toward dying during World War I, read the early chapters of Neville Shute's autobiographic "Slide Rule". He writes of his feeling of utter surprise at the end of The War. He was still alive! He had already written himself off as lost, and he was still alive. He had not been despairing, seemingly not angry, he had simply written himself off. While my copy is lent away, so I cannot quote, he refers to the Kamikaze pilots of WW2 with complete understanding. Japan was lost already, with no hope of survival, no future, so these men may as well die in a manner somewhat of their own choosing and a time of their own knowing (though perhaps, as in Yeats, not at a precisely known time.) Considering Shute's words, the Palestinian girl who finishes her school exams with exemplary grades then goes out and blows herself up in an Israeli public place is hardly brainwashed or deluded or mad: she is simply making her best choice at that moment of history. So, in the same sense, Yeats's airman need not have hated Germany nor loved the UK or its allies, but may simply have been responding to the moment.. Doubtless many people who had never heard of Yeat's "gyres" or his view of 2000-year cycles went away like this. Surely by 1917 all notion of romanticism was gone. I drove recently through an English village and stopped to read my map. Just across the street was a monument to their dead of the Great War and I wandered over to take a look. Quite a list, it was. Around to one side was their list from WW2. We in the US think of WW2 as the big one, and get so excited over 2000 deaths on 9/11 that we go berserk and shred our Constitution, but for this village, the hard losses for WW2 were 1/6 those of WWI. That village must have been empty of young men! And in France and Germany the pattern must have repeated. So it becomes easier to imagine, though not entirely understand, the feelings of an Irishman who joins the English, his enemies of the moment. No romantic view of the war or the combat. No notion of glory. Ho hope of changing the history of his own Ireland. But just for one moment he might take command of His Aeroplane and Himself as, 5,000 feet below, the world marched on with its endless and meaningless slaughter.
I too have always been facinated by this poem, but of late I have put a different interpretation on it. You suggest that the "lonely impulse of delight" is flying. I would suggest that it is fighting - or fighting and flying combined.
There is a high that comes to some in battle - I don't think it's a healthy high, but I think it is what really drove my own youthful fantasies about being a fighter pilot. I never was one, but for years I loved war movies and the roar of the engines of a jet fighter at an air show touched a primal chord in me. I'm afraid there is a part of our nature in which we really want to kill. War gives us a license to do so. In war we can kill and instead of being declared a murderer, we are declared a hero. I don't think Yeats cares about being a hero, but his airman seems to welcome the opportunity of guilt-free killing.
I haven't a clue if this is what Yeats had in mind. But for me it is the most logical interpretation of those lines, dark as it is.
I have read Chris Hedges new book "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." Hedges is a veteran New York Times war reporter who has been on the front lines of many conflicts. In this book he explores in depth the theme I barely touch on here. John Heresy explored it long ago in his novel "The War Lover." I might also add that awareness of my own feelings in this respect has helped confirm and maintain my pacifism.
Michael Bennett, Ph.D. writes: Well, the one thing you have not considered is Yeats' concept of the cycle (that 2000 rise and fall of civilizations/appearance of the christ-antichrist, etc.) as it relates to the balancing of life and death---there is a kind of resignation in the airman's attitude---everything is a waste of breath, past/present/future, because the cycle is inexorable. As a result, your assessment that "a lonely impulse of delight" as the motivating force is absolutely correct. Whether this is Gregory is irrelevant. Much of Yeats' non-mythical poetry is simply what it is, no matter how much we would like to connect it to Maude Gonne, Lady Gregory, the Fienians, or whatever---"Romantic Ireland's dead and gone" Yeats wrote---this poem is not a romantic paean---it is just what it says it is: a lonely impulse of delight----if you want a better idea of how the irish sided with the germans (i keep them both in lower case because generally i have little use for either of them politically), see David Lean's wonderful film "Ryan's Daughter"------Michael Bennett, Ph.D., Professor of English, DeVry Institute of Technology, Alpharetta, GA
WEB MASTERS DISCLAIMER: It is my understanding that Yeats was NOT a soldier in WWI.
Another person writes:
I have not heard from the other two people who wrote me, so I will paraphrase their comments anonymously. Keep in mind that I have made no attempt to verify any facts presented to me by these people, but nor do I have any reason to question their reliability.
Due to the less than corgial relationship between the Irish and the British throughout history, the Irish were apparently less than entirely willing compatriots of the British in their fight against Germany. The Irish were actually rather friendly towards Germany. So when Yeats says "Those that I fight I do not hate" (the Germans) there is a deep irony. And when he says "those that I guard I do not love", he is talking about the British, not the Irish.
