the other day i was watching countryfile (to me, one of the surest signs that i am nearing 30) and they were talking about w.b. yeats. it reminded me of his poem “an irish airman foresees his death”, which I like a lot.
however, i’d confused it with “high flight” by john gillespie magee (and only discovered this when I looked it up this morning) – easily done, i suppose, as they’re both quite gentle poems about irish airmen.
it was a fortunate mistake, as it reminded me of how much I like “an irish airman forsees his death” – the real one, not the one that my mind chose to remember! so instead of having one poem that I liked a lot, I discovered that there were actually two!
oh! i have slipped the surly bonds of earth
and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
sunward i’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, —and done a hundred things
you have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
high in the sunlit silence. hov’ring there,
i’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
my eager craft through footless halls of air….
up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
i’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
where never lark nor even eagle flew—
and, while with silent lifting mind i’ve trod
the high untrespassed sanctity of space,
put out my hand, and touched the face of god.
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
i used to teach war poetry at school and many of the best poems are extremely explicit, horrible and very sad. they are moving, but not the kind of thing i like to think about too often. the two irish airman poems are a lot more palatable and not as depressing, and every bit as beautiful as the darker war poems.
they are both, of course, also about the joy of flight, which i can definitely relate to.
its amazing how the magee poem captures that joy so well. when i read it i feel that is exactly what flying must be like!
structurally its superb. the poem itself seems to twirl and dart and soar like a plane in the sky. in the last four lines you can actually feel the plane fly slowly higher and higher – you can almost feel the strain as the phrases become longer and more cumbersome (in comparison to the flighty and darting phrases used before) – which builds you up just perfectly for the climax… so that when he touches the face of god, you feel what he feels.
i also love that one break in the rhythm with the phrase “put out my hand”. if you read it, it just breaks the flow, for a second – its such a wonderful little pause that sets up the next phrase and lends it much of its power. and that iambic pentameter with the last phrase… oh!
with yeats’ poem, i like how it is subtler than other war poems in the way it addresses war. it does touch on darkness, but much more gently – it is there for you to see, if you want to see it.
i also really like the structure of this one, it seems to bounce back upon itself from line to line. i especially like what he does with the last four lines… its almost like a spinning top, slowing down for me, the way he repeats “all” in the 4th last line and “waste of breath in the 3rd and 2nd last lines. “years to come” and “years behind” and then “life and “death” in the last line echo each other. theres a beautiful balance to those last four lines, which reinforces the last line and gives it a srong, yet subtle impact.