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William Butler Yeats: „An Irish Airman Foresees His Death“

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 poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (1918/1919) written by William Butler Yeats is about the lethargy which was felt by a lot of people during the First World War (1914-1918) and about the not-caring whether you die or not. The author W.B. Yeats dedicated this poem for the Irish pilot Major Robert Gregory who was mistakenly killed by an Italian pilot.

The poem is composed of four ABAB rhyming quatrains which give it a crisp and balanced appearance. An Irish Airman Foresees His Death is written as a reflective narrative from the perspective of an Irish pilot in World War I. The poem begins as the speaker describes himself. He begins by saying that he knows that he will die in battle. He follows this by establishing he has no “side” in the war he is fighting. Instead of explaining this, he goes on to describe the men from his home county, Kiltartan Cross, a barony in Ireland. Next, he explains that he is fighting because of boredom and a lack of feelings of self-worth. In step with this boredom, the poem is rather devoid of action and plot. While this may seem out of place, as it takes place during a time of war, this blandness serves the poem well because it is a reflection of the bland existence that the airman has lead prior to enlisting. The fact that the speaker expresses himself with such little emotion is remarkable because the poem begins with the speaker condemning himself to death. While most people would be a little worried by the prospect of dying, the speaker is at ease, expressing neither regret nor sadness nor even any excitement.

The protagonist is a man from Kiltartan Cross in Ireland who identifies himself with the poor. About Kiltartan’s poor he says, “No likely end could bring them loss, Or leave them happier than before.” (ll.7f.)The men of Kiltartan Cross have no interest in war. From this we can determine that the speaker is not fighting for his countrymen. Nor, he says, is he influenced by law, duty, politicians or patriotic crowds. Instead, he says he weighed the value of his life and was dissatisfied, calling it a “waste of breath;”(l.14) upon weighing the future, if he stays on the same path, he determines it to also be a waste. Thus, his motivation for fighting is a “lonely impulse of delight.”(l.11) While this impulse may be brought on by many things, they all fly under the same banner –the desire to do something different.

The airman makes clear that he is fighting only for himself; he casts out the notion of being ‘duty bound’ and in the poem he says, “Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love.”(ll.2f.) With these lines Yeats may wants to express that the airman simply has no allegiance to his comrades and is flying only to quench his “impulse of delight.”(l.11) In this way, the airman may be seeking the thrill of flight and combat to offset his previously bland life. An additional explanation is that fighting in The First World War was considered an ´upgrade` to a resume.

As we know the pilot is Irish, at the time of World War I. it is likely that, like most Irishmen, the protagonist was resentful of Ireland being mistreated by the English. Throughout history England and Ireland have not been on particularly friendly terms. The Irish and the English were allied in WWI and this would explain the pilot not loving the people he guarded. Because of their hatred of the English, the Irish were quick to side with anyone opposed to England. As the saying goes, ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’ This potential dislike of his allies might explain why the airman doesn’t love the peoples he has to protect.

I think the difficulties of identifying the airman and of identifying with the airman are intentional. I think the ultimate understanding of who the pilot is is that he could be anyone. Yeats intentionally gives him a blurred history and an empty future. These blank spaces are left to be filled by the audience to allow each person to give the pilot his individuality. Any of a number of other caricatures of the airman is equally likely but Yeats’ brilliance is that his airman is at once generic and lacking character and yet has the differentiation of being in the airborne military. I think this specialization is key because it is a literal representation of a bland, generic character reaching for something higher. The airman had a “lonely impulse of delight”(l.11) and chose to ‘do something different.’

The infantry and tanks that trickle across the ground in their defined paths with defined objectives represent the previous experience of the airman, tethered to the ground, existing without personal inclination or drive. Now, as an airman, he is free. There are no roads of other men for him to follow in the sky. He controls where he goes, and whom or what he pursues. However, there is a deeper connection to the airman’s motivations here than immediately meets the eye.

The poem’s intended audience is no clearer than the identity of the speaker. The poem appears to be a window into the airman’s life, told through self-reflection. The airman describes himself, his motivations or lack thereof, and explains why he decided to become a pilot in the military. From this we can draw that he is speaking to someone who does not know him very well. I believe the poem is simply the airman reflecting on his life and he is speaking to anyone who will listen. The poem would not seem out of place if it were found on a desk in the airman’s room in his barracks while he was fighting in the sky, as if he left it there knowing it would be found and read at his funeral.

