I know that I shall meet my fate Somewhere among the clouds above;
The speaker begins with a certainty: he knows he will meet his fate "somewhere among the clouds above." Take it to the bank.
"Fate" can mean any number of things, but in a poem with "death" in the title it means… exactly that. Sub in "I know that I shall meet my death" and you see how cheerful these opening lines are. Sheesh.
As for that bit about the clouds above, the speaker is an airman. No, that doesn't mean he's made of air, or really likes air. It means he's a pilot, a fighter pilot like Maverick in Top Gun.
The way the speaker talks about the "clouds above" makes us think he's standing on the ground, looking up. He's daydreaming, or rather day-nightmare-ing.
If he were already in his plane, he would have said "among the clouds right here" or "clouds around me."
By the way, why is he so certain he will meet his fate? Good question. We actually have no clue. Okay, well we sort of do. Yeats wrote this poem in 1918, right in the middle of World War I, and the Irish Airman he has in mind fought in World War I (head over to "In a Nutshell" for more).
Anyway, pretty much everybody died in World War I. Well, not everybody but a ton of people. Also, airplanes were pretty new, so they weren't exactly as safe as they are now. It wasn't like the speaker was cruising on a Southwest Airbus seven-thirty-whatever. He would have been in something that looked like this. Not too safe!
Those that I fight I do not hate Those that I guard I do not love;
Ahh, nothing like some anaphora to get us moving here. Come to think of it, it's like a mega-anaphora (and doesn't mega-anaphora sound like a monster that Godzilla would fight?). These lines are exactly the same— except for two words.
The speaker doesn't hate those he's fighting, but he also doesn't love those he guards. And yes, the sentences do seem to be in a weird, reversed order here.
In normal speech we would say "I do not hate those that I fight" and "I do not love those that I guard," but this is poetry, so the syntax is reversed. There are no rules! Or, at least, poetry's a place where rules can be twisted into cool, pretzel-y knots.
It sounds really cool to write like that, but we suspect our man Yeats is probably trying to engage in some rhythmic acrobatics. Head over to "Form and Meter" for more.
Anyway, the speaker is describing the psychology of a soldier. He's forced to fight and defend his country, but he's not really up for either one of those tasks.
He doesn't want to kill the enemy because he doesn't hate him, and he doesn't want to protect or "guard" his countrymen because he doesn't really love them.
Those countrymen are probably the English.
Biography note: You see, Robert Gregory (the airman who the poem is about) was Irish, but he was part of a British air squadron. So in a way he wasn't really guarding his own people, but those of Ireland's long-time nemesis, colonial overlord, really mean older bro: England.
So, if he doesn't hate anybody or love anybody, why is he in this darn war anyway? He's pretty much caught between a rock and a hard place. That's the best way to put it.
And hey, did you notice that this poem rhymes a little bit? We sure did. More precisely, the rhyme scheme looks to be ABAB, and the lines look like they're written in iambic tetrameter. If that sounds like gobbledygook to you, head over to "Form and Meter" for the deets.