Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As in so much of Yeats’s work, one of the themes of “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is Yeats himself, the self-reflective artist and the Irishman. The tensions between Yeats (a Protestant Irishman) and the Catholic majority, and between his art and that of those who merely pandered to sentimental and patriotic feelings, existed throughout Yeats’s career. The tower of Thoor Ballylee, where he lived beginning in 1918, became a symbol for the artist’s isolation and for what might be called high culture in many of his later poems. However, if the tower is the symbol of the artist and his retreat from the mundane world in pursuit of his craft, what does it mean to be an artist in the complete sense, to “Climb up the narrow winding stair”?

His choice of absent associates is revealing. All four—Johnson, Synge, Pollexfen, and Gregory—had been important in his life, but in the poem they also signify something other than their human realities. Johnson, an influence upon Yeats in the 1890’s, symbolizes the writer who renounces the real world for what Yeats called “the twilight world,” seeking the isolation supposedly required by the true artist. Synge, on the other hand, in his portrayal of the Aran islanders in The Playboy of the Western World, reached out and “chose the living world for text//a race/ Passionate and simple like his heart.” Yeats’s uncle Pollexfen was not primarily a writer, but, in representing the Yeats...

(The entire section is 583 words.)