An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Theme of Nationalism in the Poetry of William Butler Yeats
William Butler Yeats focused in his extensive poetry collection on various topics throughout his career and as he often returned to those topics it is possible to trace the development of his opinions. One of the motifs that keeps reappearing in different collections and individual poems is the matter of nationalism which Yeats naturally keeps coming back to due to the events he experienced in Ireland. Through his interesting position as a public personality Yeats is able to show both his admiration for the soldiers fighting in the First World War to being anxious about the men and women taking part in the Easter Rising to showing disdain about the Irish Civil War in the 1920s, however, throughout he seems to oppose the crude politics and fighting of the day while admiring the idealism the rebels and politicians found, similarly to him, in old Celtic imagery and traditional lifestyle. The events of the revolution, the subsequent independence and Civil War have been described as “one of the most theatrical insurrections in the history of western Europe” and Yeats indeed focuses often on the participants as on actors who less and less understand what they take part in. In his selected poems “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” “Easter 1916,” “Sixteen Dead Men” and “Meditations in Time of Civil War” we can trace the development of his personal opinion about Irish nationalism and his growing disdain for what the nationalist thought transformed into as he questions the rebels and soldiers’ deaths and the transformation of the original national message he applauded.
Yeats’ Nationalist Thought
The events of the first half of the century in Ireland shape the thinking and the image of the country until today and Yeats was able to witness these important moments first hand. One of many Britain’s dominions came to its own starting with the cultural movement in the 1880s that Yeats was part of and importantly in the 1910s which is often called ‘the revolutionary decade’ to finally a partial independence in 1921 with the Anglo-Irish Treaty followed by the Civil War sparked by unhappiness about the country’s partition. The violent and bloody reality of these events which was very much in contrast with the previous cultural initiative is easily observed in Yeats’s poetry. Yeats’ poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” takes its topic from Irish involvement in the Great War, a topic that would be in the republic in decades afterwards looked away from. Following the events of the rebellion in 1916 Yeats then published his poems “Easter 1916” and “Sixteen Dead Men” where he shows his opinion about the rebellion itself as well as about its participants’ fate. The event, although at first not backed by “popular feeling in Dublin and the provinces” became the moment of Irish history in the beginning of the 20th century as Yeats observed as well. Finally, in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” the poet focuses on the civil fighting happening in 1920s where he appears to lose any previous understanding.
Yeats himself was one of the most important cultural figures during these events in Irish history. With others he stood behind the foundation of the Irish Literary Theatre and although he distanced himself from the Easter Rising and the Civil War he later became a senator in Irish Free State. His nationalist thought however came from his admiration for the traditional lifestyle and the Celtic myth which can be seen in poems such as “The Fisherman” where he celebrates the figure of an uneducated fisher man whom he describes. In the play Cathleen Ní Houlihan which he wrote with Lady Gregory, although they took inspiration from the events of the 1798 rebellion, Yeats still focuses on “the mythic character of Ireland itself” rather than reality. This idealistic portrayal then necessarily had to oppose the cruel realities of fighting and death and his poems are very much different from the texts of Patrick Pearse whose poems “Renunciation” or “Mother” showed willingness to die and even the necessity to leave the idealism behind before approaching death. “Despite his early membership of the I.R.B. [Yeats] was never a threat to British rule in Ireland. His poems, stirring as they are, do not bring crowds into the streets.” They are more of an introspection about the legacy these bloody events left behind and the image its participants have after their death as well as how the original national ideal changed in the process.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Yeats’s poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” was published in his collection The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919. As opposed to the later poems that become less and less personal Yeats focuses in this particular poem a deeply personal relationship he had with Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Gregory, whom Yeats knew very well and who died in the First World War after his plane was shot down. Yeats takes on Gregory’s own voice as the airman flies through the clouds knowing he is going to die there without any hatred for those he fought nor any sympathy for those he fought for. He begins the poem as follows: “I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above.” Although the readiness to die may be reminiscent of Pearse’s poems before the 1916 Rising this particular willingness “is not quite the same thing as the ‘vertigo of self-sacrifice’ that, as W. B. Yeats felt, made Pearse uniquely dangerous.”
The death here is absolutely disconnected from any political function. The speaker in Yeats’ poem does not seem to feel any affinity to those below him on either side; he is figuratively as well as physically ‘above them’ adopting a similar approach of the speaker in Yeats’ later “Meditations.” Importantly, in this particular poem Yeats describes an Irish person fighting on the side of the British against Germany; fighting an enemy of a different country and defending others’ homeland and it is easy to understand the airman’s disconnect from the people below. Whereas the revolutionaries in 1916 and in the Civil War fought for their own country the Irish men in the Great War fought for Britain and either outcome of the war was not going to change the lives of the people living back home. Historically, we know that the outbreak of the war only led to the discussion of Home Role being put over. Yeats simply celebrates this particular individual’s acceptance of death without any intentions.