More clear than the airman’s physical location, the clouds in which he is flying, is his place in time. The reader gets the impression that the airman will soon be shot or killed while he is in his plane. The poem is a review of his life; the airman is reviewing his life now because he does not expect to have time to review it later and he doesn’t expect there to be much else to review. The poem is very short, only 16 lines, and it culminates in only about 3 lines with solid relevance to the present. I think this abrupt end is representative of the anticipated short end to the airman’s life.

Looking back on the analysis, you can say that “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is a typical poem of the war-poetry, because all in all it´s very sad and the Irish Airman knows that he will die soon. Also you can see that there was some sort of war-lethargy in the people heads. They didn´t care whether they´re alive or dead and all of the soldiers knew that they could die in battle and won´t return home to their families.

Lennart Bruchhaus, Humboldtgymnasium Solingen

A Square Dance

The almost song-like poem “A Square Dance” by Roger McGough deals with the troubles of war in an unusual way which is, as strange and out of place it might seem, even more deep and touching than one would think at first. It starts with the title. Naming a poem after a traditional American dance when it features the dangers and perversities of war seems most inappropriate but in fact it mirrors the way people saw the First World War before it started to take years. People were excited to fight, devoted to help wherever help was needed to ensure victory and most keen to be triumphant in the end, in fact, people were so excited that they were willing to oversee war’s true nature, its dark side, death. Suddenly war became something like a game, a competition, a dance in which it was mandatory to be the best if one wanted to exceed the other dancers. Dancing does not work this way, there is no winner, there is no loser – you either perform together as a team to truly create a great show or you start pushing around to get the best place on stage risking that the show will be disastrous for all of the dancers.

“In Flanders’ fields in northern France
They’re all doing a brand new dance.
It makes you happy and out of breath
And it’s called the Dance of Death”

The first thing that comes to mind when reading “In Flanders’ fields in northern France” is the western front during the First World War. Back then war was expected to move quickly, the German soldiers assumed to be home victoriously in just a few days -but things did not go the way they were expected to. Thousand soldiers, from both sides, lost their lives fighting at the western front, some of them because they wanted to but after a while mostly because they had to. Sitting in trenches for such a long time, fighting while facing the battle of death every minute of the day not only for the noble purpose of protecting your country but simply to live on to see the sun rise one more time with the vague hope of maybe someday being able to return to your loved ones, that is what the western front stands for.

The pressure was so high that the soldiers turned into raw clumps of cold meat, shaped like humans, moving like humans, but without souls, because war took them from them during one of the many fights and they probably did not even notice. A soul is quite a useless thing to have in war – it does not help you survive, it does not bring you back home- it just keeps you from being a machine made out of steel, a machine which may not be immortal but at least merciless, which is of more use at war. All this seems to be placed in these few words which only give the location in which the “Square Dance” is danced.

The “Square Dance” is referred to as a “brand new dance” which could be seen as a further link to the First World War, since it the First World War is often referred to as a modern war. If war is represented by the metaphor “dance” a “brand new dance” is most likely to represent a modern war. Dancing has always caused people to be enthusiastic and excited, especially when a new dance came into fashion. It caused people to forget all their problems and difficulties, everything became less important when moving to the music, on and on, the whole night until the next morning peeked through the darkness of the night, cold, bright and unstoppable. And with the daylight the troubles came back, one became conscious again of what one tried to forget and the intoxicating effect of dancing started to decrease- reality was back, harder than ever before, and just like that the world started to crumble.

“It makes you happy and out of breath” covers exactly this part of the action of dancing. While you are dancing the world does not matter, it is almost like you are in a different universe, separated from the reality by hundreds of light years. Why should you care to bother about all those absolutely irrelevant issues?

The only thing that counts is now- and right now you are happy, out of breath and desperate for some more hours on the dance floor. War is just the same- why should you bother about moralities or think about right or wrong when the only thing that really matters is your survival and your survival does not depend on the future or the past- it depends on right this moment so there is nothing left to think about, nothing left to worry. What makes you happy about war anyway? It is not war, it is simply the fact that you made it one more day, that you have escaped the claws of death once again just the face them another time the very next day. And of course- winning a battle makes you happy since this is what you have been fighting for for so long – but when the moment of excitement passes and the pain returns slowly but steadily one realizes that there is no human winner and it is questionable if there is ever going to be one.

War is not about winning, or about bringing justice in the world, as people in power often claim, it is about killing and killing is wrong no matter why. However, it would be wrong to judge a soldier by his actions on the battle field. It is not his fault. How pitiful must it be to be robbed of your own free will, forced to fight in a war created by people who comfortably sit in their office chairs discussing the next move as though the soldiers were machines and not human beings, replaceable.