The Irish were fighting for a country that had subjugated them. They fought not out of love for that country, but out of a sense of opportunity. In particular, Major Gregory fought not for God, King and Country, but for something more personal, the joy and personal achievement of flying.
Someone else had this to say: The last four lines to me are the most beautiful and sad. To me the pilot is saying that he looked back at his life and into his future and what he saw seemed empty, hopeless, "a waste of breath." So why not do something dangerous, Romantic? Why not live a little and then go in a blaze of Glory? Why not indeed?
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
Maggie Secara writes:
I've just been looking at the last section of Meditations in Time of civil War (V. The Road at My Door) and the last stanza is very telling, I think. The poet, having condemned the soldier's love of death, expresses an unwilling envy before returning to the "cold snows of a dream". I don't think any man who has ever survived a war envies those who do it after him. Yeats in that poem wishes he had a more overt way than poetry, to fight for his country I guess.
On the other hand, I'll stand with the notion that while the poem may be inspired by someone in particular, the poet's expression is always of his own internal state.
What you've heard about the Irish attude towards the Germans during the war is true. The IRA particularly couldn't deal with fighting FOR England, their old enemy, which caused some people to get positively cozy with the Germans in both world wars. It had nothing to do with ideology, just in being anti-British. For a good (fictionalized) expression of this, there's a movie called Eye of the Needle you might find at the video store.
Colin Gallagher writes:
I thought that perhaps an alternate take on its meaning (however far from Yeats' intention!) might be of interest to you or others. Whilst I have never formally studied this particular poem, it has always been one that fascinated me and something that I regularly come back to pore over.
"An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is, I believe, an account of the banality of a mere existence; the worthlessness of a life without ups or downs, without tears from happiness or sadness - in short, a wasted life - and someone's brave effort to redress this once hopeless situation and enjoy at least one truly emotive experience.
From the very onset, Yeats identifies the airman as someone with no doubt that this venture will be his last ("I know that I shall meet my fate/Somewhere among the clouds above"). Interestingly, however, the individual accepts his impending demise not because he hates an enemy or even because he loves those his actions will protect ( "Those that I fight I do not hate/Those that I guard I do not love"). Indeed, this sentiment is reiterated in the following lines when he declares his nation is not Ireland, but that his "country is Kiltartan Cross", and his countrymen are not the Irish, but "Kiltartan's poor". This is a simple man whose whole world is his small, insignificant town. He has no interest or business outside of it; this is where he was born, lives and otherwise expected to die. More than this, we know that this man is not someone of any renown or even infamy, he is nondescript and of no importance to his neighbours; "No likely end could bring them loss/ Or leave them happier than before". Lest we assume that this man with no political or moral convictions, and without any local hostilities with his townsmen ("Or leave them happier than before"), should knowingly throw his life away as he was bound by conscription or by the pursuit of fame, Yeats tells us that "Nor law, nor duty bade me fight/Nor public men, nor cheering crowds".
The close of the poem throws light on the motive for this ostensible recklessness; it is the prospect of a single thrill in his otherwise banal existence. It is the promise of a "lonely feeling of delight" – lonely because it's been such a rarity throughout his life, this feeling of delight or exhilaration has nothing to keep it company – "that drove to this tumult in the clouds". The airman sees the Great War as merely a "tumult"… a commotion. He is utterly dismissive of it. In his town of Kiltartan Cross he has lived undisturbed by the struggle – it doesn't hold the same gravitas for him as it does from someone in say, London or mainland Europe. It was simply a distant affair or inconvenience – something frivolous. When the narrator recounts his life, his experiences and his future ("I balanced all, brought all to mind") he realizes that he has no prospects any more attractive than his barren and worthless experiences of the past. Indeed, even to recount them he feels is a "waste of breath". Whilst Ireland at this time was a devoutly Catholic country, this man doesn't even enjoy a faith that may eventually lead to happiness. He sees death not as a passageway to Heaven's bliss but something as cold, sterile and bland as what he's already lived through – it is "in balance with this life". Indeed, the atheistic idea of a lack of anything after life is actually for him the same as life itself.
As aforesaid, I don't attach any great academic importance to this reading of the poem but I do feel that it's a reasonable interpretation - indeed, one that I certainly enjoy!
Again, I would like to thank everyone who has written me with their comments, and would like to encourage anyone else to share their views on this, or any other poem presented here.
Try THIS PAGE for more information about Yeats and about An Irish Airman. This is a neat site!
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