Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
- Okay, well it turns out that the speaker's decision wasn't actually super-duper-impulsive, after all. He "balanced all" and "brought all to mind," which is to say he weighed the pros and cons and thought everything through.
- After this little balancing act, he came to the conclusion that the future ("years to come") "seemed waste of breath." In other words, he decided that his life would just be a waste of breath anyway, so why not join?
- Woah, woah, woah! Hold on a second. How would his life be a waste of breath? Was his life really that pointless?
- Maybe, but then again, he might be saying this but implying a comparison with life as a soldier. He could be thinking something like: "Well, compared to a glorious life, fighting for my country, and dying a hero, my normal life seemed a total waste."
- So, it's kind of like joining the army is a way to turn one's life from a waste into a something worthwhile. The same goes for that bit about the future being a waste of breath as well.
- This is pretty depressing, but is he being serious? Now that we think of it, it's possible that the speaker is being ironic.
- It could be ironic in the sense that he doesn't actually think his past and future are a waste of breath. In fact, saying that life is a waste of breath unless you do something great and awesome and heroic kind of sounds like something a military recruiter would say.
- A modernized version might go something like this: "Yeah sure, I'll sign up for the army—not like my life matters or anything, not like I have anything better to do than die in a war that is pointless anyway."
- Be careful, however. We don't know for sure what the speaker's tone is. Irony is a possibility. At the same time, it's also possible that he's being totally serious. Let's keep reading for more clues…
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.
- The hopeless tone continues as the speaker tells us that the past ("years behind") was also a waste of breath.
- What is more, the future and the past seemed like a "waste of breath" when compared ("in balance") with "this life, this death." Okay now wait a minute, this put a different paint job on things.
- At first, it sounds like the speaker is saying that the past and the future are pointless. This is an absolutely depressing, hopeless thing to say. We really can't believe our speaker would think something like this…
- … but then our fears are proved wrong! The enjambment tricks us into thinking the speaker thinks one thing when in fact he thinks something related but slightly (and importantly) different. Ah, Yeats you crafty fellow!
- The past and the future aren't totally pointless, just pointless when compared to something else, in this case probably life and death as a war hero.
- Hmm. Earlier, the speaker had talked about not loving those he protects and not hating those he kills, so what's with all this pro-soldier's-life business?
- Well, we've got a few possibilities we can try out here. First, maybe the speaker has just flat-out changed his mind and now thinks that war is, in fact, a heroic business.
- It's also possible that the speaker doesn't really think dying in battle is all that great. He could be speaking ironically, meaning that everything isn't, in fact, a waste of breath.
- So why not just say that then? Probably because being sarcastic, or ironic, about it makes the point a little more forceful.
- Think of it like this. Your mom tells you right before you leave the house that she needs you to out of your way to pick up some apples at the store. You're late and say, "Okay mom no problem. I really have nothing else to do." See what we mean? (Oh, and don't really say that to your mom, gang. Be nice.)
- So, there are really two fundamental ways to read this poem. Either the airman is lamenting the fact that he's going to die in war, or he's embracing it. Which side do you take?
- As with the previous twelve lines, these last four are also a little group that rhymes GHGH, as we talk about in our "Form and Meter" section.