Airmen, Aeroplanes, and Aesthetics: Pilots in Irish War Poetry



While the poetic response to warfare on the battlefield has been well charted, the two World Wars also saw poets responding to the advanced technology of the aeroplane. In this lecture, recorded at the Late Summer Lecture Series, Amy Smith charts how Irish poets changed their attitudes to war in the skies between 1918 and 1945.

Many writers have been fascinated by flight, which often connotes liberation, transcendence and the imagination. The technological developments of the twentieth century meant that dreams of human flight rapidly became a reality, whilst the futuristic unreality of aviation fostered a discourse of heroism which represented pilots as super-human. Yet the First and Second World Wars caused a radical change in the ways in which airmen were represented in literature. As perpetrators of aerial attack, airmen were considered to be brutal tools of fascism, representative of the debasement of humanity in war-time rather than the pinnacle of human achievement.

This lecture introduces Irish war poetry written between 1918 and 1945, using the symbol of the airman as a focal point.

Poets discussed include the Nobel prize-winner W.B. Yeats, and the less-well known Irish writers John Hewitt, W.R. Rodgers and Robert Greacen. Yeats celebrates Major Robert Gregory, a pilot killed in the First World War, as the epitome of physical and intellectual achievement. Gregory is cast as a poet who achieves a moment of immersion in the sublime immediately before his death.  For Hewitt, Rodgers and Greacen, all writing during the Second World War, the airman connotes brutal violence enacted against unarmed civilians and the impossibility of the heroism Yeats envisaged.  In a complex and lengthy engagement with the symbol of the airman, Rodgers aligns bombers with the middle- and upper-classes, and thus articulates strident left-wing criticism of the indifference of privileged classes to suffering.  Rodgers connects aviation with contemporary calls for major political and social reform in the post-war reconstruction era.

Amy has kindly made available her bibliography of works referred to in this lecture.

Late Summer Lectures is a series of lectures given by PhD students, bringing new research to a public audience. Over the next few weeks, the remaining lectures will explore 1960s counter-culture in Newcastle, demons, and mediaeval monkeys. Lectures take place on Tuesdays at 19.30 in the Percy Building, Newcastle University and are repeated Wednesdays at 19.30 in Alington House, Durham. For more details, view the full programme. Podcasts of previous lectures can be downloaded here.

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