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Above It All: Yeats on War and Identity


William Butler Yeats (1865 – 1939) was one of the 20th century’s most influential poets. At a time when many of his contemporaries were branching out into radical experimental works, Yeats remained a master of old poetic forms. Much of his work was inspired by Celtic mythology and the tumultuous state of politics and revolution in his native Ireland. Yeats, however, had a very complex sense of his own national identity: belonging to the wealthy minority of upper-class Protestant society, his prominence in the Irish Literary Revival and his dynamic views of “Irishness“ have often been criticised from both sides of a Catholic-Protestant divide in criticism and historiography (Yamasaki, 2000). Consequently, much of his work eschews simple patriotism in favour of nuanced and thoughtful examinations of questions of war and belonging. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1919) is a poem of immense significance in understanding Yeats’ preoccupations, as well as a showcase of his unique poetic talents.


Despite ongoing struggles for independence from the United Kingdom, at the outbreak of WWI in August 1914 many Irishmen enlisted under British colours to fight on the continent. In fact, at this point, the effect of the war was a sense of greater unity on the island of Ireland, where in the preceding years had existed growing agitation and threats of civil violence (Gregory & Pašeta, 2002, p. 2). Nonetheless, a double identity existed in many of those Irish soldiers. Many were actively part of efforts to achieve independence from Britain, yet knew they could die under its flag to protect their country in its current form. It is this dichotomy Yeats attempts to address in An Irish Airman Foresees His Death. The poem was part of Yeats’ continuing development about war and identity throughout his life, coming only four years after On Being Asked for a War Poem – an abrupt refusal to contribute to the commemorative canon in which Yeats declares that in times of war “is better for a poet’s mouth to be silent“ (Jeffares, 1968, p. 189). Yeats’ later years were defined by an “individualism that bordered on anarchism“ as he moved from the naivete of youth to despair in old age. The collection Wild Swans at Coole (1919) from which this poem is taken finds him in a transitional period of “complexities and qualifications“ (Cullingford, 1981, p. 215).


A 1914 effort to boost Irish enlistment in WW1
Figure 1: British Army Recruitment Poster in Ireland (Imperial War Museum in London, 1914).

The airman, narrating the poem, acknowledges from the opening line that he grasps the imminence of his death, yet he holds no special motivation for being where he is:


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; (lines 1-4)

Unlike the great patriotic narratives of heroism and protection animating the young men of other nations to enlist, there is no illusion of purpose for this airman. He protects nothing and fights for nothing. There is no outcome to the war that could make the people of his native Kiltartan “happier than before“ nor “bring them loss“ (lines 7-8). The narrator is fighting a war truly devoid of grand meaning. He was compelled not by “law nor duty“, and the celebrant crowds cheering departing soldiers did nothing to sway him (lines 9-10). In contrast to other famous dissenting poems of WWI – e.g., Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est (1920) – Yeats does not attack the falsehood of deceptive, jingoist recruitment campaigns. These are rooted in the background, and there remains a certain dismissive cynicism towards the “public men“ and “cheering crowds“ that may have inspired others. Instead, the pilot identifies those left outside even these discussions, dispassionately observing and swept up in extraordinary historical processes outside their control, without even the consolations of patriotism or naivete to explain their actions.


Irish poet William Butler Yeats
Figure 2: William Butler Yeats (Museum Chicago History Museum, n.d.).

Yeats’ poetry was affected by the war around him, yet unlike many of his Modernist contemporaries, Yeats maintained a strict adherence to traditional poetic structures. Steven Matthews argues that Yeats can remain independent from his age, “creating a symbolic vocabulary from the late nineteenth century“ which elevated him above many contemporaries (Matthews, 2014, p. 335). In contrast to fractured and experimental poems such as T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Yeats maintains a tightly-structured, sequentially-rhymed poem in four quatrains. This format is deliberately chosen, not only to reject the climate of war and experimentalism from which the poet and his narrator are so detached but to associate the pilot with an ironic sense of old Romanticism.


It is this romantic spirit which attracts Yeats to his subject. It is a “lonely impulse of delight“ that drew him to war, in the classic romantic spirit of Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, poets and rebels whom Yeats greatly admired (Cullingford, 1981). Old Romantic icons were hailed for their belief in causes – national liberty often being at the forefront. This is precisely what is lacking in Yeats and his narrator, yet persists via the undefined sense of aimless adventure that nonetheless brought the airman to enlist. Diving into the war on his terms is simply the only way the airman can maintain his sense of autonomy, some semblance of control over the great game going on around him. By seizing the decision and rejecting the split loyalties engendered in the colonial subject the airman has done something that perhaps the poet cannot: decide.


A group of British fighter pilots in WW1
Figure 3: Squadron of Royal Flying Corps, British Army (National Army Museum, 1917).

On the surface, Yeats examines the internal conflict within these soldiers, yet there is a secondary undercurrent to the text. The pilot weighs these two sides of himself – “balances all“ (lines 13) – in the moments before his life ends. Yeats may here be suggesting that a violent end is an inevitable outcome for a nation divided against itself like Ireland at this time – that the will to self-destruct that has driven the airman to war is in existence in each of his compatriots until the question of national identity is put to rest. Yeats here prophetically anticipates the era of the War of Independence (1919 – 1921) and Civil War (1922 – 1923) that were developing around him in Ireland as he wrote the poem.


Bibliographical References

Cullingford, E. (1981). ‘An Old Fenian’ in Yeats, Ireland and Fascism. Palgrave Macmillan. pp 215-233.


Ferriter, D. (2005). The Transformation of Ireland. Abrams Press.


Gregory, A., & Pašeta, S. (2002). Eds. Ireland and the Great War: ‘A War to Unite Us All’? Manchester University Press.


Jeffares, N. A. (1968). A Commentary on the Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Palgrave MacMillan.


Matthews, S. (2014). ‘W.B. Yeats’ in A Companion to Modernist Poetry. Ed. by Chinitz, D. and McDonald, G. John Wiley & Sons. pp 335-347


Yamasaki, H. (2000). ‘Yeats’ View of Irishness’ in The Harp (Vol. 15). IASIL-Japan. pp 59-63.


Yeats, W. B. (1919) ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ in The Wild Swans at Coole. MacMillan.

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Seán Downey

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