However, the speaker takes his time to describe where he is from as he says “My country is Kiltartan Cross,/ My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor.” Even the title of the poem finds it necessary to portray him as ‘Irish.’ It seems that the image of his mother country was important to him in the beginning, a propaganda in a sense, however, now as he is facing death it does not matter anymore and while it will matter to his family it will not to the country as a whole. Unlike in the later three poems where Yeats begins to increasingly question the military national movement here his personal connection creates more of an admiration. Importantly, the impulse the speaker has in this particular poem is quite different from the later revolutionaries and soldiers. The airman tells us that what inspired him to join the war was “a lonely impulse of delight,” not a sense of duty or national necessity. The lonely impulse forms a mystical (almost occult) presence in the poem that Yeats would admire as opposed to the crude war reality and it resembles closer the creation of poetry than fighting in a war. The inclination also creates a balance in the poem which he describes in the end as “balance with this life, this death.”
Easter 1916 and Sixteen Dead Men
In Yeats’s two following poems the personal connection remains but whereas he focused only on the individual participant of the war in “An Irish Airman” in the two poems that connect directly with the Easter Rising he starts to shift the focus on his own as well as on the public perception of the rebels and their actions. Right after the rebellion Yeats distanced himself from the Easter Rising, however, as a prominent public figure his poetry which necessarily reflected the events became one of the focal points of the nation’s impression of them. Yeats appears to be very careful in how he describes the revolutionaries and the poem “Easter 1916” “registers the annoyed surprise and somewhat contrived responsibility Yeats felt as a private individual and public figure before offering a canonical image of the Rising that establishes the importance as much of Yeats to the Rising as of the Rising to Yeats.” While he celebrates the rebels as ‘ordinary’ men, just as he celebrated Robert Gregory, he delves much deeper into their legacy, a motif that reappears in many of his poems.
In both “Easter 1916” and “Sixteen Dead Men” “the personal response is voiced not only by the poet as an Irish citizen and a literary man harbouring doubts about a headstrong display of physical force, but also by the poet as composer of an intricate canon challenged by violent public event to absorb it and still retain coherence.” In “Easter 1916,” written just after the events in Dublin (although published later), he numbers out several of the rebels and recalls passing them on the street as ordinary people; there is a clear divide between their everyday life and their image as martyrs. He tells of them “Coming with vivid faces/ from counters or desks” and about exchanging “Polite meaningless words” with some of them. There is a divide between himself and them as he tells us “Of a mocking tale or a gibe/ To please a companion” while also living “where motley is worn.” Mention of the uncivil ‘tale or gibe’ tells the audience of Yeats possibly even making fun of the rebels before the events. Even them wearing ‘motley’ then can be interpreted as the figures wearing colourful clothes as well as being a strange mix of individuals, almost as if in a casual comedy.
Portraying the rebels as actors is important for Yeats’ view of the rebellion not just in this particular poem as the martyrs later attain a ‘role’ in the national struggle that they would not want originally and the image of actors not controlling their play will later appear in “Meditation in Time of Civil War” as well. The rebels become something different for the emerging society they left behind. Yeats also ends the first stanza of “Easter 1916” with the following oxymoron: “All changed, changed utterly;/ A terrible beauty is born,” and image that reappears several times. It is a beauty born only after their deaths and can point both towards the suppression of the rebellion itself as well as to the image of the rebels afterwards, ‘public image’ being one of Yeats’ prominent themes. The imagery of the specific rebels shows Yeats’ divisive approach to them as well. While celebrated they remain ordinary people with faults. The woman Yeats describes in the beginning of the second stanza is Constance Markievicz who was one of the leaders. However, her image is quite negative. She is described as a woman destroyed by her own zeal “until her voice grew shrill” with “voice more sweet than hers/ when, young and beautiful.” Similarly, Thomas McDonagh “might have won fame in the end” for his writing skills had he not died. On the other hand, Yeats chooses to portray John McBride with whom he had a difficult relationship because of McBride’s marriage to Maud Gonne. McBride “too, has been changed in his turn,/ In the casual comedy,” a motif which again repeats an actor ‘s role in an event.
All of the rebels have “been changed in [their] turn,/ Transformed utterly.” They have been “Enchanted to a stone/ To trouble the living stream.” It seem that for Yeats life continues even without the rebels throughout the third stanza and they trouble it only to an extent. “The stone’s in the midst of all” so while the rebellion remains a constant in the society after the events for Yeats it only ‘troubles’ the current way of life without actually having a power to change it. This meditative aspect of the poem shows that “Yeats was visibly wrestling with the re-evaluation of the rebel leaders, and though he ended with an almost ‘Davisite’ celebration […] the refrain ‘a terrible beauty is born’ remained ambivalent.” He then of course asks the necessary question: “Was it needless death after all?” Yeats asks whether the rebels weren’t blinded by their “excess of love,” or by their excessive zeal for the revolutionary movement and ends the poem with the question about their image and role “in time to be/ wherever green is worn” again repeating that they “are changed, changed utterly.”
In his poem “Sixteen Dead Men,” which came out a year after “Easter 1916” Yeats continues with the motif that he took up briefly in the previous poem’s ending – the influence the revolutions will have on new Ireland after their death and how the national discussion will never get rid of them. “Within a month [after the rebellion] the British Government had lit a flame of martyrdom around the leaders, that turned the revolt into a triumphant success, providing an emotional stimulus for the birth of a nation.” The rebels would be remembered during any further political discussion and “Irish political life tended to confirm what Yeats recognized in his fatalistic poem “Sixteen Dead Men,” the power of martyrdom to prohibit compromise.” The poet asks how we can have a political discussion “While those dead men are loitering there/ to stir the boiling pot?” Interestingly, their pervading influence is in no way described as positive as their ghost is ‘loitering’ and trying to ‘stir’ the current events.
