WB Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (1918)

Context

  • This poem is a tribute to Yeats’ friend, Robert Gregory, who died in 23 Jan 1918 while flying for the Royal Air Force in WW1.
  • At the time of WW1, Ireland was part of the UK, but was in conflict with Britain, because it wanted Irish independence. Irish nationalists were torn between supporting the British in the war efforts and remaining neutral in the war to demonstrate their independence. Robert Gregory was an Irishman and volunteered for the RAF.

Ideas

Is this poem uplifting or depressing?

Is the poem an expression of Yeats’ political views?

Or is the poem a broader and philosophical question on the purpose of life?

Techniques

  • What is the effect of the diction “I know” in the first line?
  • How would you describe the tone and attitude of the persona towards his death?
  • What is the symbolism of “Somewhere amongst the clouds above”?
  • The poem is structured through binary oppositions (fight/guard, hate/love). What is the effect of this?
  • What lines suggest the detached feeling of the persona?
  • What is the paradox conveyed in the last lines?
  • This poem differs from Yeats’ other ones in that it lacks imagery and metaphor. What is the effect of this?
  • What is the rhyme structure in this poem? What is the effect of its neat structure?

Relation to other poems:

  • Yeats’ poem Easter 1916 also demonstrates Yeats’ mixed emotions towards Irish nationalism
  • Compare the deep symbolism embedded in Yeats’ poems with the stoic, statement-like voice in this poem

Essay Questions:

See: List of past and practise HSC questions

Here are my ideas on how this poem could be related to the past HSC questions:

  • 2010 HSC: This poem probably relates more closely to “conflict” than “beauty”. Consider “conflict” as a reference to war and Yeats’ political views. Alternatively, consider “conflict” as the conflict between the tragedy of humanity’s inevitable and insignificant death, and the brilliance of the airman’s decision to live in the moment.
  • 2009 HSC: Consider how this poem is a portrayal of the human experience (the inevitability of death, the insignificance of our actions etc). The lines “A lonely impulse of delight/ Drove to this tumult in the clouds” can perhaps be linked to the idea of desire/purpose. Does Yeats’ reinforce the significance of desire in the human experience? The airman lacks patriotic desire, but what is the desire expressed in those two lines?
  • 2008, 2005 and 2004 HSC questions are generic and do not refer to specific ideas.
  • 2007 HSC: I would not use this poem for this question, as I don’t feel that there is really an “intense human emotion” present. Other poems would be more suited to this question.
  • 2006 HSC: Other poems would be more suited to this question’s ideas of “age and youth”.

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