In the early 20th Century, Ireland and Europe was undergoing a period of intense change and development as powers battled, and new ways of thinking were created. W.B. Yeats used poetry to challenge traditional ideas of morality, spirituality and politics, and explored society through a uniquely personal lens that often blurred the lines between periods and styles. Two poems that show the value in his writings both on a literary and a historical scale and are significant in their subversive ideas, structure and techniques are An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, in its approach to war and personal meaning, and The Second Coming for its apocalyptic Gnostic vision of a chaotic world. In An Irish Airman Airman Foresees His Death Death Yeats immerses himself in the persona of William Robert Gregory, an Irish artist who was shot down in WWI Italy, who volunteered knowing that pilots typically only survived two weeks of combat. Through this involving first person perspective, Yeats evaluates the purpose of risking one’s life in war and the underlying purpose of all lives in the context of an oppressed and revolutionary Ireland, criticising the impacts of European nationalism and traditionalism on individuals. The Symbolist Movement was a clear influence of the poem (an example of Yeats evolving Romanticism), with not only physical symbols like “my country is Kiltartan’s Cross,” representing the importance of religion to poor Irish-Catholic workers and the alienation between British and Irish forces in WWI due to religious divides, but the structure of the poem itself representing the “balance with this life, this death,” death,” that concludes the poem. poem . The theme of balance extends to everything that the airman ‘balances’ in his mind, including the balance of a plane p lane in motion, that between opposing forces and that between monotony and thrill, something mirrored in the alternating rhymes and rhythmic patterns (iambic tetrameter and trochaic phrases) as well. Airman challenges traditional Petrarchan sonnet form and is instead symmetrical at sixteen lines long, three quatrains presenting the problem and one the solution, showing his Modernist tendencies and how he relates them to the conflicts of the time. Chiasmus is a key technique that ties to the s tructure to show this balance and Gregory’s internal process of decision-making through symmetry and juxtaposition of lines, such as the repetition of “nor,” highlighting that his reasoning for going to war is unordinary while accumulating a feeling of apathy apathy towards causes like “cheering crowds”. crowds” . The couplet “Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love,” uses the anaphora of “those,” to allude towards Germany and Britain whilst stressing the similarity between them from an Irish perspective, establishing the lack of fervour the pilot (and Yeats) has for nationalistic causes in a highly imperialist period. The crux of the poem is the reveal that his reason for joining was unexpectedly “a lonely impulse of delight,” showing delight,” showing Yeats’s’ Yeats ’s’ recognition recognition of the futility and inconsequentiality of larger movements and appreciation for the value of life in thrilling experiences. In the last quatrain Yeats brings “all to mind,” these these thoughts in a literal sense, concluding in an emotional epiphany that anything outside of the current moment is “a waste of breath,” (the inverted phrase emphasising this and impl ying a cycle of life and death), subverting Romanticism’s admiration admiration of nature into an embrace of purely pure ly existing as Irish Airman, Yeats challenges Ireland’s place in WWI with purpose. Through the eyes of the Irish Airman, non-conformist views on why people go to war, blending old and new techniques while asking the reader directly through perspective p erspective to “balance” on the edge between edge between life and death.
Yeats’s critique of WWI-era Europe continued in the post-war period when the extent of its horrors had been revealed, and in The Second Coming he challenges the naïve optimism and sense of progress that defined Western and Christian industrialisation and expansionism up to the early 20 th Century using the pointless tragedy as context, while also innovating the artistic form in a unique blend of styles to portray his vision of a chaotic and disrupted world. The metaphorical of a falcon “turning and turning in the widening gyre,” represents his belief that society moves in 2000 year cycles growth and collapse, and that the world was currently at the end of a gyre and experiencing chaos like WWI (“mere anarchy is loosed,”) correlating with increasingly radicalised political movements such as communism and fascism (“the centre cannot hold,” being both a literal centre of support as well as centrist politics). This descent into anarchy is reflected by Yeats’s departure from the traditional sonnet into something more unstructured and Modernist, with an eight line stanza presenting the problem, however the second stanza not providing any solutions but instead a bleak acceptance of it, shown through the lack of ordered divides in lines. This is epitomised by the repeat of “The Second Coming!” where an exclamation creates a sense of shock and power, and this tension is built upon by a series of progressively darker images. Bornstein described Yeats as “a lifelong if sometimes ambivalent Romantic,” and in the poem he visualises Nature and the world as an extension of his internal pain and conflict rather than something to be revelled in. Yeats subscribed to an occult-influenced form of Gnosticism that drew upon his Christian background, and he draws upon these religious allusions as well as visceral, epic imagery to show his vision of an impending apocalypse, such as a Sphinx with “a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,” and “shadows of the indignant desert birds.” These paganist symbols place us in a Biblical desert setting while implying the threat of a slow, inhumane destruction, capped off by the demonic image of the “rough beast… slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.” This clear subversion of Christ’s birth into the creation of evil is a criticism of Christian idealism that characterised much of European politics in Yeats’s time, and links to his theory of the returning gyre and the end of 2000 years of Christian dominance. He concludes on this qu estion, asking readers to imagine for themselves what form the beast will take and take heed of the imminent warning he offers. Yeats resisted the European political and cultural zeitgeist observed and, using a range of artistic and spiritual influences, sought to combat what he saw as a society on the edge of destruction. Yeats, perhaps better than any artist, saw the turbulent, transitional nature of the times and raised a unique voice in challenging what he saw as wrongminded cultural and political norms, combining an individual’s perspective with the scope of the entire world.