Yeats talks about the current political situation of Ireland waiting for Home Rule “Till Germany’s overcome” while invoking previous rebellions with the image of Lord Edward and Wolfe Tone showing a connection of past and present. He views the current political debate as “talk of give and take” where we are missing people like Pearse or MacDonagh who as dead ghosts influence it in an almost autocratic manner. The debate is stagnant with “MacDonagh’s bony thumb” weighting over it not swaying either way. Yeats also doesn’t seem to point towards a debate only between Britain and Ireland but importantly within Ireland itself when describing “our give and take” and recognizes thus an issue in the Irish political debate to come very soon during the Civil War. Finally, Yeats seems to show a depreciation for the current debate in general because whereas men like Pearse and MacDonagh dealt in the concrete “bone to bone,” the current politicians only “meddle with give and take.” Similarly to the stone in “Easter 1916,” ‘bone’ in this poem is of “hard, essential matters” as opposed to mere talk.
Meditations in Time of Civil War
In the final analysed poem “Meditations in Time of Civil War” Yeats’s focus on the ongoing nationalist imagery gets mixed with his own difficult ancestral history and his interest in the current events seems to fade. Whereas the two previous poems focused on the 1916 Rebellion in this poem published in The Tower in 1928 Yeats described the ongoing civil war as something happening outside his door which, although trying to take interest at first, he abandons as insignificant due to how ideas are being used and the people taking part and his solution at the end of the poem is to close the door on everything. His own house is both literally and figuratively disintegrating while men and women outside, filled with violence and envy, are led by rage while following empty ideals and while Yeats at first attempts to connect with the soldiers he feels that he cannot. Interestingly, while this is a very personal poem in which he describes the feeling of isolation from the current events Yeats also adopts the form of “we” when describing the effects of the war again taking interest in how the violence influences the larger public and taking on his public persona.
In the fifth part ‘Road at My Door’ Yeats describes the presence of the fights right outside his door but chooses to describe it in a very jesting manner. There are no great soldiers standing outside but a man “comes cracking jokes of civil war/ As though to die by gunshot were/ The finest play under the sun.” Similarly to “Easter 1916” and “Sixteen Dead Men” the participants are described as actors on a stage, the soldier as “a heavy built Falstaffian man.” They are playing a role which will, similarly to the rebels in 1916, be later transformed to serve national purpose. Yeats’ disdain is also visible as the men come simply to make jokes with him as well to listen to Yeats “complain/ Of the foul weather, hail and rain/ A pear-tree broken by the storm.” While he took time to describe the participants in the Easter Rising in this particular poem everyone is conjoined in one unnamed soldier. And while at first the speaker may seem jealous of these men, a motif that does not appear in the previous poems, he quickly abandons this feeling and turns away.
Although he describes that “A man is killed, or a house burned” and “That dead young soldier in his blood” he points out that “no clear fact is to be discerned” as he is unable to make sense of the events around him. While the airman in the First World War and the participants of the Easter Rising are still recognized by Yeats as having an ideal that he either agrees or disagrees with and which will be transformed after their death to serve other people’s politics those fighting now follow the already altered, empty ideals and are driven only by violence which is the reason that Yeats chooses to turn away from them. He gives the example of Jacques Molay, a templar knight, whose death was used centuries after his execution to stir passions for others’ gains. Although men are screaming “vengeance on the murderers of Jacques Molay” they are as follows:
The rage driven, rage-tormented, and rage-hungry troop,
Trooper belabouring trooper, biting an arm or at face,
Plunges towards nothing, arms an fingers spreading wide.
This nothing is what finally makes Yeats “turn away and shut the door.” While he may have seen Easter Rising as the work of intellectual heroes and patriots the Civil War is a conflict where men scream empty slogans and Yeats turns to follow his preferred ‘national image’ in his own ancestral house and nature rather than in the actual fight for ‘national freedom.’
From the analysis of these four poems, although there are many others where Yeats focuses on the topics of nationalism and national image, we can observe his complicated relationship between the ideals he observed and the reality of how they were used in the first half of the 20th century in Ireland.
The Use of Marxism and Colonial Theme in Works of Ramona Ausubel, Karen Russell, Donald Barthelme and W. B. Yeats
In the short works, “The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following” by Ramona Ausubel, “The Zombies” by Donald Barthelme, “Bog Girl” by Karen Russell, and “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” by William Butler Yeats, the authors delve into themes of death and the division of power. These pieces expose deep seated human tendencies which can be examined through a Marxism lens of theory and some Colonialism themes as well, as the two are often closely linked. While Marxism looks at the divide between those with urgency, and those without it, Colonialism often deeper explores the reasons behind why certain people have the resources to acquire said urgency over others. Simply put, this is an examination of the haves and have-nots in selected short works of literature in order to deeper view the works and human nature.
