Who exactly this calm, strangely apathetic yet resolute man is, is debated.Many people believe he is Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats and the son of hispatron, Lady Augusta Gregory. If this poem is included, Yeats wrote 4 poems in totalabout Major Gregory. However, as the Major is not named in the poem, I do notbelieve he is the speaker in
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
. That said, thepoem does offer some background about the speaker. We know he is a man fromKiltartan Cross who identifies with the poor. About Kiltartan’s poor he says, “Nolikely end could bring them loss, Or leave them happier than before.” The men of Kiltartan Cross have no stake in the war. From this we can determine that thespeaker is not fighting for his countymen. Nor, he says, is he influenced by law,duty, politicians or patriotic crowds. Instead, he says he weighed the value of hislife and was dissatisfied, calling it a “waste of breath;” upon weighing the future, if he stays on the same path, he determines it to also be a waste. Thus, hismotivation for fighting is a “lonely impulse of delight.” While this impulse may bebrought on by many things, they all fly under the same banner –the desire to dosomething different. The airman makes clear that he is fighting only for himself; hecasts out the notion of being ‘duty bound’ and in the poem he says, “Those that Ifight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love.” There are a few differentinterpretations of these lines. The first is that the airman simply has no allegianceto his comrades and is flying only to quench his “impulse of delight.” In this way,the airman may be seeking the thrill of flight and combat to offset his previouslybland life. An additional explanation is, at the time of the WWI, it was considered‘well rounded’ to have military service on a man’s resume. The Irishman may beseeking to earn that credit for himself. To explain the lines which describe his life aswasted, it is possible that he is so taken with the idea of being a well-rounded
The speaker, an Irish airman fighting in World War I, declares that he knows he will die fighting among the clouds. He says that he does not hate those he fights, nor love those he guards. 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 before the war began. He says that he did not decide to fight because of a law or a 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 found that “The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind.”
This short sixteen-line poem has a very simple structure: lines metered in iambic tetrameter, and four grouped “quatrains” of alternating rhymes: ABABCDCDEFEFGHGH, or four repetitions of the basic ABAB scheme utilizing different rhymes.
This simple poem is one of Yeats’s most explicit statements about the First World War, and illustrates both his active political consciousness (“Those I fight I do not hate, / Those I guard I do not love”) and his increasing propensity for a kind of hard-edged mystical rapture (the airman was driven to the clouds by “A lonely impulse of delight”). The poem, which, like flying, emphasizes balance, essentially enacts a kind of accounting, whereby the airman lists every factor weighing upon his situation and his vision of death, and rejects every possible factor he believes to be false: he does not hate or love his enemies or his allies, his country will neither be benefited nor hurt by any outcome of the war, he does not fight for political or moral motives but because of his “impulse of delight”; his past life seems a waste, his future life seems that it would be a waste, and his death will balance his life. Complementing this kind of tragic arithmetic is the neatly balanced structure of the poem, with its cycles of alternating rhymes and its clipped, stoical meter.