Notes by Henry Jamieson
- Written as an elegy to Major Robert Gregory, the son of Lady Gregory – Yeats’ good friend, that lived at Coole Park, with whom he led the artistic revolution in Ireland (for more information on Augusta Gregory see the blog page on Yeats’ Women).
- It has been inferred through the remaining letters written by Major Robert Gregory that he did (perhaps) not much like Yeats.
- Gregory lived in the small town ‘Kiltartan’ which is referred to into the poem
– ‘My country is Kiltartan Cross,/My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,’
- Those that fought for the British in World War I were considered traitors to the Irish people by the IRB. There are reports to the fact that many that survived the war (or their families if the men themselves had not survived the conflict) were later murdered by the IRB/A for choosing to align themselves with the ‘enemy’ during those years of conflict. The British recruited vigorously for soldiers from Ireland – even encamping outside pubs to recruit men who often were not in a sober-enough state of mind to refuse the enlisting process.
Prolific uses of personal pronouns – the use of such pronouns suggests that it was intended as a personal poem, not public. Yeats is possibly mourning his loss.
The poem, written in the persona of Gregory (or at least a soldier in a similar mound to Gregory), contemplates his motives for, and the worth of, his seemingly inevitable death. The poem is certain from the beginning that he ‘shall meet [his] fate/Somewhere among the clouds above,’ – he has signed up for the British Army, certain that he will die.
The ‘airman’ attempts to find the elusive meaning that he fights for through a process of elimination;
‘Those that I fight I do not hate’ – Ireland did not feel threatened by WWI and the Germans.
‘Those that I guard I do not love’ – He was fighting for Britain, who had oppressed the Irish for centuries.
‘No likely end could bring them [his countrymen] loss’ – Stoic philosophy – Life will moves on, he will be forgotten and if they lose the war that he is fighting for, may not be effected at all.
‘Or leave them happier than before’ – winning the war would not benefit Ireland in any way, may just refocus English attention and military presence on them.
No ‘public men’ ‘bade [him] fight’ – As Yeats frequently refers to himself as a public man (see notes on ‘Among School Children’); these lines may be Yeats’ attempt to distance himself from any involvement in Gregory’s motivations to align himself with the British and thus ultimately for his death.
The airman concludes, phrased as if he is writing posthumously, that it is ‘A lonely impulse of delight’ that he pursued, that drove him to fly and fight and that as ‘the years to come seemed waste of breath,/ A waste of breath the years behind’ all that’s left is for him to balance his wasted life, with his death. (‘In balance with this life, this death.’)
The ‘lonely impulse of delight’ is slightly ambiguous; it is most likely the Lakists’ Romantic ideal of a moment of pure emotion, as in ‘The Cold Heaven’ – ‘Ah!’ This moment he experiences away from all other humans flying in the clouds, transcending the physical limits of humans with the ethereal feel that flying ‘somewhere in among the clouds above’ has. It is almost as if the persona has touched/felt something forbidden to most mere mortals; this highly Romantic statement echoes the great Romantic poets (Shelley/Keats/Wordsworth).
- Tight structure – echoes the certainty that he will die
- Iambic tetrameter
- The only caesura is on line before the ending two words ‘this death’ – emphasising the death and the balance to the rest of the poem – his life. Alternatively it could be him faltering; losing the certainty he had throughout the poem that death was the only option.
- Conflicts with ‘The Man and the Echo’ where Yeats feels ‘there is no release in bodkin or disease’ (in death).
- The Airman has broken from the flow of life, become stationary and committed to die as if ‘enchanted to stone’ – a metaphor used in ‘Easter 1916.’
- ‘Waste of breath’ linked to ‘drank the wind’ in ‘Among School Children’ – both suggest the lack of substance in life/politics.