The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following
In “The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following,” Ausubel imagines the inner thoughts and feelings of mummified animals that were forcibly taken from their Egyptian pyramids. These include a sarcastic remark in which they thank “the British colonial government, without whom the animal mummies might still be at rest, deep in granite tombs, cool and silent.” (Ausubel, 194). This mention of colonialism shows how the consequences of colonialism are made clear even among these animal mummies.
“The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following” effectively works as an annotated list, in which the mummified creatures at the museum offer thankfulness to the people who keep them tethered to the world. “If the cat mummies must be grateful for one thing,” Ausubel explains, “it is that they are forever-cats and not forever-rodents. The cat mummies can think of nothing so embarrassing as that — the great gift a vole gets is, finally, to die.” (Ausubel, 196). Even in the afterlife, the hierarchies remain. The cats still hold power and superiority over the rodents, showing the social conflict and class relations that remain prevalent between the two species.
Ausubel describes some of the mummies as being so dead that they no longer possess bodies, dubbing them “nothing mummies”. These “nothing mummies are filled with prayers written on slips of papyrus, organs of faith. If the scientists came and cut them open, the nothing mummies wonder: Would the little piece of hieroglyphed papyrus rolling out be any less beautiful than the dried raisin of a heart? Aren’t they not only the container but the prayer itself?” (Ausubel, 199). The nothing mummies in this situation have no agency or control over their “lives”. They are alienated from other mummies that have identities and they are put on display to entertain the living.
In “The Zombies”, Barthelme makes great use of the list to get his point across. He makes substantial inventories with his list-making which is often seen as sloppy, or lazy, writing, but in Barthelme’s hands the list functions more like an elision; he makes staggering masses of nouns, evidence to the strength of juxtaposition. His lists feel noetic in the way that they bounce from idea to idea as he continues to dump more and more information onto the reader. In this piece, he uses a list to describe the many foods in a breakfast when “A zombie advances toward a group of thin blooming daughters and describes, with many motions of his hands and arms, the breakfasts they may expect in a zombie home” (Barthelme, 2).
The list that follows is the ideal vehicle for the situation. It’s an efficient tool for comedic purposes, but it also pulls back the curtain, letting the reader share in the wry humour that Barthelme likely felt as he wrote it. Humans eat so many things that the human experience has come to encompass “rice cakes” and “fried liver”, to say nothing of courtship rituals centered on ingestion. The zombies in this situation are doing whatever they can to impress the women, hoping desperately that their offers for breakfast are satisfactory enough to please the girls. This situation clearly depicts the the two parties of have and have-nots; the zombies are working hard to prove that the myths that accompany their social class are false, and that they eat more than just brains.
“Bog Girl” approaches the topic of power divide from a different approach. On a remote island in northern Europe, a 15-year-old turf cutter, Cillian, falls in love with a 2,000-year-old girl that he’s found in a peat bog. Believing himself to be the girl’s rescuer, Cillian brings her home and cares for her in what he considers to be a perfect romance until an unexpected gesture topples everything he thought he knew about her. The boy gave himself the power and agency in the relationship that he concocts, and he is happy until the bog girl tries to take some agency for herself. This story illustrates how the unknowable is present within everyone, as no one can ever fully know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes.
An Irish Airman Foresees his Death
In “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”, the speaker, an Irish airman fighting in World War I, knows that he is doomed to die fighting among the clouds. He declares that he does not hate those that he fights against, nor love those that he fights to protect. His country is “Kiltartan’s Cross,” his countrymen “Kiltartan’s poor.” He says that no outcome in the war will make their lives worse or better than how they were before the war began. The Irish airman explains that his choice to fight was not influenced by any law or sense of duty, nor because of “public men” or “cheering crowds.” Rather, “a lonely impulse of delight” drove him to “this tumult in the clouds.” He says that he weighed his life in his mind and, in doing so, found that “The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind.”
The Irish pilot is fighting for Britain in the First World War and he predicts that he will die in the war, but he feels no sense of patriotic duty towards Britain, the country that he fights for. He is fighting for Britain because, although he is Irish, Ireland was under British rule during the time of the war. The airman, therefore, identifies as an Irish patriot, rather than a British one. In doing so, he is effectively resisting against the dominant culture.
The author uses first person to portray the airman as he prepares to go into war in the sky. In the first quatrain, Yeats depicts the airman’s conflicted emotions that he harbours about his place fighting in the war. Even with these mixed feelings, however, he is sure that he will die in this adventure. Not only is death from enemy contact possible, but he also faces the chances of a mechanical error that multiplies the dangers that he faces in the air.
This ambiguity continues as the airman realizes the pointlessness of his participation in the war. He realizes that no matter the outcome of his own combat, it will not affect the overall war effort. The airman also acknowledges that the outcome of the war will not affect the lives of the Irish peasants that he identifies with.
In the last line of the final quatrain, the author leaves the first person when he says, “In balance with this life, this death.” Yeats’s shift to “this” life and “this” death as opposed to using “my” universalizes the airman’s experiences, going beyond the politics of World War I and highlighting the futility of all wars and any waste of human life. In the final line, Yeats shows how anyone can be in the same shoes as the Irish airman.
