Similar Ideas In W. B. Yeats and Keith Douglas’ Poems

January 1, 2021 by Essay Writer

A critical comparison of ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’.

W. B. Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and Keith Douglas’ ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ are poems thoroughly preoccupied with the theme of mortality in combat. The imagery and language of war and death permeate the verses; however, both poems are not exclusively fixated on the gore of warfare. Rather, both thought-provoking poems reveal the inner monologue and, thus, the inner life of soldiers that are otherwise nameless in the eyes of the general public. Therefore, the emotive language and reflective tone with which the speakers express death sensitise us (the listeners) to the reality that these soldiers are merely human.

Both poets take different approaches in their depiction of death. Berryman posits, ‘poetry is composed by actual human beings and tracts of it are very closely about them.’ Both poems certainly contain confessional elements of the poet’s own life evoked through the use of emotive language. The title of Yeats’ poem immediately sets a sombre tone as it potentially ‘foresees’ a tragic plot. However, Yeats inverts our expectations, as the airman does not portray the truly grievous nature of war deaths. The reference to the battle as ‘tumult’ (l.12) downplays its violence. The airman’s euphoric ‘impulse’ (l.11) to die ‘among clouds above’ (l.2) is arguably Romantic; it suggests his desire to escape the limitations of human physicality. Likewise, the ‘clouds [above]’ provide a paradoxically sublime war setting. Yeats’ poem is an elegy to his friend, Major Robert Gregory, who fought and died in the First World War. So, it is no wonder that the poet projects his hopes of a peaceful albeit unrealistic death on the poem’s persona.

In stark contrast, Douglas experienced the distresses of the Second World War first-hand, thus it is not surprising that he portrays death in a more realistic manner. The opening scene reflects a less pleasant image of war deaths: ‘Three weeks gone and the combatants gone’ (l.1). The plosive repetition of ‘gone’ exaggerates the unpleasant image of loss of life. It also onomatopoeically mimics the sound of a shooting gun, which enables the listener to visualise the violence. Furthermore, Douglas uses vivid imagery to allude to death: ‘the soldier sprawling in the sun’ (l.4). The sibilance exaggerates the sinister theme as the speaker also downplays the gravity of the soldier’s death by suggesting that he is simply ‘sprawling’, lounging pleasantly. This blissful image juxtaposes the graphic image of the soldier’s ‘decayed’ (l.16) body covered in ‘swart flies’ and ‘his burst stomach’, hollow and dark, ‘like a cave’ (ll.18-20). The discrepancy in the soldier’s description and reality highlights the desensitizing nature of war; the soldiers perceive ghastly images of death as normal. Indeed, ‘the sun’ literally and metaphorically sheds light on the horrific aftermath of war: a grotesque image of a ‘[decaying]’ body covered in black flies on the ‘nightmare ground’ (l.2). Therefore, both poets’ experiences affect the difference between the idyllic sense of death, conveyed by Yeats’ poem, and its grotesque portrayal in Douglas’ poem.

Furthermore, both soldiers express differing attitudes towards mortality salience. Arguably, the airman’s ability to ‘foresee’ his death permits him to accept his death in a calm and ‘balanced’ manner. The spondaic enunciation of his opening words, ‘I know’, followed by the imperative ‘I shall’, highlights that he is not just aware, but is also certain and accepting of his death. His absolute certainty is also echoed in the unchanging ‘ABAB’ rhyme scheme and iambic tetrameter. His calm acceptance is also expressed in the formal balance at the end of the poem: ‘In balance with this life, this death’ (l.16). The comma creates a deliberate pause separating ‘life’ from ‘death’, whilst bringing balance to the syntax and resolution to his preceding thoughts. This is a direct contrast to the uncertainty of death illustrated by the unpredictable rhyming pattern in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’; it begins In Memoriam ‘ABBA’ but switches to the balladic ‘ABAB’. Unlike the airman who chooses to die, ‘death […] has the soldier singled’ (l.23). The hissing sibilance stresses death’s selective cruelty; one understands that death respects no one as it has also ‘done the lover mortal hurt’ (l.24). Therefore, the contrasting way in which the speakers are aware of their death influences the tone and mode they express it in.

Both poets demonstrate that the soldiers have lives outside of combat relatable to our own. Though Yeats’ poem is written in Major Gregory’s persona, it also conveys Yeats’ own views on the ‘wasteful virtue’ of war— a theme he also touches on in ‘Easter 1916’ . The airman reflects on and denies all plausible reasons for going to war: ‘law’, ‘duty’, ‘public men’, ‘cheering crowds’ (ll.9-10). Yeats then uses chiasmus to intensify the effect of the airman’s reflective process: ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath, /A waste of breath the years behind’ (l.14-15). This helps the listener to similarly reflect, and grieve not only for the death of the soldier but for the time ‘[wasted]’ on something that has no real cause. Furthermore, the speaker’s consistent use of ‘I’ and ‘my’ marks his individual presence; although there is no ‘I’ in war, the airman repeatedly makes his death personal to the listener.

Contrastingly, in ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, Douglas illustrates the reality of war where an individual merges into thousands and dead soldiers are merely numbers: ‘We see him almost with content, / abased’ (ll.13-14). The speaker’s condescending attitude towards the soldier’s death is shocking yet reflective of the dehumanizing nature of war. Though there is a lack of personal pronouns, Douglas still asserts the dead soldier’s identity by referring to his lover, ‘Steffi’ (l.11). The inscription of ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ (Forget me not) on her photo emotionally heightens the image of her weeping for her dead lover (l.17). In an ironic turn of events, she now has to be the one to not forget him. The story’s verisimilitude moves the listener to see the dead soldier as human rather than ‘killer’ (l.21). Thus, although war often effaces individuality, Yeats and Douglas show that soldiers do have sentiments and identities.

In conclusion, Yeats’ ‘An Irish Airman Foresees His Death’ and Douglas’ ‘Vergissmeinnicht’ both focus on the thoughts and emotions of the soldiers and thus sensitise the listener to the gross inhumane nature of war deaths. Douglas and Yeats remind us that soldiers are not just cannon fodder; they are individuals with private lives. Their poems are poignant reminders that war is ultimately between humans and, contrary to its aim, these ‘combatants’ do not deserve their tragic fate.

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