This week I finished one of the most arresting books I have read in some time, A New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander’s meticulously researched indictment of the racial caste system created in America as a result of the law enforcement, prosecutorial and sentencing changes brought about by the War on Drugs. I felt angry and ashamed that, as a citizen and voter, all this had happened during my watch. Ferguson, Staten Island and North Charleston surprise me now not so much at the violence and anger, but rather at the level of restraint shown by communities of color who have been so profoundly and systematically alienated from society and civil protections.
It was with this peculiar perspective that I recently reread an old favorite poem from William Butler Yeats. Written in 1918, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” is a tribute to Major Robert Gregory, an Irish aviator shot down while fighting alongside the United Kingdom even as Ireland was attempting to wrest its own independence from England. It is a brief, first-person reflection on the surprising motivations of an Irish airman as he faces certain death. It is not love of country, nor duty, nor personal gain, nor glory that drives him; he does not hate his enemy, he suspects the conflict he is a part of is essentially futile in any case. It is only a “lonely impulse of delight” that sends him skyward. He has done the math and nothing he has experienced or will experience, is worth altering his course.
Any Irishman who fought alongside the English in World War I was considered a traitor to Irish republicanism. To defend the brutal English institutions that kept Ireland in subjugation was inexcusable to nationalists. Thus the perspective of the poem’s Irish narrator is all the more highly charged, so much so that Yeats waited until 1920 to publish it in consideration of its political implications.
But now, as I reread it fresh from finishing Michelle Alexander’s powerful critique, I no longer hear in it the voice of a 20th century Irish airman fighting someone else’s war, but instead that of a 21st century African American police officer guarding someone else’s peace. Choosing to serve and protect the public, he guards those very institutions that produce the disaffected classes who no longer believe that citizenship extends to them.
The poem is a statement of profit and loss, weighing continued life against imminent death and choosing death. Like so many others I had been preoccupied with comprehending the narrator’s “lonely impulse of delight” when I first read the poem several years ago. What could draw one so powerfully to his own destruction? But perhaps the key to the poem is understanding instead what has made the accounting of a man’s past and future so cheap. It has all of the sudden become to me a profoundly sad poem, an upsetting one. Society endangers itself when entire classes of citizens do their own accounting and reason that there is little to live for, that circumstances will never change, and that the deck is too rigidly stacked against them.
In our history there have been those times in which the fraying of the social fabric has been enough to bring about reform and renewal. Let’s hope that this election cycle brings these big hard issues to public attention. For until we create a grassroots affection for real justice, we should not wonder at those for whom citizenship, the social order, possibly even life itself, are merely a “waste of breath”.
An Irish Airman Foresees His Death
William Butler Yeats
I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.