Throughout these short pieces of literature, a Marxist lens of theory can be applied to show the social conflicts and class relations that are present within them. A Colonial theme can also be seen in some of the texts as it can often be attributed to why a divide between social classes is present. The haves and have-nots of the world are represented in these stories as privileged people, who have agency, and have access to resources that those without agency or privilege lack. In Marxism, agency comes from wealth, education, and health; a focus on obtaining these resources is what leads to materialism. Marxism focuses on class divisions and how they lead to struggle, how certain jobs award levels of varying status, how those with agency can obtain what they need or want, and how people are placed in competition in a fight for resources.
Modernism: an Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Modernism and Post-Modernism
Modernism is one of the most recent and influential literary movements in the history of English literature. The Modernism era began in 1890 and ended around 1930. It was often viewed as an era where authors rejected the Victorian styles. Most authors were interested in experimenting with new ideas and techniques to see what they might be able discover or create. The time period was often divided into two different periods: Modernism and Post-Modernism.
Modernism embodies the common characteristics of literary experimentation, new freedoms, and Utopianism. Modernism gained popularity from popular scientific theories at the time. Authors were also influenced by new concepts released by psychiatrists and politicians, such as ethics, morality, and ideals. Cars, phones, airplanes, radios, and newspapers helped unify society. In the Modernism era, characters were much harder to clearly define, and plots in literature were not as predictable. Storylines were not only told by one character, but by multiple characters in the story. On the other hand, Post-Modernism opposed all of the ideas of Modernism. Post-Modernism was mainly brought upon by World War I, in which almost all the people in the world had a pessimistic view on life. It rebelled against many of the themes and topics that were frequently brought up during Modernism.
Breaking Literary Norms
W. B. Yeats wrote the poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, in 1918. However, Yeats did not publish the poem until 1919, after World War I had ended. In his late poetry, Yeats often combined the themes of ‘death, joy, and intense life’ (Pickering). W. B. Yeats’s poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, embodies the characteristics of a Modernism poem through a break from the literary norm, the stream of consciousness writing style, political voice.
Breaking literary norms was a key aspect for authors attempting to get their name out in Modernism literature. They were tired of following the basic and uniform aspects of Victorian era literature, and decided to invent their own unique ways of literature. An example of new techniques in poetry was symbolism. Qualities of a new and developing world such as: political, economic, and social aspects, were often a topic of discussion in modernism literature. These literary freedoms would soon become the keystone to a large portion of literature for the Modernism era.
The poem’s title, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, as well as the first lines of the poem, indicate that the speaker is ready for his death (Riel). This breaks a norm early on because of how nonchalant Yeats treats death. In lines fifteen and sixteen, the speaker states, ‘A waste of breath the years behind, In balance with this life, this death.’ (Yeats). The speaker was attempting to state that he would rather do something with his life, than just sit at home and do nothing. The point of this was to break the pessimistic norm of the time period. Most people would just sit home depressed, however, if the speaker was depressed at least he would be helping the cause. Other lines of the poem state, ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those who I guard I do not love;’ (Yeats). Although this may seem odd to most people that Yeats would describe a character who does not love his country and his people with all his heart, it displays his Modernism techniques of breaking away from social norms, and to creating new ideas, themes, and aspects to literature.
Stream of Consciousness
A new style of writing that encapsulated the attention of many authors and audience members during the modernism time period was a ‘stream of consciousness’ type of narration. This deals with a character’s inner thoughts on current events. The style was first introduced by William James in 1890. This was a way for authors to branch out from the literary norms of the Victorian Era. Audience members were so use to the common storyline that it eventually got boring. Authors needed a new way to capture the attention of their audience, so they turned to social scientist for the answer. They found their answer in psychology. Many Studies on the conscious of people and how they think inspired Modernism authors to develop a new way of telling their stories.
Yeats used this technique while crafting his elegy for Robert Gregory. The poem’s story is told through the thoughts of Gregory while he is in flight. Robert Gregory is not named in this poem because W.B. Yeats wanted the audience to fell as though Gregory was an ‘everyday soldier’ (Hochman). He expresses his feelings toward the people of his country and those he is fighting against. The speaker then discusses the economic state of his country. He also talks about what drove him to become a pilot in the military. In the lines, ‘My Country is Kiltartan Cross, My Country men is Kiltartan’s poor’ (Yeats), we can see that Gregory is of Irish descent. It is odd, however, that although the airman is fighting for the British, he identifies as Irish. It can also be assumed that he is not from wealth. This could be a reason why Gregory joined the military, however, another line helps decipher that reason. When the speaker says, ‘A lonely impulse of delight, Drove this tumult in the clouds;’ (Yeats), it is assumed that there was no particular reason why Robert Gregory decided to join the military. No one forced him to join the military and become a pilot, rather, he had a calling to the occupation. This shows free will, which is something that Yeats focused on (Hochman). The next two lines of the poem state, ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those who I guard I do not love;’ (Yeats). This displays a sense of balance, which is also a common theme in Modernism. Yeats made it clear that he did not feel the need to fight, nor the need to defend his country. This can be perceived as a break in social norm, which was another theme of Modernism.
