Modernism is one of the most recent and influential literary movements in the history of English literature. The Modernism era began in 1890 and ended around 1930. It was often viewed as an era where authors rejected the Victorian styles. Most authors were interested in experimenting with new ideas and techniques to see what they might be able discover or create. The time period was often divided into two different periods: Modernism and Post-Modernism.
Modernism embodies the common characteristics of literary experimentation, new freedoms, and Utopianism. Modernism gained popularity from popular scientific theories at the time. Authors were also influenced by new concepts released by psychiatrists and politicians, such as ethics, morality, and ideals. Cars, phones, airplanes, radios, and newspapers helped unify society. In the Modernism era, characters were much harder to clearly define, and plots in literature were not as predictable. Storylines were not only told by one character, but by multiple characters in the story. On the other hand, Post-Modernism opposed all of the ideas of Modernism. Post-Modernism was mainly brought upon by World War I, in which almost all the people in the world had a pessimistic view on life. It rebelled against many of the themes and topics that were frequently brought up during Modernism.
W. B. Yeats wrote the poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, in 1918. However, Yeats did not publish the poem until 1919, after World War I had ended. In his late poetry, Yeats often combined the themes of ‘death, joy, and intense life’ (Pickering). W. B. Yeats’s poem, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, embodies the characteristics of a Modernism poem through a break from the literary norm, the stream of consciousness writing style, political voice.
Breaking literary norms was a key aspect for authors attempting to get their name out in Modernism literature. They were tired of following the basic and uniform aspects of Victorian era literature, and decided to invent their own unique ways of literature. An example of new techniques in poetry was symbolism. Qualities of a new and developing world such as: political, economic, and social aspects, were often a topic of discussion in modernism literature. These literary freedoms would soon become the keystone to a large portion of literature for the Modernism era.
The poem’s title, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, as well as the first lines of the poem, indicate that the speaker is ready for his death (Riel). This breaks a norm early on because of how nonchalant Yeats treats death. In lines fifteen and sixteen, the speaker states, ‘A waste of breath the years behind, In balance with this life, this death.’ (Yeats). The speaker was attempting to state that he would rather do something with his life, than just sit at home and do nothing. The point of this was to break the pessimistic norm of the time period. Most people would just sit home depressed, however, if the speaker was depressed at least he would be helping the cause. Other lines of the poem state, ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those who I guard I do not love;’ (Yeats). Although this may seem odd to most people that Yeats would describe a character who does not love his country and his people with all his heart, it displays his Modernism techniques of breaking away from social norms, and to creating new ideas, themes, and aspects to literature.
A new style of writing that encapsulated the attention of many authors and audience members during the modernism time period was a ‘stream of consciousness’ type of narration. This deals with a character’s inner thoughts on current events. The style was first introduced by William James in 1890. This was a way for authors to branch out from the literary norms of the Victorian Era. Audience members were so use to the common storyline that it eventually got boring. Authors needed a new way to capture the attention of their audience, so they turned to social scientist for the answer. They found their answer in psychology. Many Studies on the conscious of people and how they think inspired Modernism authors to develop a new way of telling their stories.
Yeats used this technique while crafting his elegy for Robert Gregory. The poem’s story is told through the thoughts of Gregory while he is in flight. Robert Gregory is not named in this poem because W.B. Yeats wanted the audience to fell as though Gregory was an ‘everyday soldier’ (Hochman). He expresses his feelings toward the people of his country and those he is fighting against. The speaker then discusses the economic state of his country. He also talks about what drove him to become a pilot in the military. In the lines, ‘My Country is Kiltartan Cross, My Country men is Kiltartan’s poor’ (Yeats), we can see that Gregory is of Irish descent. It is odd, however, that although the airman is fighting for the British, he identifies as Irish. It can also be assumed that he is not from wealth. This could be a reason why Gregory joined the military, however, another line helps decipher that reason. When the speaker says, ‘A lonely impulse of delight, Drove this tumult in the clouds;’ (Yeats), it is assumed that there was no particular reason why Robert Gregory decided to join the military. No one forced him to join the military and become a pilot, rather, he had a calling to the occupation. This shows free will, which is something that Yeats focused on (Hochman). The next two lines of the poem state, ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, Those who I guard I do not love;’ (Yeats). This displays a sense of balance, which is also a common theme in Modernism. Yeats made it clear that he did not feel the need to fight, nor the need to defend his country. This can be perceived as a break in social norm, which was another theme of Modernism.
During the Modernism Era, many authors wanted to express their political views. This was something that was not commonly done in the Victorian Era. If an author were to express political views during the Victorian era, they were frequently ridiculed by those in power, as well as by their supporters. Political knowledge is an imperative example of a new freedom that inspired Modernism authors everywhere. Since Modernism authors often rebelled against Victorian techniques, they wanted to express this new freedom. They found that the best times to do just that were during major political events. However, W.B. Yeats was extremely reluctant to write about World War I. In his opinion, he thought that poets should ‘keep their mouths shut’ (Riel). Edward Pickering states that, ‘Yeats’s opposition to Great War poets was less that their poetry took passive suffering for a theme, but that it did not take tragic joy, he experiences its near ancestor, delight’ (Pickering).
As a result of his opinion, he rarely expressed his political voice. Yeats decided to an elegy about World War I. An elegy is a poem expressing grief or sorrow for the dead. ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’, is one out of four elegies written for Robert Gregory. Yeats started writing the elegies for Robert Gregory after he had received a letter from Gregory’s mother saying that he had been killed while fighting in World War I. However, Gregory’s short life as a pilot in the military meant more than his pointless life before. The first lines of the poem says, ‘I know that I shall meet my fate, Somewhere among the clouds above;’ (Yeats). This is how Yeats lets the audience know that he is talking about the Great War. He also addresses the topic of death. The speaker, Robert Gregory, is a pilot in the war, who is currently in flight. He does not seem to be afraid of death, but is rather simply living his life. Gregory had already passed away in spirit, so it only made sense for him to be a prophet for his physical death (Riel). Other lines in the poem state, ‘No likely end could bring them loss, Or leave them happier than before’ (Yeats). This refers to the war and how the war itself is causing a loss of happiness to all people in the world. This is the point in time where many people in the world started to develop pessimistic views on life itself.
‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ is a magnificent example a poem from the Modernism era. W.B. Yeats does a fantastic job using the Modernism characteristics of a break of literary norm, stream of consciousness, and political voice. This poem breaks literary norms nonstop throughout its entirety. He used a multitude of Modernism techniques to write this poem. The poem displays his innate ability of creating new ideas, themes, and aspects to literature. A stream of consciousness is shown through the thoughts of Robert Gregory, a pilot who died and unheroic death in Italy while fighting in the Great War (Hochman). This writing style became very popular during the Modernism time period due to the boring, stale, and annoying uniformity of the Victorian era storylines. Yeats also expresses his political voice in this poem, choosing to have the speaker be a soldier in the Great War. In the words of Edward Pickering, ‘Yeats’s views are polemical, for during this period, the ‘typical figure in war poetry’ was defined by precisely that which he condemned as un-poetic: powerless and suffering’ (Pickering). Overall, ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ should continue to be a staple example of what a Modernism poem should look like.
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