Emotional legitimacy and Yeats's 'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death'
by Hana Jafar
Polyphony, Volume 2, Issue 1 First published April 2020, Manchester
As a close reading of ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’, this essay attempts to interrogate, in forensic detail, the emotional legitimacy of nationhood as a concept, and how negotiating it becomes an individual experience that is difficult to categorise. Criticism on Yeats’s Airman has long identified particular political or elegiac elements of the poem as central to its meaning, placing it firmly within ideas of what it means to be Irish, and patriotic. My reading takes it a step further by questioning these categories, and illustrating how formal, structural, linguistic, and contextual analyses of nuanced apolitical aspects of Yeats’s poem produce a new and less discursive model of national imaginings.
W.B. Yeats’s poetry has long been iconic in contributing to ideas of Irish national identity, many of which are central to considering the emotional legitimacy of nations as presented in Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’ (see note 1). Yeats’s ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ was written in 1919, a year after the death of Robert Gregory, son of Lady Gregory, who was a close friend of Yeats - and who requested that he write in remembrance of her son. If read ‘emblematically’ as an elegy, as critic Edward Pickering suggests, the poem can be understood as a celebration of poetic mastery and creative freedom from a world that restricts creativity (see note 2). However, Airman can also be read as a poem dealing with ideas of Nationhood and national identity. Kevin Riel argues that it is not a classic elegy but an anti-war poem (see note 3). Austin Riede interprets the poem as one that maps Yeats’s attitude towards Irish ethnicity onto bodily sacrifice (see note 4). I will be using Riel’s ideas of Gregory as an emotionally detached persona as well as Riede’s view of Gregory’s response to modernity and ethnic identity to argue that Airman presents readers with an ambivalent view of nationhood as individualistic. Thus, I will be exploring how Airman’s structure, narrative voice and representation of the self in relation to the nation contribute to Anderson’s ideas of an ‘imagined community’, and in some ways support, but in other ways dispute the idea of its emotional legitimacy.
The very title, ‘An Irish Airman foresees his Death’ is seemingly straightforward, a frank and unembellished description of the dramatic monologue - almost too straightforward. Almost immediately one feels a distance created in the use of the second person ‘his’ in the title of a poem that is written exclusively in the first person. A sense that the imagined speaker has not titled the poem, and that it is instead an afterthought by an observer renders it a self conscious, almost metacritical addition to a poem written to portray the impulsive, thoughtless decision made by the speaker. Yeats’s reference to ‘An Irish Airman’ is even more telling, as identifying him as ‘Irish’ emphasising that the speaker is only known by his nationality and profession, excluding his name from the title serves to isolate and throw light upon the fact that the ‘Irish’ Gregory chose to fight in the British army. A subtle hint of betrayal is detected in what Riel would argue is an erasure of Gregory from the poem’s subtext, using him only to further his thematic aims. This brings to mind Anderson’s description of one of the paradoxes of attempting to define a nation, “The formal universality of nationality as a socio-cultural concept” and “the irredeemable particularity of its concrete manifestations” (Anderson,pp 5). In this case, the idea that anyone of Irish nationality can be considered ‘Irish’, but what it really entails is something more intangible - can one be Irish and fight in the British army? More importantly, can one be ‘An Irish Airman’ if he is Anglo-Irish? The ambiguity and lack of personalisation suggests that this question, although individual, is part of a common experience - that this ‘Airman’ could be any Irish man considering the very same questions of national identity that the speaker is contending with.
This ambiguity, reflecting Yeats’s political and ideological ambiguity about the war is also evident in the poem’s structure and tone. Written in iambic tetrameter and accentual syllabic verse, the poem retains a consistently dreamlike, rhythmic cadence, suggesting a resignation to fate - an unquestioning surrender. The cross-rhyme emphasises this in its representation of the pattern of recurrence, a frustratingly repetitive nod to Riede’s suggestion that the poem is about wasteful sacrifice, one that Yeats may be conveying, is a futile one. Although Yeats has often been compared to modernist poets, and Airman is one of his later works, the structure is not typically modernist, suggesting an alignment with more traditionalist modes of thought, a reminder that he was a supporter of the Irish revivalist movement. The musicality of cross-rhyme and iambs may be a subtle reminder of the poet and speaker’s cultural roots, which allude to the possible reasoning behind both the writing of the poem, and the speaker’s decision to fight and choose death. According to Anderson, one of the tensions of nationhood is “The objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists” (Anderson, pp. 5). This duplicity is apparent here, as, central to this tension is that it is that “some practices derived from accepted rules, customs and traditions seek to inculcate certain values or ideals and establish continuity with a historical past.” (Anderson, pp.5) Yeats then, in his use of more traditional structure and rhythm despite not having written a classic elegy seems to be attempting to form a link with Ireland’s historical past. Is he doing this to offset the poem’s message - a rejection of such notions? Perhaps, but it could also be that he is pointing to underlying cultural ideals that underpinned the motives of many who fought for king and country and died for their nations.