During the Modernism Era, many authors wanted to express their political views. This was something that was not commonly done in the Victorian Era. If an author were to express political views during the Victorian era, they were frequently ridiculed by those in power, as well as by their supporters. Political knowledge is an imperative example of a new freedom that inspired Modernism authors everywhere. Since Modernism authors often rebelled against Victorian techniques, they wanted to express this new freedom. They found that the best times to do just that were during major political events. However, W.B. Yeats was extremely reluctant to write about World War I. In his opinion, he thought that poets should ‘keep their mouths shut’ (Riel). Edward Pickering states that, ‘Yeats’s opposition to Great War poets was less that their poetry took passive suffering for a theme, but that it did not take tragic joy, he experiences its near ancestor, delight’ (Pickering).
As a result of his opinion, he rarely expressed his political voice. Yeats decided to an elegy about World War I. An elegy is a poem expressing grief or sorrow for the dead. ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, is one out of four elegies written for Robert Gregory. Yeats started writing the elegies for Robert Gregory after he had received a letter from Gregory’s mother saying that he had been killed while fighting in World War I. However, Gregory’s short life as a pilot in the military meant more than his pointless life before. The first lines of the poem says, ‘I know that I shall meet my fate, Somewhere among the clouds above;’ (Yeats). This is how Yeats lets the audience know that he is talking about the Great War. He also addresses the topic of death. The speaker, Robert Gregory, is a pilot in the war, who is currently in flight. He does not seem to be afraid of death, but is rather simply living his life. Gregory had already passed away in spirit, so it only made sense for him to be a prophet for his physical death (Riel). Other lines in the poem state, ‘No likely end could bring them loss, Or leave them happier than before’ (Yeats). This refers to the war and how the war itself is causing a loss of happiness to all people in the world. This is the point in time where many people in the world started to develop pessimistic views on life itself.
‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is a magnificent example a poem from the Modernism era. W.B. Yeats does a fantastic job using the Modernism characteristics of a break of literary norm, stream of consciousness, and political voice. This poem breaks literary norms nonstop throughout its entirety. He used a multitude of Modernism techniques to write this poem. The poem displays his innate ability of creating new ideas, themes, and aspects to literature. A stream of consciousness is shown through the thoughts of Robert Gregory, a pilot who died and unheroic death in Italy while fighting in the Great War (Hochman). This writing style became very popular during the Modernism time period due to the boring, stale, and annoying uniformity of the Victorian era storylines. Yeats also expresses his political voice in this poem, choosing to have the speaker be a soldier in the Great War. In the words of Edward Pickering, ‘Yeats’s views are polemical, for during this period, the ‘typical figure in war poetry’ was defined by precisely that which he condemned as un-poetic: powerless and suffering’ (Pickering). Overall, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ should continue to be a staple example of what a Modernism poem should look like.
- Hochman, Jhan. ‘An overview of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”.’ Poetry for Students, Gale. Literature Resource Center, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/H1420000084/LitRC?u=orla71157&sid=LitRC&xid=4ca89c06. Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.
- ‘Modernism.’ Gale Student Resources in Context, Gale, 2011. Student Resources in Context, http://link.galegroup.com/apps/doc/EJ2181500205/SUIC?u=orla71157&xid=c0091813. Accessed 7 Jan. 2018.
- Pickering, Edward. ‘The Artist’s Tragic Flight: Yeats’s Portrayal of Major Robert Gregory.’ Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 32, no. 2, 2009. Accessed Feb. 2018.
- Riel, Kevin. ”I do not love’: rethinking W.B. Yeats’s ‘elegies’ of major Robert Gregory.’ Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38, no. 2, 2015. Accessed 12 Feb. 2018.
- Yeats, W. B. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 23 July 2015, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/irish-airman-foresees-his-death.
The Contrast Between the Real and the Ideal World in the Six Poems by Yeats
Having studied Yeats’ poetry, I agree completely with the statement informing us that it was the contrast between the ‘real world’ in which he (Yeats) lived and his own vision of what an ‘ideal world’ should resemble which is the definition of his work, as well as the motivation for a significant amount of his writings in his later life: generally more cynical works with a clear sense of loss compared to the starry-eyed romantic idealism of his earlier works of poetry. I have formed this viewpoint in agreement with the statement upon studying Yeats’ poems The Lake Isle of Innisfree, September 1913, The Wild Swans at Coole, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death, Easter 1916, and Sailing to Byzantium.
The Lake Isle of Innisfree
At the time Yeats was writing The Lake Isle of Innisfree, it is quite clear that he was struggling with coming to terms with the grim realities of life, that his life in the city is loud and restless, with “the pavements grey” serving only to trigger his fanciful, though ultimately foolish daydreaming of the pastoral utopia that is Innisfree, versus the dull, drab urban world “the pavements grey” serve to represent. Yeats yearns to escape the trivialities of everyday life, to “arise and go now, and go to Innisfree”.
