Kevin Saving on
'An Irish Airman Forsees His Death'
by W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)
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 men, 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.
The Irish airman in question, for whom Yeats ventriloquises so brilliantly, was Major Robert Gregory (1881-1918), only son of the poet's confidant and patron, Lady Augusta Gregory. As in any act of ventriloquism, the words are not necessarily an accurate reflection of their subject's real feelings. Gregory and Yeats were not especially close: the former could become exasperated by the way 'Willie' Yeats used his mother's house at Coole, near Sligo - drinking only the best wine, sleeping only in the best quarters, cosseted and pampered by all. Yeats in turn felt that the younger man failed to make the most of his talents and would only work if forced to for want of money. Politically, too, there were differences: Gregory was 'Imperialistic' - the poet, a self-proclaimed Irish patriot who would later serve as a senator in the newly independent Irish Free State.
William Robert Gregory was a substantial personality in his own right. Educated at Harrow, New college, Oxford and the Slade School of Art, he excelled at boxing, horse-riding and cricket. Having collaborated with Yeats in designing the sets of early Abbey Theatre productions, he'd exhibited in Chelsea just prior to the Great War. At the outbreak of hostilities he enlisted in the 4th Connaught Rangers before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps, gaining his 'wings', being awarded the Military Cross (and Chevalier de Legion d'Honneur) and leading his squadron in France and Italy. On January 23rd, 1918, he was shot down and killed, seemingly by an allied (Italian) pilot.
In a postscript to a letter dated 2nd February, Lady Gregory wrote to Yeats 'if you feel like it some time - write something down that we may keep - you understand him better than many'. Soon after she added an appeal from Robert's wife, Margaret, with whom Yeats had a sometimes difficult relationship, to the effect that 'if you could send even a paragraph - just something of what I know you are feeling - to the Observer - or failing that the Nation - she would feel it a comfort'. The Observer duly printed Yeats's 'Note of Appreciation' on 17th February; an encomium for a figure represented as something of a 'renaissance man'.
Yeats was to elaborate on this theme in four separate poems in the months to come ('An Irish Airman Forsees His Death', written that year, was the third of these). Later, in a poem entitled 'Reprisals', he would antagonise Augusta by envisaging her son - Yeats was enormously 'into' spiritualism - as an avenging ghost returning to Ireland to take issue with the 'Black and Tans'. The poem was not published until after her death as she found it to be less than 'sincere'.
Something of a hybrid 'Anglo-Irishman', Yeats wrote just the one war poem, reproduced here. Though he'd witnessed (at a distance) a Zeppelin raid over London in 1915, the Great War left him cold as did its poetry, towards which he felt 'distaste'. When editing The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) he deliberately under-represented the war poets as a group, and ignored Wilfred Owen entirely. The 'Easter Uprising' of 1916 and his newly wedded wife Georgie's 'automatic writing', were the things that were really exercising him at this time. Nevertheless, his threnody to Robert Gregory is a remarkably crafted and controlled piece of work: the manuscript in Yeats' own untidy hand reveals just one major revision, 'angry crowds' becoming 'cheering crowds'. The would-be patrician in him could hardly apreciate the difference anyway. 'Kiltartan' lies close to the Gregory's country seat at Coole Park (which was to inspire the title of the collection in which the poem would be published in 1919, The Wild Swans at Coole.
William Butler Yeats was to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, at the receipt of which news he is said to have enquired, 'How much?' He died in France in 1939 at the age of 73, eight months before the outbreak of another world war.
Coote, S. (1997) W.B. Yeats, A Life, Hodder and Stoughton.
Wade, A. (1954) The Letters of W.B. Yeats, Rupert Hart-Davis.
Yeats, W. (ed) (1936) The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935, Clarendon.
Yeats, W. (1994) W.B. Yeats - The Poems (ed. Albright, D.), J.M.Dent.
Kevin Saving © 2008