Poet's Pick April 21
W. B. Yeats: "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"
Selected by Rebecca Foust
National Poetry Month 2015

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Rebecca Foust's Poetry Month Pick, April 21, 2015

"An Irish Airman Foresees His Death"
by W. B. Yeats (1865 - 1939)

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

* Rebecca Foust Comments:

Neither of my parents went to college but my mother was a great reader and had many poems by heart, reciting them as she made dinner, hung laundry on the line, and tucked us into bed at night. My twin brother liked the stories, but what I remember is the rise and fall of Mom’s voice saying and sometimes singing lines from “The Highwayman,” “Gunga Din,” “Dover Beach,” and other old chestnuts from Magic Casements, a battered clothbound still on my bookshelf.  She especially loved Yeats, and since this year marks the 150th anniversary of his birth, I’ll write about “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” the only poem I ever memorized on my own volition. I admire people who commit poems to memory but myself find it difficult and in truth, when I first heard this poem, I memorized it less than it mesmerized me.

Written in 1918 and published a year later in The Wild Swans at Coole, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” speaks in the voice of Major Robert Gregory, who fought and died in the air offensive against Germany in World War One. Yeats later fell out with his friend (and with his mother, Lady Augusta Gregory), but he wrote four poems in his memory. This one, a soliloquy by an aviator in flight who sees and accepts his imminent death, is read by some as a song to Thanatos or death wish. But in a war when the life expectancy of new pilots was something like 17 hours, this airman is simply saying what’s true.

What interests me most about the poem is the way it enacts what I call “held oppositions” that, besides embodying political complexities specific to Yeats’ time, embody the mixed feelings of soldiers in all wars, and also something else: the inner state of an artist. The oppositions are conceptual and also are structural, built into the poem’s grammar, syntax, meter and other aspects of form strategically managed to give this poem its wings.

Lines like "Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love" can be taken literally to express the complications and contradictions of Irish pilots flying for England against Germany at a time when the Irish War of Independence was challenging centuries of oppressive British Home Rule. The airman’s allegiance is to Ireland (“Kiltartin’s poor), but he flies for a foreign occupying power against an enemy that is not his enemy and that, following enemy-of-my-enemy logic, might be considered a friend. In fact, Germany was a friend, supplying Irish Nationalists with Mauser rifles, and even though Irish soldiers were not conscripted, they would necessarily have had mixed feelings about fighting England’s war. The poem’s diction reflects this conflict, with key words set up through parallel structure in dialectic pairs like “fight /protect” and “hate / love.”  Ignorant of Irish history when I first read these lines, I thought they expressed the mixed emotions of any wartime soldier, seeing himself as a pawn moved by mysteriously more powerful hands with an agenda that does not serve his local interests. I imagined that my father, yanked out of his small bucolic town in western Pennsylvania into the frontlines of an overseas war he never spoke of, must have sometimes felt like this airman.

Beyond these two very literal readings, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” has always worked for me as an ars poetica expressive of the inner state of its maker. To my teenage self, the Irish Airman was the lonely artist who regretted and at the same time frankly reveled in alienation from other people. How interesting it was, doing recent research for this piece, to learn that besides being a pilot, Robert Gregory was also an artist! In the poem, the separation is physical and emotional—the airman leaves the earth and ascends until its inhabitants are near-invisible specks towards whom he feels a kind of Daoist detachment. Again working in opposites, Yeats uses negation to list what are emphatically not the reasons for flying or creating art: fame (“cheering crowds”), conscription by others (“law”), or even a more authentic inner moral mandate (“duty”). My favorite line is the one that abandons the negations to affirm what does impel the airman to risk everything: “A lonely impulse of delight.” Who can read this yoking of seemingly incongruent terms without feeling not just the delight, but also its fierce edge? “Lonely” reminds me of the airman’s/artist’s estrangement, but the word it actually modifies and marks out as singular and rare is “impulse.” Pure, unreasoned, and unpremeditated actions do not happen often in a life, the airman tells us—and, as we know from a letter Yeats wrote but probably never sent to Robert Gregory—almost never happened in his.