Yeats’ vision of Innisfree is one of a place of respite: serving as an escape from the clutches of his true reality. He paints for us, those reading, a most-wonderful picture of his most-deeply-desired lifestyle; there is a musical quality to the island where “the cricket sings” which contrasts hugely to the barely notable “roadway” on which Yeats finds himself. The natural, colourful beauty of Innisfree at noon, which Yeats describes as a “purple glow”, allows us to be able to relate to his struggle with the true “grey” surrounding his environment. While Yeats is insistent that his departure shall be imminent, his words ring slightly hollow. His fantasy is too idealistic even by typical standards of fantasy, and we are left in a state of belief that he will forever continue to hear the island’s calling “in the deep heart’s core”, and keep it a fantasy.
In his poem September 1913, Yeats (similarly to in The Lake Isle of Innisfree) displays a sense of pure disgust for the society of the world in which he finds himself. At the opening of the poem, he sarcastically remarks that this so-called ‘society’ has “come to sense”; they now understand their purpose in life is merely “to pray and save”, doing both for purely selfish reasons and out of fear of what might happen otherwise. Yeats finds this idea disturbing — he cannot believe that it was “for this Edward Fitzgerald died”, along with his fellow men “of a different kind”. It is clear that Yeats views their deaths as representative of the end of an era; Fitzgerald, his men and the ideals they themselves held were sadly all that Yeats’s idealised view of Ireland ever amounted to.
Yeats implies that everyone should think in the same manner as himself and these deceased men, expressing remorse that said men had died in search of the possibility of a better future for “Romantic Ireland” (at the time ‘the Irish Free State’), only for it to amount to people adding a mere “half pence to the pence”. Reality has become unattractive to Yeats, as he is left having to deal with the knowledge that his dream for a better tomorrow is “dead and gone”, “with O’Leary in the grav”.
The Wild Swans at Coole
However, with The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats’ interest in societal values has subsided somewhat in favour of his struggle with the concept of mortality: the gradual but inevitable approaching of death. Observing and counting a group of swans for the second time since his youth, “The nineteenth Autumn has come upon” himself since that time, Yeats ponders the absentminded bliss and beautiful simplicity of their lives, how they (from his perspective) seem to live forever, looking exactly as he remembers them, while he himself will continue age and die. He describes these “brilliant creatures” as “unwearied still” by the troubles of life, though it is likely that the swans are not the same ones as from his youth. Regardless, “all’s changed” for Yeats, while the swans’ “hearts have not grown old” (from his perspective) and they are truly free to pursue whatever they may in the future, while Yeats himself clings to the past, insisting that his most fruitful days are behind him.
His fantasy of the swans serves only to remind him of his own mortality, and as a result he begins to fear that the swans will leave him behind. He is aware of the reality of the situation; it is indeed possible that he will “awake some day to find they have flown away”.
Another poem that made me examine my own history was Easter 1916. This rather cleverly-structured poem was rather demanding both in terms of subject matter and style. It has four stanzas, two containing sixteen lines and two containing twenty-four lines thus, commemorating the date of the Easter Rising – the 24th of April, 1916. The poem is an interesting retrospective take on the Easter Rising, Yeats admitting how he had had incorrect assumptions about those involved and his subsequent guilt over his feelings of scepticism. The first two stanzas detail said initial scepticism about the Rising’s participants, how he had been “certain they and I But lived where motley was worn”. The term “motley” refers to a pageant or the clothes of a clown, indicating Yeats’ intention to say that he had not taken the Rising’s participants remotely seriously and believed that they were merely outwardly passionate, that their true nature was more ‘clownish’ than anything else. The poem’s theme revolves around the paradox “All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.” I found this difficult to unravel at first but after further thought, I realised that the poet’s views had “changed utterly”. The passion and altruism of the martyrs was beautiful but it also caused much pain and suffering for others.
This is why he considers it a “terrible beauty”. I had not considered this concept before or the fact that those with a patriotic nature had to be completely single-minded. I was fascinated with the imagery Yeats used to describe this: “Hearts with one purpose alone Through summer and winter seem Enchanted to a stone”. Yeats reinforces this idea by providing images of movement and change as “The stone’s in the midst of it all”. The poem provoked me to think about the nature of fanaticism and like Yeats, I hold an admiration for the men and women of the rising, whilst still acknowledging the “terrible beauty” it caused.
