An Irish Airman Foresees His Death: Summary & Analysis

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      (The speaker in the poem is Major Robert Gregory. He was a fighting pilot in the First World War from the side of the British. Air Force and was killed in action. The theme of the poem is the instinct that infused in him a desire to join the Air Force.)

      Lines: 1-4 The very title of the poem suggests that the Irish pilot is in clear vision of his fast-approaching death. The speaker says that he is well aware that his death will occur in the air. In his heart he does not have any hatred or feeling of revenge against the Gennans whom he is fighting, nor does he have any special affection for the English whom he is protecting.

      Lines: 5-8 The pilot belongs to Kiltart an Cross, a place in Ireland. His sympathies are reserved for the poor and downtrodden inhabitants of his native-land. Here, it is implied that he cannot love the Britishers who use the Irish men as their slaves. (The Irish were struggling against the English for independence and liberty). If the English lose this battle, it is in no way going to affect adversely the inhabitants of Kiltartan Cross, neither can a British victory make them happy because they are not going to gain anything out of it.

      Lines: 9-10 The pilot is not joining the air force out of any compulsion because there is no law that can compel him to do so. There is in him, no sense of duty toward protecting the English. The high sounding speeches of the politicians also do not have any encouraging effect on him, nor does he have a lust for becoming a war hero and being cheered by crowds.

      Lines: 11-12 These two lines constitute the basic theme of the poem. The speaker says that it was a sheer inner urge for adventure that prompted him to join the Air force to witness himself and undergo the experience of a highly sensational and risk packed drama in the air.

      Lines: 13-16. The speaker says that he had made a mathematical kind of calculation of his past and possible future—his net gain and loss from them. After putting them on the balance he has found that he had idled away his past and had nothing to his credit His future also did not carry hope of anything remarkable taking place. Therefore, he had come to the conclusion that death was the only compensation to balance his worthless past. So he had decided to choose a thrilling death.

Critical Explanation

      Irish—belonging to Ireland; a native of Ireland, which was then under British rule.
Airman—a pilot; a fighter in the air. Foresees—had a premonition about; has a feeling about.

      L. 1-4. I know—I am fully sure. Meet my fate—i.e” death Among....above—while fighting high up in the clouds. He was a fighter pilot and he would die fighting in an aerial battle. Those...fight—German airmen and pilots. Germany had declared war on British cities. I do....hate—But the Irish Airman does not hate the Germans. There are perhaps two reasons for this: (1) As a soldier, he knows that he is a helpless pawn in the game of politics. The soldier has no say in anything. He is just given orders to fight by his commander and he had to do so. So, he feels no hatred for the German soldiers. (2) He is an Irishman and his countrymen were fighting for independence against Britain. Scores of his countrymen had been shot dead by British soldiers after the Easter Rebellion of 1916. So in his heart of hearts he had no good feelings for Britain though he had to protect her cities and fight under orders as a disciplined soldier. This interpretation also explain the next line. Those that I—He feels no love for the people who are bitterly persecuting his countrymen although he was duty bound to guard them against the bombing of the German airplanes.

      This ‘divided loyalty’ in the heart of the Irish Airman makes him indifferent to life and death. Rather he welcomes death which would forever end the tension in his mind.

      L. 5-8. Kiltarton Cross—a village in West Ireland. My poor - the Irish Airman was perhaps born in a poor family at Kiltarton Cross. But it appears from the lines below that his parents had died in his early childhood and he had no friends or relatives in the village at that time.

      End— eath. No likely end....loss the people of the village would not feel any loss at his death.

      Or leave them....before—the poor people of the village would not feel happy at the death. As the people of the village had quite forgotten the Irish Airman, they would be quite indifferent to his fate.

