Poetry Minute: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (Yeats, 1919)

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
William Butler Yeats, published 1919

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.

Many people take this poem as an example of Yeats’s powerful gifts of imagination and imagery, and his ability to bring modern events into classical poetic forms. But there actually was a real Irish Airman on the poet’s mind: Robert Gregory served with the Royal Air Force Flying Corps and was killed on the Italian front in 1917. Like Yeats, Gregory came from the wealthy Anglo-Irish gentry; his mother was a friend of the poet. This is the one that is best remembered, but Yeats actually wrote several poems about Gregory’s loss; In Memory of Robert Gregory is, after An Irish Airman, the one that is most critically admired. It uses a number of literary devices but then comes back to Yeats’s assessment of Gregory, the man:

Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.

Gregory was a tragic figure. A 19-victory ace, at least according to Yeats, he had received the Military Cross and the French Legion d’Honneur, and was appointed to the command of 66 Squadron, RFC. Unbeknownst to Yeats, when he was shot down and killed on 23 January 1918, he fell not at the hands of a German or Austro-Hungarian enemy but either as a result of friendly fire from a mistaken Italian ally, or otherwise accidentally (the records are not clear).

Many fans of English poetry, especially Great War poetry, know An Irish Airman Forsees His Death. Break it down into quatrains and it’s easy to memorize, a great party trick — at least, with English Lit coeds. But relatively few of them can name the Irish Airman. Now you can.

Use your knowledge wisely.

9 thoughts on “Poetry Minute: An Irish Airman Foresees His Death (Yeats, 1919)

  1. Kerry

    “He was our Sidney, and our perfect man”,from In Memory of Maj. Robt. Gregory.
    ( I read Yeats in college.) W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ is also excellent.

  2. Simon

    If it was 1917, then it was still the Royal Flying Corps. I think the RAF was formed on April Fool’s Day 1918.

    1. Hognose Post author

      If I wrote RAF I was in error, as all the sources said RFC. I could not find a source for 19 kills for the guy, except for Yeats.

  3. Simon

    Robert Gregory served with the Royal Air Force and was killed on the Italian front in 1917.

    This is the sentence I meant. Sorry, still trying to get to grips with this new tablet.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Well, if it’s working for you two, brother, it’s all good. Me, I tend to avoid repeating the behaviors that got me hitched, because getting out from under various numbered Plaintiffs was always painful and costly. YMMV.

      1. Cap'n Mike

        Could be I just got lucky that my English Lit coed was the daughter of a Marine.
        She probably puts up with my shit because I remind her of her Dad.

  4. Haxo Angmark

    checked “official” ace totals @ wiki re Robert Gregory. Nothing from 9 thru 20+ kills. But a useful thread on him @

    http://www.theaerodrome.com/forum/showthread.php?t=11621

    esp. the remarks by Frank Olnyck, a usually reliable source:

    “(Gregory) was flying Camel B32475 on 23 Jan. 1918 when, on a test flight, he spun in from 2,000 feet near Monastiero….I have only 4 victories for him….he was (Albert) Ball’s observer in #13 Squadron for one indecisive combat on 31 March 1916. As a Captain he had 4 victories with #40 Squadron.”

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