An Irish Airman Foresees his Death
“My country is Kiltartan Cross, My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor.” Despite the title of this poem being An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, there is little sense of patriotism at the national level typically displayed by Yeats in his poetry. Rather, his allegiance is to Kiltartan Cross, a small parish in the Co. Galway in Ireland, a remote part of the British “empire” which is unlikely to be greatly troubled by the concurrently-occurring First World War and then-upcoming War for Independence: this Irish airman’s ‘sacrifice’ matters next to nothing to the “poor” citizens of Kiltartan Cross, who are likely to remain poor no matter the victors of either war. The concept that soldiers in the First World War had fought “for King and Country” indeed made for good propaganda, and was undoubtedly true in the case of many English poet, but it wasn’t true of everyone, and many were motivated by more regional or local pressures: fighting to protect their loved ones, or to avoid the scorn of their neighbours incurred by not fighting. And this was even truer, Yeats seems to suggest, of Irish fighters, who had less invested in England or Britain than, say, a young man from Shropshire or the Home Counties. The Irish airman described in Yeats’ poem fights out of a sense of duty rather than national pride, whether it is British or Irish doesn’t matter in the slightest. Therefore, Yeats gives insight into the thoughts and feelings of an Irish Airman, perhaps minutes before his death. These words are so simple, and yet so profound, resonating across generations with all who have felt the seemingly senseless tragedy of war; they construct for those reading a pathway into the heart, mind and soul of one who gave his life for a cause which was not his own. With this poem, Yeats gives a voice to an Irishman in his dying moments, speaking for him with a sense of having known the man personally, sharing his feelings and belief about the war. An Irishman himself, Yeats knew those to have fought having fought a war not their own, having fought another’s enemy and defended another’s homeland. The understanding of these feelings gives Yeats’ the authority to speak from his friend’s point of view, allowing the readers into the thoughts of a man about to die for a country not his own. In the final lines of An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, the speaker reveals his thoughts in the final moments of his life to be of his initial reasons for joining the war effort and risking his life in the first place. Although having previously cited impulse as his reasoning behind joining the Air Force, these lines reveal the true source of the deep-rooted impulse to risk his life, that after having thought about everything, and “balanced all”, he had come to the conclusion that the years behind him and the years in front of him were but a “waste of breath”, i.e. that everything is meaningless, and that if his life is destined to be short anyway, and that everything seems without meaning, then dying for such a cause would give his life more meaning than it had before. For this reason, he decides to risk his life and join in the fight. Although he does not love the people he is protecting, nor hate those he is fighting, he does want his life to have a purpose. Therefore, he risks having a shorter life in order to have a more meaningful life. This is the Airman’s way of embracing his death in his final moments.
Sailing to Byzantium
Yeats struggles with his mortality once again in Sailing to Byzantium. Again, the reality of the situation he finds himself in is unappealing. He has become aware that Ireland “is no country for old men”, but has instead fallen into the hands of the young, who serve only to “neglect” its various forms of “unageing intellect”. As a result, Yeats retreats to his ultimate fantasy, his ideal world; Byzantium. In this seeming utopia, Yeats sees immortality in the form of the appreciation of art. He wishes to take on the form “of hammered gold”, as he sees his body as nothing but “a dying animal” to which his heart and soul are “fastened”. The image of Byzantium is almost the opposite of the world in which he currently lives, and so there is a powerful contrast between the two in the poem. He now views Ireland as a place to die, while Byzantium represents to him an everlasting life, and the knowledge of “what is past, or passing, or to come”.
Ultimately, it is Yeats’s struggle between his ideal version of the world and the uncomfortableness that is his reality which drives his poetry. These six poems in particular are the result of his perpetual longing for a better life, the descriptions of which allowed for the creation of some genuinely beautiful and thought-provoking poetry.
Death in the Poem an Irish Airman Foresees His Death
Randall Jarrell, one of the most famous American poet, told us the story of a ball turret Gunner’s death. Similarly, William Butler Yeats, one of the foremost Irish poet back in 20th-century, depicted the undergoing situation where this poor Irish soldier was dying in a war. Although the themes appear to be about death, both poem discussed issues with violence, morality, and humanity. However, the background is different: one is dying and the other’s already dead.
In the poem The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, Jarrell said, “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”
Death is an extremely major issue of one’s live. It signs the person’s life is over. He or she can on longer enjoy the sunshine, cannot eat and drink , cannot feel anything any more, and cannot even move. Everything is terminated. Death is sad and regretful. However, none of those emotions were showed in the story. “they” treated the Gunner as a tool, instead of a real human being. His death was the same as if a toy was broken. They would always be a substituted one. “they” washed him out of the turret. No one would ever care about his death. The Gunner was like a dirt that needed to be taken care of.
Similarly, Yeats suggested in his poem An Irish Airman Forsees his death,
“The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind”,
This man had no hope or wishes for the future. He knew that no one would ever feel sad about his death. No one cares. It’s a waste. In fact, not even after his death, but also when he was alive, no one had ever worried about him. At this point, this airman was about to die, but where’re his friennds? Why no body wanted to save him? Because they are all in the war.
War brought violence and took away humanity from people. War taught us to hate and prevent us to love. It made every soldier’s death like an every day issue. Emotionless seems to be appropriate.
Although both of the poems were talking about a similar idea, the Gunner’s already dead inrespect to the fact the the Airman had not died. The Gunner from Jarrell’s poem wanted to come to the earth. He was reluctant to leave. Jarrell said, “From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State.” He missed his mom and he wanted his life back. When he saw he was washed off, he actually got angry. He knew that he should not be treated like this. He had the desire to fight this. However, the Airman from Yeats’s poem was dying, meaning he’s not dead yet. Unlike the Gunner, he did not want his life back. On the contrary, he wanted to terminate his life. He balanced all. He accepted his death. Yeats said, “I balanced all, brought all to mind,” He accepted the fact he’s going to die and he understood it. He did not even feel bad about his own death.
I feel like Gunner could miss his mother, and that’s why he returned to earth from his mother’s dream. He had someone to remember and possible to love. But, the Irish airman had nothing left. Yeats said, “Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;” this Irish soldier was fighting for nothing. He scarified himself for nothing.