Apathy
and W. B. Yeats’s An Irish Airman foresees His Death

 

Reflecting on attitudes towards death in war (1)

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.

W. B. Yeats’s poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ was written around the same time as Wilfred Owen’s Dulce et decorum est; written in 1918, Yeats withheld its publication until 1919. Unlike Owen, whose poem is presented as a passionate protest against the narrative that warfare can be patriotic and noble, and military deaths contain any glory, Yeats presents a balanced, essentially apathetic speaker. Perhaps it helps that he is writing using the persona of an airman: off the ground, he is not witness to the immediate horrors that drove Owen to angrily condemn narratives of noble military patriotic deaths in World War One. Yet there is a curious political paradox to Yeats’s poem: he is taking on the persona of an Irish soldier fighting for the UK during a time when many Irish people were trying to establish independence (a movement that had gained much popularity following the brutal English response to the Easter Uprising of 1916).

            Yeats’s poem is characterised by balance, suggesting a measured, distanced apathy from the idea of war and death, rather than any inclination to either glorify or condemn deaths in war. ‘An Irish airman foresees his death’ is a poem of 16 lines consisting of four four-line stanzas with an alternating rhyme scheme (a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-h-g-h). It abounds in chiasmus: ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.’ The reverse repetition, essential to the chiastic technique, gives a balanced, emotionless mood, affirming the pilot’s claim that he feels no loyalty or hatred for either his military targets or those he is supposed to protect.

            Yeats does not shy away from the pointlessness of the war effort for his speaker, or for his speaker’s (and his own) country: Kiltartan, a remote town in County Galway, was in no military danger during the war. As Yeats’s poetic voice notes, the outcome of the pilot’s battle will not leave his kinsmen better or worse off. There is a distant, disconnected pointlessness to the pilot’s death. What purpose does it have?

            None, really, the pilot concludes. He acknowledges that he cannot explain why he chose to fight for a country that is at odds with his own: only ‘A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds.’ Call this what you will, a death wish, a desire to feel something instead of nothing, but it is neither resentment nor passion. The pilot’s emphasis on balance suggests the utter meaninglessness of all things: of life that has been, of life that will be: ‘A waste of breath.’ This existential focus on the transience of all life recalls the Biblical refrain in Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2), and, ‘all is vanity and a striving after wind’ (Ecclesiastes 2:17, 26). For the pilot, the only thing that is not waste is balance: ‘this life, this death.’ The balancing caesura forces its readers to draw breath. It equates life with death, almost placing equal weight on ‘this’: this life, this death.

            In the face of dying, far from home, for a cause he does not believe in, Yeats’s pilot decides that there is no place in his death for goodness or purpose, no resentment or rage against futility. The only futility, he suggests, is from living, for our life is our death, and it is something that we can meet as we often live; with distance, with a touch of apathy.

 

Posted: 22nd July 2019

Categories: Reflections