Balance and Tumult in “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death”
Balance is a fundamental aspect of life, but it can become stifling when taken to an extreme. Yeats explores this idea in his poem “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” through form, language, and figurative elements. Yeats intensifies the concept of balance as suffocating by presenting tumult, a state opposite of balance, as thrilling and worthwhile. Balance and tumult are at odds in his poem, and they create a dichotomy with the ideas of waste and worth, both crucial elements to the poem itself and to the speaker’s life. The mantra of balance stagnates the speaker and is thought to be a waste, while the excitement of tumult provides an opportunity for worth to break through the clouds of monotony.
Balance can be found throughout Yeats’s form, rhyme scheme, and language, and these elements combine to create a sense of dreariness that the reader can connect to Yeats’s references to waste. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is composed of sixteen lines that can be divided into four quatrains according to their alternating rhyme scheme and content. His meter is in iambic tetrameter, further dividing each line into four iambs in the rhythm of the heart. In this way, Yeats’s poem is perfectly symmetrical and fits within his theme of balance. Additionally, the conceit of flying “Somewhere among the clouds above” creates a feeling of balance because harmony is crucial if a plane is to remain in flight (Yeats 2). The reader’s knowledge that the speaker is an airman makes this necessity even more relevant because balance must be maintained for the speaker to stay alive. The careful calculations and rhythm of the poem reflect a soothingly tired tone to connect to the following claims of waste.
Yeats relates overwhelming balance to waste when the speaker states that “The years to come seemed waste of breath, / A waste of breath the years behind” (15-16). The reader can conclude that the speaker is a man as cautious and measured as his balanced words, implying that such a life of strict balance is the waste to which he refers. Living a life that is neither here nor there but in a limbo of unfeeling cloud is judged to be a waste. His previous statements that he does not “hate” his enemies or “love” his allies, nor will this fight bring his countrymen “loss” or “happi[ness]” reinforce the idea of balance as stagnation (Yeats 3-8). The speaker is neither hot nor cold but remains unmoved. It would seem that balance has brought torpor to the speaker’s life with no room for change or enjoyment.
Alternatively, tumult is barely explicit in Yeats’s poem, but its brief reference relates to a feeling of excitement and worth in the reader that is at odds with the almost deadening balance contained within the rest of the poem. When the speaker explains that “A lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds,” his word choice creates a sense of newly discovered wonder (Yeats 11-12). Instead of remaining in stasis, the speaker is struck by delight, no longer numb to the world around him but intensely called to action. The speaker explains that neither “law nor duty bade me fight, / Nor public men not cheering crowds,” showing that he remained unmoved by his leaders and people and strengthening the idea of a worthless life not lived to benefit others or for a higher cause (Yeats 9-10). However, delight is what moves the airman to fly, not out of selfish reasons but because delight is the only feeling that is able to break through his life of stagnant balance.
Because the speaker “balanced all” after his delight, the impulse that drove the speaker into the air can be inferred to be not a flight of fancy, but a strong pull that was considered and judged to be worthy of action (Yeats 13). In this way, the tumult that results is not caused by a careless decision but by a breakthrough of passion in a life the speaker judged to be worthless. The speaker’s choice to pursue “tumult in the clouds” was not a decision made by chaos, but one made to “balance with this life, this death” (Yeats 12 & 16). The speaker’s life was a grey fog of stagnation, but the he was momentarily touched by passion, a feeling found to balance his worthless life of passivity with a worthwhile death of delight.
The speaker in Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” undergoes a transformation from worthless balance to worthwhile tumult, even as he realizes that this newfound worth will result in his death. The waste that was his life before flight is worthless to the airman, but he sees the prospect of escape into delight as worth any pain or tragedy that might result. The overpowering balance of the poem itself reflects the stifling balance present in the speaker’s life, interrupted only by that “lonely impulse of delight” that leads to such tumult (Yeats 11). Yeats uses balance to paint an image of methodical plodding while implementing tumult to offer a thrilling chance of escape.
Yeats, William B. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57311/an-irish-airman-foresees-his-death. Accessed 26 January 2019.