The opening lines beginning ‘I know that I shall meet my fate/ Somewhere among the clouds above’ (1-2) assert the speaker’s identity immediately, as Austin Riede suggests that “‘I’ is a fundamental signifier of absolute and almost immediate value. It is the primary logos, representing the first differentiation between interiority and exteriority, or self and other.” (Riede,) This differentiation and creation of value is imperative to the poem’s central question - why the speaker, Gregory, chose his fate. Placing his voice at the forefront of the discussion establishes credibility as the thoughts and feelings are coming directly from him. Yeats’s possessive reference to ‘my fate’ also emphasises the individual nature of this experience, thoughts and feelings, all of which dispute the idea that imagining death is a collective act. However, in his essay Anderson mentions an aspect of national imaginings through which characters are “embedded” in the minds of readers precisely because of their individual and separate existences in parallel worlds. He claims that a “national imagination” is at work in “the movement of a solitary hero through a sociological landscape of a fixity that fuses the world inside.. with the world outside.” (Anderson, pp. 30) This, Anderson argues, creates a fictional space with generic, comparable elements representing those found in the lives of others who identify with the nation and individual represented. The certain tone in ‘know[ing]’ his fate, however, is ironically contrasted with the ambiguous ‘somewhere’, suggesting that the speaker is not certain, because he cannot be, about how exactly he will meet his end. Geography is irrelevant, as this seems to be more than just a physical death of the self. The metaphorical self, then, is suspended as the speaker then explains ‘Those that I fight I do not hate’ and ‘those that I guard I do not love’ (3-4). The negation in those lines place him between the feelings of hatred and love - or rather - outside them, refusing to articulate what he does feel, and thus extending the emotional distance that contributed to Riel’s characterisation of the speaker as cold and detached. If the pilot doesn’t hate, or love, is he indifferent to people, to nationhood?
This question is somewhat answered in the second quatrain as we explore the speaker’s “imagined political community” (Anderson, pp.6). Gregory explains ‘My country is Kiltartan Cross | My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor’ (5-6) referring to a barony in Galway where Lady Gregory’s estate, Robert Gregory’s home, Coole Park was. Considering that Gregory was not of ‘Kiltartan’s poor’ it seems odd that he would align himself with them, calling them ‘My countrymen’. The fact that Kiltartan is not a country, yet the speaker refers to it as such, the anaphoric ‘my country’ echoing his possessive allegiance to them, begs the question - does he feel more Kiltartan than Irish? What this points to, once again, is the individual nature of defining oneself in the context of a nation. To the speaker, his nation is Kiltartan, the “inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson, pp.6) version, and not, Ireland as a whole. This brings the airman’s motives into greater focus, highlighting the selfless nature of his sacrifice, or rather, its selfless nature. Riel describes him as a “sociopathic mercenary” - lacking any real concern for the welfare of his fellow Kiltartan people. In the next couple of lines, the speaker attempts to justify his partaking in the war by saying “No likely end could bring them loss” (7) Yeats’s use of ‘no’ rather than ‘any’, a blatant rejection of possibilities, reflects the absolute fixedness in the mind of the speaker, who insists that one way or another, the destruction of war is inevitable. The speaker continues that no end could “leave them happier than before” (8), the repetition of ‘them’ creating an invisible wall between the speaker and his supposed people, offsetting his avoidant language, refusing to acknowledge what an end would mean. The endstop offsets the uncertain nature of Kiltartan’s future to sound deterministic and certain, yet what is certain is that Yeats is showing the inevitability of destruction and pain either way - not because of an end to the war, but the war itself.
In the third quatrain, the speaker’s explanation of his motives offer an insight into his decision. “Nor law, nor duty bade me fight | Nor public men, nor cheering crowds” (9-10) he claims, denouncing what Riel calls “social forces that govern the terrestrial world”. If these social forces have no bearing on Gregory’s decision to enlist, then his alignment with Kiltartan people, the Irish or the British army are no longer legitimate justifications to fight. He does not belong to their nations in a terrestrial sense, nor, he confirms, in a cultural sense- as the ‘imagined’ members of his community, the “public men” and “cheering crowds” are also not part of the equation either. Yeats’s placement of ‘law’ preceding ‘duty’ allows readers to consider firstly, the most compelling reason one would fight, the obvious, indisputable reason that one must. Anaphoric negations of all four reasons portray the yet unrealised and unactualised nature of these motives - the speaker is still only denying that the reasons most others would mention, are his own as well. This is emphasised by the faceless, nameless “cheering crowds”, part of Gregory’s ‘imagined’ community, yet seen as the ‘other’ here - reasserting the individual aspect of the speaker’s national identity.
