|September 1913 by W.B. Yeats
Bitter and angry at the materialistic Irish merchant class, with an accusing tone: “You … fumble in a greasy till …You have dried the marrow from the bone”. Sometimes he switches from such direct attack to a more ironic tone – “”For men were born to pray and save”. Irony also in the fact that they gave their lives to make a better Ireland, but all we have is a materialistic one: “Was it for this … ?” There’s a tone of admiration when he tells of the old heroes (“The names that stilled your childish play”) but this is clouded by depression – their sacrifice was not appreciated – materialistic people would regard them as crazy (“delirium”) or influenced by women – either showing off, or reacting to being rejected/jilted (“Some woman’s yellow hair/Has maddened every mother’s son”). The faint hope that is raised at the start of the last verse (“could we turn the years again,/And call those exiles”) is crushed again – “Let them be they’re dead and gone”. “Grave” is a suitably downbeat way to finish the poem.
There is a conflict of values in the poem – the materialistic values of modern Ireland set against the values of the old heroes – idealism, generosity and self-sacrifice (“save” v. “gave”). The theme of escape: suggested at the start of the last verse – the idea of going back in time or calling up the old heroes into our time – but because their actions/motives would be misinterpreted/misunderstood (“You’d cry: ‘Some woman’s yellow hair/Has maddened every mother’s son’”). He will leave them be.
Religion is a minor theme – he is critical of the miserable faith of the materialistic people – “prayer to shivering prayer” – their variety of prayer is associated with coldness. They add up prayers as they add up money. Yeats mimics their attitude – “men were born to pray and save”. By contrast the old heroes had no time to stop and pray like this as they were on the run.
He uses certain words as a form of attack against the materialistic Irish – “fumble”, “greasy”, “shivering”, “dried”, “bone”. The repetition of “dead”, “gone”, and the use of “grave” emphasises the depressing state of the country as Yeats sees it. Phrases like “God help us” and “Let them be” show how fed up the poet is. The depression comes through even in the language he uses when referring to the heroes he admires – “hangman’s rope”, “grey wing”, “blood”, “delirium”, “exiles”, “loneliness”, “pain”.
A: This poem is even more distinctly Irish than The Wild Swans at Coole – there are many references to Irish political figures, like Tone, Emmet and O’Leary, and I’s set at a very particular time in Irish history. With The Wild Swans at Coole it’s more of a case of a particular place. On the level of imagery there’s another reference to birds – this time it’s not swans, but the “wild geese” – an image for those fighters who went abroad into exile after Irish rebellions. This is a very political poem, unlike The Wild Swans at Coole, but there is a political element to An Irish Airman Foresees His Death – the First World War is part of the background, though for the most part the narrator distances himself from political concerns – “Nor law, nor duty, made me fight”. There is the usual contrast between the real and the ideal – this time his ideal is “Romantic Ireland”, a place of generosity of spirit, but the reality is an Ireland where money rules – similarly in Sailing to Byzantium he rejects the Ireland of the time, this time because the young are more interested in having a good time (the real) than in paying attention to artistic and intellectual pursuits (the ideal). In The Wild Swans at Coole the immortal companionship of the swans was the ideal, while his own aging loneliness was the unpleasant reality. In An Irish Airman Foresees His Death the reality was people getting too caught up in causes and politics (unlike S13), the ideal is a sense of balance.
B: Here again there are political themes as in Politics and The Stare’s Nest. In this poem he praises the old heroes, whereas in SN he worries that glorification of a romantic view of Ireland has fed dangerous fantasies. He is very politically and socially concerned here, but in Politics he is distracted from such concerns by romance. In SN he also seems to want to distance himself from politics – wary of the violence this time more than the materialism. There is the usual contrast between the real and the ideal – this time his ideal is “Romantic Ireland”, a place of generosity of spirit, but the reality is an Ireland where money rules.