The first four lines of “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” establish the poem’s themes and its form. The speaker of the poem is an Irish fighter pilot, fighting on the side of the British in World War I. He opens the poem with a surprising declaration: he knows that he will die in battle. He doesn’t know when or where, just that it will happen “somewhere among the clouds above”—in other words, somewhere in the sky.
Because the poem was written in memory of a real Irish fighter pilot who died during World War I, Major Robert Gregory, it is often considered an elegy—one of several Yeats wrote for the young pilot. However, it breaks with many of the traditions of the elegy as a genre. This is already evident in the first four lines—after all, here the speaker is elegizing himself, before he's even died!
Lines 3-4 are even more startling. Calmly, almost casually, the speaker tells the reader that he doesn’t “hate” the people that he fights. Nor does he “love” the people that he fights for—that he “guards.” The two lines are parallel in construction: they exactly have the same grammatical structure. The parallelism stresses the speaker’s indifference: he doesn’t care about either his enemies or his friends. And that raises questions about the speaker’s motivations. The reader might wonder why the speaker is willing to die in battle if he’s so indifferent, if he isn’t motivated by the usual things that drive soldiers into battle—like love of country, fear of an enemy, patriotism, etc.
The speaker of "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death" is confronting something potentially very scary—his own death. But, for the most part, he is calm, confident, and collected. That confidence is reflected in the poem’s form. It is a single, 16-line stanza written in iambic tetrameter, a meter that follows a da DUM rhythm, with four feet per line. It can be divided into four rhyming quatrains, with an ABAB rhyme scheme. In both its meter and its rhyme scheme, the poem is very smooth and controlled. It has few metrical substitutions; it uses perfect rhymes throughout. Although the speaker is confronting his own death, he remains calm and controlled—even indifferent to it.
Or at least, that’s how things appear on the surface. The poem gives a couple of hints that the speaker isn’t quite as indifferent as he pretends to be. Those hints appear in moments where the poem deviates from its usual patterns, when the speaker breaks his own rhetorical and poetic habits. There are two good examples of such breaks in the poem’s first four lines. Note that the poem is highly end-stopped; the speaker uses only four enjambments in the whole poem. One of those enjambments appears in the poem’s first line—where the speaker is talking about his own death.
And note the way that he talks about death. Although the speaker generally avoids metaphor, speaking in direct, straightforward sentences, he uses a metaphor in line 1. Instead of saying directly that he will die, he uses a euphemism, saying that he will “meet [his] fate.” Contemplating his own death causes the speaker to break his habits, slipping—briefly—into metaphor and enjambment. These subtle changes suggest a lingering sense of anxiety that runs beneath his otherwise controlled, confident poem.