Italy, 1918. World War I had been ravaging Europe for almost four years. With millions dead on both sides of the conflict, it seemed like there was no end in sight. Near the end of January of that year, a thirty-seven-year-old Irish pilot was mistakenly shot down by an Italian aviator (Italy and Great Britain were allies then). An accomplished artist and cricketer (meaning, he played that British form of baseball called cricket), the young man's name was Robert Gregory, and he was the son of a woman named Lady Gregory. Both were very dear friends of Ireland's leading poet, William Butler Yeats.
Yeats was profoundly affected by Robert Gregory's death, and immediately began writing about it. Shortly after penning a short prose eulogy in February, 1918, he wrote several poems about his old friend, including "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" and "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death." Both of these poems would be published in 1919 in the second edition of Yeats' 1917 volume, The Wild Swans at Coole (named after the swans that were part of the scenery at Coole Park, residence of Lady Gregory and frequent vacation spot for Yeats).
While "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" is an elegy for Gregory, written from the perspective of Yeats himself, "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is Yeats' attempt to get inside Gregory's head, so to speak, and describe Gregory's sense of life, certain death, and war.
While the poem illustrates what must have been a constant preoccupation for soldiers in the First World War (a fear of inevitable death), it also tries to come to grips with Gregory's, and many others', decision to participate in an ultimately senseless conflict. Yeats' only solution to the question of why Gregory got involved in the first place is a "lonely impulse of delight." We don't know about you, but that seems a really weird and mysterious explanation that gives us a strange feeling in our tummies.
Whenever there's a war going on, lots of people seem ready and willing to sign up for the military, and this despite the fact that dying is a real possibility. Take the last ten years as an example. The United States has been fighting in both Afghanistan and Iraq for some time, and yet, tales of roadside bombs, street shootouts, kidnappings, and all kinds of other terrible things haven't stopped young people from joining the military.
Now we're willing to bet ten bucks—okay… five bucks—that you've met at least one person in the last few years who has decided to pursue a career in the Marines, or any other branch of the Armed Forces for that matter. While no doubt some have been planning it for a long time, others may not exactly know why they've joined. They know they might die, and maybe some seem darn right certain of it, but they've felt something inside of them to which they have to respond.
That's kind of what William Butler Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is about. The poem is narrated by—surprise, surprise—an Irish pilot who hasn't joined the Air Force for any of the "normal" reasons. He simply tells us that some "lonely impulse of delight" has compelled him. That "impulse" is really similar to what a lot of people have felt over the years, and still feel, even in this day and age.
It's an indescribable sense of duty, a calling, a sense of purpose—not just some run-of-the-mill impulse decision like buying a pack of gum at the register. It's a deeper impulse, something almost biological (like a pulse). Sure, death may right around the corner, but those who have followed such impulses always seem to feel that they have done something that will give their life more meaning. That's how the airman feels, and it's likely that his feeling might shed some light on questions that you've been pondering, or never even thought to ask.