William Butler Yeats – An Irishman forsees his Death

William Butler Yeats photographed in 1903 by Alice Boughton (Wikipedia)

Many ‘fans’ of war films and the Second World War, will have watched the film Memphis Belle which portrays the 25th and last mission of a B-17 and her crew which they must complete before they return home.

The film starts with the sad demise of another B-17 as it returns home, severely shot up and with a damaged undercarriage. It lands, skids across the runway before exploding in a fireball in front of  waiting friends and crews.

It leads into the build up of the mission, the tension, fears and distant emotions as a B-17 crew prepares for what would be, either way, their final mission over occupied Europe.

On the run into the target, the pilot is forced to make life threatening decision, one of many on the mission. As two other lead aircraft are either destroyed or crippled and forced out of formation, the Belle is placed in lead position. Over the cloud covered target, Pilot Captain Dennis Dearborn, has to decide “do we dump our bombs or fly round again?”. To the anguish and fears of those on board he goes for the latter. Bombs doors are closed and a new course plotted. The over eagerness of the co-pilot to shoot down a German pilot, so he can return home a ‘hero’ results in the loss of a second ‘rookie’ crew changing his perspective on the mission and the authority of the pilot.

Needless to say, the ‘Belle‘ makes it back, on a wing and a prayer, manually having to lower the undercarriage with fractions of a second to spare.

Today the Memphis Belle is immortalised by Europe’s only flying B-17 ‘Sally B‘ but the original is  is located at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, where it is undergoing restoration. Updates of the aircraft can be found here.

In the film, one of the crew members, Radio Operator Staff Sgt. (T/3) Danny “Danny Boy” Daly, reads a poem as the crew wait for the order to go. It is a moving poem, yet caused some controversy as references to the Irish were removed for the film.

The orignal poem was written by the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in 1918 and is believed to be about Major Robert Gregory, a friend of Yeats, and talks of his forthcoming death; it refers to battles between the British and Irish in the struggle for independence of Ireland. Yeats went on to write a further memorial in memory of Major Robert Gregory, also in 1918.

Yeats himself, was born in Dublin, was to become one of the leaders of Irish literature. He wrote many poems and works of great art during his life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 and went on to work in the Irish Senate for a short period. He was an Irish National at heart and worked hard for that cause.

He finally died in at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, France, on 28th January 1939. He was buried after a private funeral at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It was Yeats’ wish that he be buried quickly and without fuss in France, but then a year later when “he was forgotten” to be moved back to his homeland.  In September 1948, Yeats’ body was moved to Drumcliffe, County Sligo by a Naval ship.

An Irish Airman Foresees His Death

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.

* A detailed biographical account of Yeats’ life can be found here.

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