“And it’s called the Dance of Death”- Death-there it is, finally, the one thing that seems to actually win a war. Death does not care why you fight, for which noble purposes you are willing to die or on which side you stand. Death does not give a damn. One can almost picture a dark shadow, hooded in black, sitting over all the battle fields, truly excited to see humankind dancing the “Dance of Death”. Oh, what a party that must have been, what a pleasure to observe. And without moving a single finger, millions of people, regardless of nationality, skin color or religion, turned to his side, joined him and his fellows for all eternity. There is no way to escape, no way out, no matter which way you turn on a battle field death will be there to catch up with you so that you will have to join him sooner or later anyway.

“Everybody stands in line
Everybody’s feeling fine
We’re all going to a hop
1-2-3- and over the top”

The poem has a song-like appearance, and it feels like it is intended to be sung out loud. Especially this part contains elements which could also be found in a song, maybe even a song for children. Easy language, easy rhyme - nothing that makes it hard to sing. However, there is a lot more than that to be found in these few verses.

“Everybody stands in line” – sounds like a children’s game at first but seen in the context of war it has a much darker ring to it. Not only kids stand in line when playing, soldiers do so, too. They stand in line, they wait in line, they fight in line and in the end their bodies lie in line, one right next to the other, covered with dirt and a shaky cross on top, maybe with a name on it but mostly without.

“Everybody’s feeling fine”- of course they do. As if anyone would be brave or stupid enough to answer a question of this kind truthfully and the few honest answers do not matter. One soldier does not count, two soldiers do not count, and one hundred soldiers do not count, because it is the big picture that matters. The big picture, which can only be enjoyed when one does not look closely, when one is willing to ignore the blood splatters on it, glowing red but turning brown in no time and brown is easy to overlook.

“We’re all going to a hop; 1-2-3- and over the top”- once again the playful character of this song-like poem surprises and once again the topic of death is hidden in something apparently innocent. “And over the top” means nothing different than death, however covered up with a playful “1-2-3”, hoping that nobody would notice but just see the innocent face of death. That is probably also the way, the governments wanted the soldiers to see death- innocent, far away, not to be feared, because what is more impractical at a battle than a bunch of soldiers unwilling to fight? War was given a mask- a smiling one, covering up the grimace of horror and pain.

“It’s the dance designed to thrill
It’s the mustard gas quadrille
A dance for men - girls have no say in it
For your partner it’s a banquet”

“It’s the dance designed to thrill”- not just “a” dance, it is “the” dance designed to thrill, so one is left in no position to argue that there might be a more thrilling dance than the “Dance of Death”. However, the choice of words is once again unusual. “Thrill” has such positive connotations that one can hardly imagine it being used in a poem about war or more precisely describing war directly, since the “dance” means nothing more than war. The mask of war becomes apparent again, the smiling one that has been covering up the ugly underneath. Instead of saying it is a dance designed to “kill” one simply exchanged three little letters to make it sound good. It is impossible to deny that there have been thrilling moments in which joy, excitement and pleasure took over but is that the true face of war? Reading this line creates the question whether war was “invented” for reasons of entertainment, “designed to thrill” makes it sound like a good movie or an amazing and breath- taking play but not like something killing millions and millions. Slowly one stumbles across the perversity and irony of such a comparison. It is probably not left to the soldiers to feel thrilled but to the ones, who have created the mess, sitting in their office chairs staring at maps as if they were chessboards with an interesting combination of chess pieces on it. The brutality of war remains hidden for such people, hidden by a mask they created themselves.

“It’s the mustard gas quadrille”- instead of music being a key aspect to this dance, there is mustard gas to do so and just like music fills the dance floors mustard gas filled the battle fields, designed not for instant killing but to bring a slow and painful death by the damage created by single breath. No wonder mustard gas became the dance master, no wonder it was left to decide which way to dance or more precisely which way to run, run to survive, run to hide from an invisible enemy with no mercy at all. The use of mustard gas is one of the reasons why the First World War is considered to be the first modern war, capable of killing in dimensions one never dared to dream of in the most horrible nightmares before. Suddenly the world was facing weapons of a totally new kind, designed to kill efficiently, with powers beyond everything ever created before. No wonder these weapons played their role in the “dance of death”- that was just what they were supposed to do, but they caused the dance to go faster and faster, uncontrollably fast, so fast that even the best dancer had to try hard not to stumble and fall.