The destination of the pilot’s impulse, the “tumult in the clouds,” is violent aerial combat, read by some as a metaphor for the Great War. But in keeping with the poem’s determination to embrace opposites, “tumult” offers both positive and negative connotations. One can imagine a joyous tumult of angelic trumpets, for example. Or, fighter planes blowing each other to shrapnel. In any event, the airman’s attitude towards the tumult is neutral; he accepts it (and the death sentence it implies) without rancor or comment. “Tumult” wonderfully echoes the sounds of “impulse” and sonically evokes the word “cumulus.” Finding “delight” in “clouds” is another antinomy this poem uses to accomplish its balancing act.

These conceptual dialectics add depth to lines that at first seem to mean what they literally say. But the oppositions that fascinate me are the ones embedded in the meter and syntax because they are the source of what I love best about the poem: its sonic buoyancy, the way it enacts not just flight, but a more elliptical float. I am thinking here about balance and equipoise—the competing forces of load and lift that moor a skyscraper and buoy up an airplane and how stars, before they go supernova, hover between implosive collapse and nuclear explosion—what binds things together before, as Yeats says in another poem, they inevitably will “fly apart”.

What are some of the oppositions held in this poem’s structure? One is in a rhyme scheme (abab cdcd efef ghgh) that neatly divides the poem into four parts, each working in counterpoint against the other. Another is the turn at the end of line 8 that bisects the poem into a first half where the airman looks out and down and a second half where he looks inward, enacting a new drama with a new set of tensions. The meter is iambic tetrameter, featuring four iambs in most lines and eight syllables in all but the eighth line. Within the prevailing meter occur the subtle variations that make the movement of this poem more like that of a butterfly than the smooth, numb trajectory we experience in modern commercial airliners. The poem opens with perfect tetrameter, “I know that I shall meet my fate,” but wobble happens immediately with the next line’s inversion of its first foot. Lines 3 and 4 likewise open with trochees:

Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love

Perhaps it is the saturation of internal rhyme (meet/fate/fight/not/hate), or maybe it is meaning, but something makes me say these lines out loud differently from how I scan them, stressing the word “not” rather than the word “do” in both lines.

So, in the just the first four lines of the poem we see two types of metrical tension at work: tension between the prevailing meter and its variations, and also tension between how lines are scanned and how spoken. The latter tension is especially strong in lines 11 and 12, where scansion forces a stress on the prepositions “of,” “to,” and “in,” so-called “little words” not usually emphasized in speech. Others might say them differently, but I say these lines with three beats, a significant departure from the prevailing tetrameter:

A lonely impulse of delight
Led to this tumult in the clouds;

Here again, the tension between the metrical pattern and natural speech patterns engineers a stutter in the meter, a wobble in the float, or maybe, the wobble that makes the float. Lines 13-15 uses a device called a chiasmus (“I balanced all, brought all to mind,”) with stresses bookending a line whose core is a metrical pattern ( / - / ) that is the very essence of teeter, with counterweights balanced on the precarious pivot of an unstressed syllable. We see this again in lines 14-15 where the bookend terms are “the years” and the fulcrum they rock on is the repeated phrase “waste of breath,” broken across the lines.

In this poem, iambic tetrameter is the engine powering the plane, and the variations in the pattern are how Yeats introduces stutter, skip, flutter and float. In the end, the feeling generated is zero gravity, like what I felt once in an open cockpit Cessna when the pilot cut the engine and we rode eddies of air in the great silence. When else have I felt so untethered?  On a high trapeze, when my knees left the bar and before I touched the catcher’s hands. Hiking out over the gunnel of a small sailboat in a big wind. Seeing a homerun ball on its trajectory out of the park. Every time I’ve been in love. These days it happens most often when I’m writing and get lifted into some surprising idea, or when I read a great poem like this one. I love “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” for its layered meanings, it virtuosity, and how the act of saying it aloud shapes my breathing in a way that actually fills my lungs with air. And I love its despair, so aching and profound it becomes a kind of hope or belief in something—Art? Keats’s Beauty?—that transcends human concerns, even ones as serious as war.

About Rebecca Foust:
Rebecca Foust was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence and is the recipient of fellowships from the Frost Place and the MacDowell Colony. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry.

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