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Critics of some stature, Eliot, Auden and A.L Johnson see Yeats’ mature work as embodying a life-affirming poetic of “enactment and presence”. Yeats’ poem An Irishman Foresees His Death seems, however, on first reading to be a Nihilistic concession to universal futility. A reasonable proposition if one considers that the speaker denounces “this life” in a casual colloquialism as, “A waste of breath”. But problematic for a poet whose life’s work contradicted such a view. Most see, however, Yeats writing an inspiring and transcendent poetic vision that evokes the joy of flight, “A lonely impulse of delight” which drew the young pilot to join the war regardless of his lack of patriotism. Not in question is the poem’s technical brilliance in continually offering opposing dichotomies and paradoxes and then reconciling them to produce the final triumphant harmony in which death is not feared because the life ahead is no more valuable than the life lived. “I balanced all, brought all to mind,”.
Firstly the poem convinces us that the speaker is rational, that he is as sincere as the monosyllabic phrasing and absence of metaphorical embellishment purports in the opening address, “I know that I shall meet my fate”. He states, unequivocally, that he is not afraid, “I know”, reassuring us. And he sees his death in the “clouds above” rather than in the putrid mud of Flanders as confirmation of his love of flying. Reminiscent of an apotheosis it confers a Godly or Saintly status on the pilot.
Then Yeats employs anaphora, “those that I fight”, “those that I guard”. Throughout the entire poem, Yeats employs a limiting and regular rhyme scheme “ABAB”, further aided by end rhymes that are tonally regular. All contribute logically to the unmatched textual harmony of this poem that inevitably works to mitigate the clash of opposites within the ideas of the poem. “Hate” is set against “love”, each cancelling the other out, “Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love.” The oppositional elements working both vertically and horizontally. From line 6 to 10 a series of multiple negations begin each line, “No, Or, Nor, Nor”, removing any lingering doubts that indeed the airman went freely to his fate. That what “drove” him was simply a “lonely” “delight”, the word play on his aircraft engine (drove) and his will fusing both will and action.
From line 13 to 16 is an ingenious and intricate piece of chiasmus that works again both vertically and horizontally. “I balanced” in line 13 is balanced vertically against “In balance” in line 16. The phrase “waste of breath” at the end of line 14 is balanced by the “years to come” before it and by aid of the chiastic turning of the syntax the “years behind”.
The entire poem therefore besides being a persuasive piece of ventriloquism justifying Yeats’ close friend’s willing sacrifice is a perfect microcosm or expression of the twin gyres at the midpoint where if one is fated to die a man may see little purpose in life. But if so it would be a repudiation of the way Yeats lived his life, a man who strove into old age to evoke in his poetry the conflict, beauty, excitement and passion of his world.
A.L. Johnson therefore in taking the view that Yeats was life affirming needed to see the flaw in the airman’s conviction. He focused on the equivocating “seemed” in line 14 that is strangely in the past tense in a poem that begins in the present, “I know”. And whose title includes the word “foresees”, not “looks back”. Johnson contends therefore that it is the airman’s spirit (his Daimon) that we hear in the poem who is rethinking that death to its causes in past thought, and regretting it. And Johnson provides compelling evidence to support his view in a poem, “Reprisals” written shortly after “An Irish Airman” that is a passionate refutation of the indifference to death shown by the airman. It is close in theme and clearly references Major Robert Gregory.
“We called it a good death. Today can ghost or man be satisfied?
… rise from your Italian tomb, Flit to Kiltartan cross and stay Till certain second thoughts have come Upon the cause you served, that we Imagined such a fine affair”*
Unambiguously, Yeats intention was not to condone the airman’s cynical view of the value of life even if the pilot’s vision enabled him personally to transcend death.
This is whole extract, you often need to cut quotes: “ Some nineteen German planes, they say, You had brought down before you died. We called it a good death. Today can ghost or man be satisfied?
… rise from your Italian tomb, Flit to Kiltartan cross and stay Till certain second thoughts have come Upon the cause you served, that we Imagined such a fine affair: Half-drunk or whole-mad soldiery Are murdering your tenants there.”
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