William Butler Yeats is one of my favorite Twentieth Century poets, and one of my favorites among his poems is “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Although deeply shrouded in skepticism, the poem speaks to all people who find themselves somewhere between a rock and a hard place:
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.
No 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.
Kiltartan is a barony in Ireland’s County Galway, home to Augusta, Lady Gregory. Also, it was the occasional residence of the poet himself.
I am particularly drawn to the final quatrain, in which the airman makes an existential decision to fly for the RAF despite his lack of loyalty to the British cause and uncertainty that his people would be worse off if the Kaiser won. He appears to have been a young wastrel who hazards his life in an uncertain cause, joying only in the delight of flying into battle.