“A dance for men- girls have no say in it”- this line is mainly focused on the front line. Women did not fight in the front line but they did fight. It would be wrong to ignore the suffering of the women. They might not have been exposed to gun fire, mustard gas or other artillery, but war left its mark on them as well. Having to feed the hungry, take care of the wounded and work just like a man would do there was not much time to complain, but imagine the feeling of having to remain home, acting like everything is still the same as it has always been while your father, your brother, your husband, your son or maybe even all of them are in constant danger, unlikely to ever return home and you cannot do more than hope for a letter once in a while, knowing that he might long be dead when it arrives and the constant hope of not having to read his name in the long list of recent deaths. Live must go on, it must, but it will never be the same, not now, not when your loved ones return, their heads filled with pictures of unspeakable things and stories too horrible and sad to ever be told. A soldier might survive war but that does not make him a living man. His heart might still pump blood; his lungs might still be taking in air but deep inside there is too much death to be considered alive. The body lives on but the person is gone, gone just like the others, who left their lives for what they believed to be their homeland, but how can you call something home when it did not take care of you when you needed it most? What is your homeland worth, when it expects you to protect it but fails to do the same with you?

“For your partner it’s a banquet”- oh, the irony of these words, how dark the humor behind this line. The entire stanza brings the impression across that war is one giant party, enjoyed by every single one invited, however it is meant as a critical description disguised in irony. It is thrilling, you dance, even though there are no girls to dance with but never mind that, and now there is also a banquet. After naming all these positive things how can one seriously believe that war is going to harm anyone? It is incredibly fun, pure enjoyment and very fancy, since having a banquet indicates more than just a regular party to celebrate regular occasion, no, it is of great importance but nevertheless to be enjoyed. And just like that the troubles have been pushed aside, the deaths are being ignored, the worries are to be forgotten – the only problem is that they are still there, they exist and fancying it up does not make them go away. This line also demolishes the role of a soldier to something as low as someone attending a fancy party. The fact that a soldier has to risk his live over and over again and stands up to live threatening dangers is not mentioned at all but rather ignored and hushed up to keep the picture as clean as possible but his most unfair to the soldiers, who now see the dangers they face described as a delightful party.

“See how the dancers sway ‘n run
To the rhythm of the gun.
Swing your partner dos-y-doed
All around the shells explode.”

“Say how the dancers sway ‘n run” – even in this deeply ironic poem the mask of war one has tried to keep up starts to slip away, even in this poem there is no way no hide the bitter taste of war completely, all the sugar has been used up so the bitterness starts to peek through. The soldiers are no longer able to keep up “dancing” and one can no longer hide that. They are tired, unable to walk straight but the dance must go on, the dancers have to keep dancing, no matter what is going to happen, no matter how badly it hurts.

“To the rhythm of the gun” - after months and months sitting in trenches, waiting for the war to end, it seems just legit that the sound of guns can be mistaken for the rhythm of drums, giving the speed of the “Dance of Death”. Oh, it must truly be the dance of death when mustard gas takes part in it and guns set the speed. Both of them are not known to be very gentle partners to dance with and still, the dangers are not taken seriously, since they are still described in the scheme of the dancing metaphor, making war appear harmless in an ironic way and never without a certain bitterness to it.

“Swing your partner dos-y-doed”- like little girls swing their dolls when playing with them, the doll’s legs swirling around, lifeless and overly flexible like rubber – dead, but the girl keeps twirling, round and round and so do the soldiers. They keep going, they keep up fighting but deep inside they are just like dolls, lifeless, however still alive, spineless but not due to a lack of courage but to the talent of observation. It has something creepy to it, like a mother clutching her child to her heart, rocking it on and on even though it has stopped breathing hours ago and its body slowly turned cold but she will not let go of it because she is still hoping to hear it scream once again, feel its hand pulling at her skirt one more time but her child is dead and so is the soldier, dead, cold and gone forever. How childish this is brought across makes it even more touching in the end.

“All around the shells explode” - just like the rhythm of the gun sets the speed, the shells can almost be seen as applause, handclapping, cheering up the soldiers but deadly at the same time like the moment between death and live in which one suddenly realizes how great it is to be alive and the killing thought of having to leave this world without ever being able to experience all the things one missed out.

“Honour your partner, from a square
Smell the burning in the air.
O’er barbed wire, kicking high
Men like shirts hung out to dry.”

“Honour your Partner, from a square”- Assuming that the partner represents a college, honoring him must be most important. Since a soldier has nothing but enemies on the one side, desperate to see him dead, having a good friend right by his side is worth a fortune. It has a comforting effect to know that he understands you, that he will not ask all those questions about what it is like on the battle field forcing you to remember and that he does not want you to smile even though you do not feel like smiling. Having a friend in war- and no matter what is going to happen will not be all that bad as without a friend but friendships are not forever, especially not on a battle field. Having a friend but seeing him die without being able to do anything against it- that must be worse than everything else.

