Aeropittura was an art style based around airplanes and aerial combat that came about in the first half of the 20th century as part of the Italian Futurism Movement. Aeropittura paintings such as Tullio Crali’s Before the Parachute Opens prize machinery, youth, and heroism. Their defining characteristics are a sense of speed and a propagandic view of war. Their focus on aerial combat emphasizes the machine and the pilot while using the action on the ground only as a backdrop, often dehumanizing it. The style, like most of the art and poetry in futurism, appealed to the senses of young men eager for the adventure that they believed war would breed. These paintings were mainly produced between 1927 and 1939, though aviation imagery was used widely in futurist paintings as early as 1909 (Paluch-Mishur iii). W.B. Yeats 1919 poem An Irish Airman Foresees His Death provides a contrast to the Italian futurists’ depictions of flight. Rather than paint the airman as a hero, it describes him as a man without purpose who chose to go to war on a whim. The poem never once mentions the airman’s plane, disregarding any idealization of technology. It focuses on the individual man, like futurism, but is informed by the state of Ireland after WWI and Nietzschean philosophy rather than by the heroism and propaganda of the futurists.
Yeats was fundamentally opposed to the Italian futurists’ ideas about the beauty of airplanes. He told his wife “ ‘I have firmly resisted all suggested eloquence about aero planes and the ‘blue Italian sky’” (Foster 135). This quote explains why Yeats does not talk about the airplane that the airman flew, proving that it was a purposeful decision to avoid having any connection to the Italian artists. By removing any description of the plane, he focuses the poem on the airman himself, making the poem entirely about the man narrating it and not about either the plane or even the conflict. It also shifts the aesthetic away from the technological, which fits with Yeats’ style which typically romanticizes pastoral settings rather than urban or modern environments. Stylistically, the poem is the opposite of futurism. It slows the action down, focusing on a single moment in the airman’s thoughts. It is a simple, straightforward read compared to the jarring sense of movement and speed that the futurists strived for in both their paintings and poems.
“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” like much of Yeats’s work, is distinctly Irish. It represents Yeats attitudes about war that were directly opposed to the viewpoints of the modernists in Italy. Yeats views–particularly about WWI–became common in Ireland after it gained its independence in 1922. In the poem, the narrator says, “My Country is Kiltartan’s Cross, my countrymen Kiltartan’s poor” (5). Kiltartan is a civil parish in the county of Galway in Ireland. It would later become part of the Republic of Ireland in 1922 but was part of the United Kingdom throughout WWI. The narrator’s statement that “no likely end could bring them loss, Or leave them happier than before” describes the narrator’s view towards the war. He sees it as a conflict that does not concern him or his country. After WWI, the general stance in Ireland was that Ireland’s’ participation in the war be forgotten because it was a war that belonged to the rest of Europe and Ireland’s involvement was only a result of it being part of the UK at the time. In his article “Yeats at War: Poetic Strategies and Political Reconstruction from the Easter Rising to the Free State: The Prothero Lecture,” R. F. Foster states that “the political correctness of the new state established in 1922 demanded that the participation of hundreds of thousands of Irish people in the war… be forgotten or at best politely ignored” (126). This idea that the war was unimportant to Ireland is reflected by the narrator’s refusal to attach any importance to his actions. He says that
“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.”
This provides a stark contrast to the Italian futurists. The airman does not consider himself a hero and in fact doesn’t imagine himself or his countrymen to have any stake in the war. He became an airman solely on a whim and does not care about either side. He has what Foster describes as a “Nietzschean tragic joy,” meaning that it is the fight itself that gives him delight; he does not care about consequences and does not seek to apply any meaning to his actions or the actions of his enemies. This is the opposite of the the soldiers depicted in Aeropittura who are always completely sure of their cause and whose delight in war is purposefully veiled by their sense of patriotism.
It should be noted, however, that the idea that the goals of Britain in WWI were unimportant to Ireland was not a common viewpoint of until after 1922. Austin Riede writes in an article for the Irish Studies Review that “ both unionists and nationalists had clear, if different, reasons to support the war… Across Ireland, [Fran Brearton] writes, ‘the desire to support fellow Catholics in Belgium and fight for “the freedom of small nations” had an obvious, and largely uncomplicated appeal for some, as did the desire to protect the British Empire against a military aggressor for others’” (126). This is reflected in Ireland’s own propaganda at the time, such as a WWI Irish recruitment poster which calls Irishmen to help Belgium, which had been invaded by Germany in 1914. This propaganda poster in actuality provides a more realistic comparison to Aeropittura than Yeats and one that was more representative of the majority of Irish opinion at the time. The poster appeals to the people’s sense of duty and responsibility rather than the heroic ideals of Aeropittura. Despite differing from the Italian propaganda in how it rallies people into fighting, it still demonstrates the favorable view of WWI that was common at the time, a view that Yeats’s poem does not accurately represent. In fact, his Irish Airman narrator was modeled Major Robert Gregory, the son of Yeats’ personal friend Augustus Gregory. Gregory’s son is the subject of another poem by Yeats titled “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory.” In the poem, which was published the same year as “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” Yeats describes people he had known earlier in life who had all died, presumably in war. This poem strives to make the people’s death seem to have been in vain, never discussing the exact context of their deaths or what they were fighting for. However, neither poem represents Gregory’s own personal views towards the war as he was actually in favor of it. Foster states that the airman’s narration was the “exact opposite” of Gregory’s true feelings (Foster 135). As is the case with much of Yeats’ poetry, the message is more important than accurately representing life. Although the facts of the poem are suspect, they also serve to distance it from futurism. His airman character is a distillation of everything Yeats felt was wrong about WWI and about the blind sense of patriotism espoused by people like the Italian futurists.
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Paluch-Mishur, Michelle. “The Mutable Perspectives of Flight”: Futurist Aeropittura and the “Golden Age” of Aviation. Diss. U of Wisconsin, 2004. N.p.: ProQuest Dissertations, 2004. ProQuest. Web. 13 May 2016.
Riede, Austin. “W.B. Yeats’s Economies of Sacrifice: War, Rebellion, and ‘wasteful Virtue’.” Irish Studies Review 19.4 (2011): 401-11. EBSCO Megafile. Web. 13 May 2016.
Yeats, William Butler. “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death.” Yeats, W. B. 1919. Poetry
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Yeats, William Butler. “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” Yeats, W. B. 1919. Bartleby.com.
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