      L. 9-12. Now Law—during the time of war or any other national emergency young people are conscripted to join the fighting force. But no such law applied to the Irish Airman. Nor duty—people makes great sacrifices during any national emergency from a sense of duty. But no such sense prompted the Irish Airman to join the war. Being an Irishman, he did not feel himself duty-bound to fight for the people of Britain, who were bitterly harassing and ill-treating his native countrymen (of Ireland). Bade me—urged me. Police men—public leaders; national leaders. No Irish leader asked his countrymen to support the British. Rather they asked the people to fight the British.

      Cheering crowds—usually people gather in large numbers to congratulate the soldier or airman who goes out to fight for the sake of his motherland. But this was not the case in Ireland. So no one came to congratulate the Irish Airman when he volunteered to join the war. Yeats was the foremost Irish national poet of his age and in almost every poem he has stressed the condition of his enslaved countrymen.

      Then why did the Irish Airman join the war? We find the real motive in the next lines. Lonely i.e., sudden. Impulse—strong feeling. Delight—thrill. Tumult-uproar—excitement.

      L. 13-16. Balanced—thought deeply (on the pros and cons of the problem) Brought....mind—remembered about his past life. The years to come—his future life. Seemed....breath—i.e., absolutely useless. A waste...behind—his past life has been a sheer waste. (He has not been able to achieve anything in the future). He is completely distracted with his life. In balance with—i.e., compared to. This death—i.e., death in a thrilling air-fight is much more to be preferred than the useless life he had been leading in the past and was likely to lead in the future.

Explanation; L. 1-8

      I know that I shall...happier than before. The Irish Airman says that he had a premonition that he would die while fighting high up in the clouds in his airplane against the Germans. He further analyses the motives which led him to join the aerial fight. He does not hate his enemies; also he does not love the people whom he is expected to save from German attacks. He belonged to a poor family of Kiltarton Cross in Ireland and the people of that place were quite indifferent to his fate. They would neither feel sorry over his untimely death nor would they feel happier than before. He had neither a friend nor a foe among the native people of his village.

Explanation; L. 13-16

      I balanced all with this life? the death. The Irish Airman says that he had thought deeply before deciding to join the war. He remembered his past life, which had been a waste as he had not been able to achieve anything. His future life also evoked no hope; it was also expected to be as useless and wasteful as his past life had been. To him the momentary thrill of an aerial battle high up in the clouds seemed much more attractive than the humdrum, dull existence he had been leading in the past and hoped to lead in the future, although it might eventually bring about untimely death.

Critical Analysis


      This poem was written in 1919 and was inspired by the death, in an aerial combat with the enemy, of his friend, Major Gregory, who was in the Royal Air Force. The poet has tried to express the sentiments of his dead friend before he decides to go into action. But these sentiments are characteristics of Yeats himself The poem embodies the aristocratic individualism, fatality and patriotism of Yeats himself coupled with a sense of waste of his whole life,—the feeling that dominated, nay, haunted his mind when he retired from active public life to a country home after his experience of his people over the Dublin Corporation affairs and the Easter Rebellion (Dublin, 1916), and many other incidents. It has also a touch of the poet’s characteristic mysticism The Airman’s ‘lonely impulse’ and his ‘divided loyalty’ reveal the poet himself

Development of Thought

      The Airman says that he knows he will meet death in the action among the clouds, i,e., in the air battle that will be fought high up in the clouds. But he does not hate his enemies, against whom he is going to fight. He, likewise, has no love for those, whom he is going to protect. His countrymen are the poor people, Kiltartan Cross, who will neither be put to any loss by the result of the fight, nor will they be made any bit happier by its outcome. Major Robert Gregory has not entered the action or the war, either because law compelled him to fight; nor has he done so at the call of patriotic duty to fight for his country. Nor, again, has the desire for fame and public applause driven him to the war. It is all ‘a lonely impulse of delight’ that had driven him into the air-fight.

      Before going into the war, he has made all calculations, and thought over the years of life that he had already spent. He had also thought of his life that was likely to be in the years to come. It was all a waste of breath in both directions. In the balance of this Life is Death in this action, which perhaps is better.

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