“Smell the burning in the air”- you can see the destruction, you can feel the thrill and now you can even smell the perfume of war, the smell of burning. It is a very engaging description, appealing to the senses, making war come alive for the reader. But the dark side is not left out, the smell of war is not the smell of roses but the smell of burning, constantly reminding the reader of what there is really going on behind all these lies covering up the ugly truth.

“O’er barbed wire, kicking high/ Men like shirts hung out to dry” –as if the barbed wire were a clothesline on washing day with soldiers dangling all along, washed out, motionless, dead, like khaki shirts on a grey morning. However, there are spots that will not come of no matter how many times you wash it, no matter how many times you try to brush it out. Some spots are forever and so is the spot war marks you with. By using the comparison of shirts and soldiers one becomes also aware of how replaceable one soldier is. If a shirt is no longer clean enough to be worn out to work one simply buys a new one, same color, same cut, same price and nobody will ever know the difference. But what about replacing people like one replaces shirts? As humans we always assume that we are one of a kind, that we have an identity that makes us unique, something that makes us stand out from the mass but do we really? How can we seriously assume that we are not the same as the rest of the world when one can be replaced like a shirt on a clothesline? Identity is a rather useless thing to have in war, nobody bothers anyway. Everybody is dressed the same, everyone has to greet the same way, walk the same way, march the same way – so why not be the same? It will not make a difference.

“If you fall there’s no disgrace
Someone else will take your place
(‘Old soldiers never die……………
……………………only young ones. ‘)”

“If you fall there’s no disgrace/Someone else will take your place” – no, there will not be any disgrace, because hardly anyone will notice. Some of your closer fellows might notice that you did not return, someone might have seen you die but that is about it- there is no time for sorrow, there is no time for grief and in just a few days there will be someone else to replace you, someone else to take your position, someone else to die just the same way you did just to be replaced once again just as easily as you have been replaced.

(‘Old soldier never die………/…………..only young ones.’)- The young ones die, the ones with their hearts filled with ideal versions of the world, dreams of such greatness and hopes as high as the sky but no experience to save them while old soldiers have plenty. They know that the world is not pink, not pretty and not lovely at all. The world is brutal and if you do not watch out it is going to break your neck. Ideals do not change the world, wars do but not in a positive way. Someone who has been through all of this once before is not naïve enough to believe in a world that simply does not exist. People always praise optimism but pessimism is much more useful at certain times. If you believe that the worst will happen, everything else but the worst will be a positive turn out, and one sure needs a positive turn out when being at war.

“In Flanders’ fields where mortars blaze
They’re all doing the latest craze
Khaki dancers out of breath
Doing the glorious Dance of Death
Doing the glorious (clap, clap) Dance of Death.”

“In Flanders’ fields where mortars blaze/They’re all doing the latest craze/Khaki dancers out of breath” – these lines have a strong similarity to the first ones of this poem so it ends just the way it started. Once again war is referred to as some sort of entertainment but this time it has much more bitterness to it after reading the middle section. Even though it has been wrapped up nicely for large parts one was still not able to oversee it, no matter how hard one tried. By fancying it up the perversity of war became more apparent than without, like lemonade tasting like cod-liver oil. So after tasting cod-liver-oil -like lemonade for all the poem one can differ between the different shades of bitterness in the end and this shade is the most bitter of all. During the poem one almost had the feeling that the mask started to slip, that the author actually invited one to look behind the scenes but then, right now in this last stanza he slams the door shut again and leaves the reader, who expected a climax, standing at the same place as at the beginning of the poem but slightly more confused.

“Doing the glorious Dance of Death/Doing the glorious (clap, clap) Dance of Death” – and the circle is completed, the connection to the beginning has been completed and just the way a circle goes on and on without an end war does, too and to point that out even more clearly this one stanza does not count for lines, like all the other before did, but five, allowing a repetition of what seems to be the key aspect: “The glorious Dance of Death”, to which we now must clap like one claps to a folk dance, a folk dance just like the square dance is one.

Meggan Becker, Humboldtgymnasium Solingen

Quellenangaben
- "An Irish Airman foresees his Death" by W.B. Yeats, verfügbar über Wikipedia
- "A Square Dance" by Roger McGough, verfügbar über Yahoo  unter: http://www.cwgc.org/education/see_pop