An Irish Airman Foresees his Death by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Analysis

The poem is a short dramatic monologue, a crisp, concise and thrilling soliloquy of its hero, a volunteer Irish airman, Major Robert Gregory, who was killed in action on the Italian front on January 23, 1918. It is originally one of four poems written by William Butler Yeats to honor the death of Major Robert Gregory, son of Lady Augusta Gregory.

William B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Actually, he was accidentally shot down by an Italian pilot, not by an enemy airman. The poem is not an implicit lament for a personal friend, but the presentation of Robert Gregory, who speaks as a prototype fulfilling everything which Yeats most admired.

The speaker, an Irish airman (Robert Gregory) fighting in World War I, who is still confused with the reason for fighting. He possessed psychic second sight which gave him intuition of his death, states that he knows he will die fighting among the clouds. He clarifies the reason for fighting is not a political one, nor the patriotic feeling to England, nor the hatred for the Germans. It was rather ‘a lonely impulse of delight’. Though the reason is not clear to him, he is sure that he will face death during this war any time either by the enemy force or by mechanical error. This was an astonishing view for First World War times, when most young Englishmen thought it their duty to die for their country. Gregory's roots were specifically in his demesne at Kiltartan, where he realized the poor would not benefit, whether the war was lost or won. Here he realizes the fruitlessness of his participation in the war and at the same time he also foresees the futility of war. The life of his people remain unaffected by the result of the war. He further states that he weighed his life and found that his earlier life was a great waste and the upcoming future is also forecasted as a waste of time. As death is inevitable, he made his decision to join the aircraft army with cold, dispassionate bravery, knowing the consequences.

It is a magnificent, short poem, showing Yeats's development as a poet in verse absolutely suitable to his living in the Ireland of his day, rather than in any Celtic dream world. A strong statement is secured by the many rhetorical repetitions:

Those that I fight I do not hate,

Those that I guard I do not love;

My country is Kiltartan Cross,

My countrymen Kiltartan's poor, which mount until the climax of

A lonely impulse of delight

Drove to this tumult in the clouds;

The four-footed lines, nearly all end stopped with tight rhymes, give the poem an inevitable finality, like death itself; and as two-thirds of the words are monosyllabic, this proud simplicity makes it hang in the memory. The poem is equally divided into two eight-line sentences with four iambic tetrameter stanzas. Yeats writes in the first person persona of the airman while he is going to fight in the sky.

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Sharma, K.N. "An Irish Airman Foresees his Death by William Butler Yeats: Summary and Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 28 June 2017,