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Relevant BackgroundSummaryThemesStyle

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death - WB Yeats (1865 - 1939)  

Relevant Background

  • WB Yeats was born in 1865 in Dublin. His family was upper class and Protestant.
  • Yeats took classes in art and thus could paint a scene well with words.
  • Despite dyslexia and early difficulty with learning the alphabet, he turned into the greatest Irish Poet of the Twentieth Century.
  • He took a great interest in national politics in Ireland. He had no great interest in international conflicts.
  • In this poem, Yeats expresses his admiration for a younger friend who died in air-combat in 1918 in World War One.
  • He is interested in his friend’s personality and what drove him to his high risk career. Yeats has little interest in the issues of the war.
  • Major Robert Gregory fought for the British Empire against the German Empire in the First World War.
  • Yeats has little concern for the actual war that is being fought. He focuses on the personality of his friend.
  • In the 1920’s he became a senator and lived an active public life.

Summary

  • The speaker in this poem is clearly not the poet, W. B. Yeats. The speaker is Major Robert Gregory.
  • In the first two lines he is looking forward to his new career as a fighter pilot. He expects to die in a sky-fight.
  • In the next two lines, Major Robert Gregory says he has no loyalty towards the country his is fighting for and feels no hatred towards his so called enemies.
  • In lines five and six, Major Gregory tells us his loyalty lies with his poor neighbours, tenant farmers and labourers at home in Kiltartan Cross in Ireland.
  • In lines seven and eight, Gregory says these neighbours don’t care about the outcome of the war. The result of the war will not make them either happier or poorer than they already are.
  • In the final eight lines of the poem the speaker, Major Robert Gregory, seems to be speaking after his death
  • In lines nine and ten, he claims he went to war for none of the usual reasons that people fight wars. He wasn’t compelled by law in a draft. He didn’t go out of a sense of duty to his country. Politicians didn’t influence him. He had no desire to be a hero.
  • In lines eleven and twelve, he claims he joined the air-force for the thrill of fighting in the clouds.
  • In the last four lines, Major Robert Gregory claims he weighed up his life. He figured both the future and the past were pointless in comparison to the excitement of fighting in a war-plane.
Themes
  • Pursuing your personal dream
    Major Robert Gregory joined the air-force to fulfil a dream. As the summary shows, he valued taking his chances in a fighter plane above his life. He did this for himself as he didn’t care about public opinion. He didn’t even want to be a hero. The delight it gave him was lonely or private, not something to be shared.
  • War
    The poem looks at the various reasons that people go to war for. Some go to protect or guard their countrymen. Some go to war out of hatred for an enemy. Sometimes the law compels people to become soldiers. Others join battle out of a sense of duty to their country. Some become soldiers after being urged on by politicians. Others do it out of a desire for public approval, perhaps to become public heroes.
  • Death
    A young man, Major Robert Gregory, chooses a career that he knows will probably kill him. He considers the past and the future a waste of breath. He trades the thrill of a moment for his life. Death is the price he is prepared to pay for one worthwhile moment in life. He faced death fearlessly and with no regrets.
Style
  • Form This poem is a lyric. Major Robert Gregory addresses the reader directly and personally.
  • Structure This is a sixteen line poem that divides into four sections.
  • Rhyme The poem follows a clear rhyming pattern: ababcdcdefefghgh
  • Language The language is direct and conversational. But the sound effects contain lots of repetitions that create a musical effect.
  • Diction The words are simple and the sentence structures are easy to understand.
  • Full Stops and Commas The poem consists of two sentences, with full stops at lines eight and sixteen.
  • Comparison The speaker compares life to death.
  • Imagery The main images are of the people of Kiltartan, the general public and of a fight between fighter airplanes in the sky.
  • Contrast [difference] The speaker contrasts himself to the typical fighter
  • Mood The words ‘fate’ and ‘death’ give the poem a sad and serious mood overall. There is also a mood of excitement as the speaker looks forward to the buzz of fighting in the clouds.
  • Paradox [apparent contradiction] The most vivid moment of the speaker’s life contains his death
  • Tone The speaker is in an unemotional state and speaks in a cold uncaring voice about his own life and death throughout the poem. His voice becomes warm when he is speaking of his neighbours in Kiltartan. When he speaks of the reasons men go to war, his tone is cold again. When the speaker refers to the past and future as a ‘waste of breath’ his tone becomes hateful or contemptuous.
  • Repetition Line four is very similar to line three. Find some of the many other word or phrase repetitions that give the poem a sense of rhythm
  • Assonance [similar vowel sound repetition] Note the repeated ‘ea’ sounds of the last three lines. This assonance reinforces the speaker’s tone of contempt.
  • Consonance [similar consonant sound repetition] ‘l’ is a sound that occurs a lot in the poem. It creates a musical effect and highlights the main line, which has four ‘l’ sounds: ‘a lonely impulse of delight’. ‘L’ is very lyrical sound.
  • Alliteration [repetition of consonant sounds at the start of nearby words] Note that in lines five and six, there are six words that start with a hard ‘c’ or ‘k’ sound. This makes the speaker’s voice sound strong at this point, where he is asserting his true loyalty.
  • Sibilance [repetition of ‘s’ sound] Note how the ‘s’ sounds in the last four lines give the final words of the poem an intimate feeling.

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