His reason, he finally explains, is “A lonely impulse” (11), the singularity of which is compounded by the airman’s allusion to his reasoning being individual and unique, creating a distance from men and crowds. Riel suggests that ‘impulse’ wins, “perhaps because its intensity overwhelms all of the speaker’s other compulsions of emotional connection.” insinuating a multifaceted understanding of these motives and the speaker’s connection to nationhood. Perhaps, as Riel suggests, national imagining is a ‘compulsion’, and Yeats it attempting to show that anyone attempting to consider it in its full complexity may well be overwhelmed. One can further see proof of this in the next line, that the impulse “Drove to this tumult in the clouds” (12). Yeats’s use of the word ‘tumult’ represents the chaotic, confusing and mass induced frenzy of a futile and destructive war, while the reference to ‘clouds’ echoing clouds in the poem’s second line emphasises the vague, empty and shape-shifting nature of fighting for a cause, when one’s alignment to the cause is not concrete and tangible.
The poem’s closing lines attempt to bring a sense of tangibility to the reasoning, concluding the speaker’s thoughts on the matter. However, his vague and absolute ‘all’ refuses to articulate what forces and factors came into play. Once again, readers are able to engage with the idea that there are aspects of national identity that are so all encompassing that assigning them value is near impossible. Due to this, the airman’s death is subsequently apolitical, an ‘all or nothing’ flighty escape and desire to gain agency from pressures of ‘men’, ‘crowds’ and the law. Riede suggests that his death is wasteful, and yet virtuous, especially to Yeats above the deaths of rebels - placing the airman in a heroic light not dissimilarly to Pickering. He claims that it is “the most austere, the more fruitless, and the most wasteful” because of its ‘pragmatism’. The speaker himself also speaks of waste, describing his future as one that “seemed waste of breath” (14). In his mind then, he has already died, using the past tense ‘seemed’ to imply that in a sense, he has reached resolve and is already caught up in his mental flight. The juxtaposition of “this life, this death” in the final line serve as a climactic moment of metaphorical propulsion, emotionally. Edward Pickering notes that “it is precisely in this moment that life and death collapse into each other”, when an already culturally disoriented and disillusioned Gregory, dizzied by his impulse sees the years past and future as blurring into one another. What is most important to him, is his escape from the pressures of a national imagining, and having to contend with those pressures during wartime. Ultimately, Yeats’s distaste for war is revealed here, with the repetition of ‘waste’ emphasising Riede’s sentiment of the Anglo-Irish Airman representing a sacrifice, weighing his own life and death against the futility and inevitability of war.
In Airman, Yeats uses Gregory to represent the individual aspect of national imaginings, while simultaneously allowing the speaker to be a symbol of mindless sacrifice, in order to express his feelings about the war. His use of ambiguous, depersonalising language distances man from nation, poet from character and reader from protagonist, forcing readers to contend with the idea that questions of nationhood and identity are not always universal, but can be part of a common experience, in which the ‘concrete manifestations’ of nationhood are unique. Yeats also further legitimises the emotional connection to nationhood through his use of traditional structure and regular rhythm, a reminder of the duplicitous nature of an Irish nationalist poet writing about an Anglo-Irish speaker who sacrifices himself on an impulse. He simultaneously alludes to the idea that national imaginings during wartime are so complex and overwhelming to consider, that the impulse is an escape from the brutality of such a reality.
1: Benedict Anderson, and American Council of Learned Societies. (2006). Imagined Communities : Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Rev. ed. [3rd]. ed., London, Verso, pp 1-35.
2: Edward Pickering. (2008). “The Artist's Tragic Flight: Yeats's Portrayal of Major Robert Gregory.” Journal of Modern Literature, 32(2), pp.80-99.
3: Kevin Riel (2015). “I do not love”: Rethinking W.B. Yeats’s “Elegies” of Major Robert Gregory." Journal of Modern Literature, vol. 38 no. 2, pp. 1-15. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/578690
4: Austin Riede. (2011) “W.B. Yeats's Economies of Sacrifice: War, Rebellion, and ‘Wasteful Virtue’” Irish Studies Review, vol. 19, no. 4, pp. 401–411