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An Irish Airman Foresees His Death - W.B. Yeats The Wild Swans At Coole


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 angry 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.

 


An Irish Airman Foresees His Death is a poem by Irish poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) written in 1918 and first published in the Macmillan edition of The Wild Swans at Coole in 1919.
 The poem is a soliloquy given by an aviator in the First World War in which the narrator describes the circumstances surrounding his imminent death. The poem is a work that discusses the role of Irish soldiers fighting for the United Kingdom during a time when they were trying to establish independence for Ireland. Wishing to show restraint from publishing political poems during the height of the war, Yeats withheld publication of the poem until after the conflict had ended.

The airman in the poem is widely believed to be Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats and the only child of Lady Augusta Gregory.

The poem contains 16 lines of text arranged in iambic quatrameter. The rhyme scheme is arranged in four quatrains of ABAB.

The aviator, of whom Yeats writes as in the first person, is convinced that the flight he is about to take will be his last, and he thinks of why he has chosen to fly. He flies for different reasons than most, not out of sense of duty or patriotism, nor for prestige or for those he has left behind. He reasons that he made his decision on the basis that his life so far has not compared to the thrill of annihilation, and can see nothing to convince him that his life to come will do any better.

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William Robert Gregory MC was the only child of William Henry Gregory and Lady Gregory, an associate of W. B. Yeats, Robert was born in County Galway in Ireland in May 1881. He studied at Harrow, New College, Oxford and the Slade School of Art he excelled at bowls, boxing, horse riding and cricket. He was good enough at cricket to play once for the Ireland cricket team, taking 8/80 with his leg spin bowling in a first-class match against Scotland in 1912. He didn't score a run. His bowling performance in that match remains the tenth best in all matches for Ireland and the fourth best in first-class cricket for Ireland. His bowling average of 10.22 is the second best for Ireland in first-class cricket.

An accomplished artist, he worked in the design studio of Jacques Émile Blanche, and had his own exhibition of paintings in Chelsea in 1914. The following year, he joined the war effort, becoming a member of the 4th Connaught Rangers, transferring to the Royal Flying Corps in 1916. He became a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur in 1917, and was awarded a Military Cross for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty."

He was killed in Italy at the age of 36 when an Italian pilot mistakenly shot him down
Robert's death had a lasting effect on W. B. Yeats, and he became the subject of four poems by him; In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, Shepherd and Goatherd, and Reprisals.