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This article is taken from PN Review 173, Volume 33 Number 3, January - February 2007.

An Academic Discipline Foresees its Death Peter Barry

This article considers some of the changes in English Studies, chiefly in the UK, over the past couple of decades, identifying some trends, and some dead-ends - a big topic, much in need of a sharp focus. One of David Lodge's characters remarks that he can't understand anything without an example, and I share the sentiment. So I use a well-known poem by W.B. Yeats as the eye of the needle, and try to thread most of the argument through it, though with some comment on some other texts as well.

The poem is 'An Irish Airman Foresees his Death', probably one of the best-known poems of the twentieth century, and one which all teachers of English teach sooner or later. On the surface, it voices the stoic fatalism of a young man facing extreme danger in war-time who mentally detaches himself from life as a way of coming to terms with the possibility of losing it. Though not named in this poem, he is, of course, Major Robert Gregory, killed in 1918, the son of Yeats's patron, Lady Gregory. I will briefly illustrate four ways of reading it, and later argue that the four ways may suggest a basis for moving forward in literary studies, and may help us to reverse some tendencies within the discipline today which might well be life-threatening. For convenience, I give the poem here in full:

An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

I ...

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