Is war poetry ‘all the same’?


I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
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,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

A photograph of William Butler Yeats on 24 Jan...

A photograph of William Butler Yeats on 24 January 1908 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Almost a suicide note, An Irish Airman Foresees his Death perversely juxtaposes inevitable death with a lighthearted tone, engendered by its use of iambic tetrameter and alternate rhyme.

As an Irishman during a time of sectarian tensions within Ireland, we could assume that the persona is a nationalist, which may explain his lack of British patriotism: ‘nor duty bade me fight.’ Yet there is just as little Irish pride as there is British; the only sense of duty he betrays is that to his hometown of Kiltartan: ‘My country is Kiltartan’s cross.’ Therefore, to so rashly pigeonhole the persona may be misguided.

We are thus left with the question: if not for patriotic fulfillment, why has this man signed up to what he acknowledges will be his end? The answer: for ‘A lonely impulse of delight.’

Having just stomached an anthology brimming with jingoism and sickly English pride, such frivolous sentiment is somewhat refreshing. On the one hand, the persona’s twisted outlook is repulsive (whilst he aims to satiate a selfish desire for excitement, those below are willing to sacrifice their lives for what they believe to be the good of their nation), yet on the other, it is strangely compelling. The frankness with which he declares life as no more worthwhile than death- ‘In balance with this life, this death’- stamps a unique fingerprint, unburned by the glory of war, on Stallworthy’s anthology.

Also striking is Yeats’ avoidance of the persuasive tone perpetuated by most war poetry, whether in the aim of recruitment (Brookes, McCrae, Housman) or the exposure of its horrific truths (Sassoon, Owen, Rosenberg.)

An Irish Airman… implores us to construct a character for its narrator in ways unattainable by the impersonal tones of, for example, Sassoon’s The Rear-Guard, whose persona epitomises all 100% of soldiers who, at some point, actually quite detested the perilous squalor that had come to define their lives. For me, the Irishman is an introvert who has become disillusioned with life, having watched the object of his affections fall dazedly in love with a newly-enlisted soldier down the road; suddenly the world is mundane and shallow: ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind.’