The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” is William Butler Yeats’s elegy to Robert Gregory, an Irish airman who died in battle during World War I. Written in the first person, it is a poem of twelve stanzas, in octets, which is primarily composed in iambic pentameter but which also includes iambic tetrameter. Gregory was the only son of Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats’s close colleague for two decades. They worked together as pivotal figures in the Irish Literary Revival and were among the founders of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. Over the years, Yeats had relied upon Lady Gregory for financial, intellectual, and emotional support. Coole Park, her country estate in the west of Ireland, had been a second home to Yeats.

Robert Gregory’s death in January, 1918, occurred on the eve of the move of Yeats and his wife into their new home, Thoor Ballylee, an old Norman tower not far from the Gregory estate. The death of “my dear friend’s dear son” leads the author to reflect upon friends from his past, who, because they are dead, cannot dine and talk together before going up the tower stairs to bed.

The first dead friend he mentions is Lionel Johnson, whom Yeats had known from his earliest days as a writer and who had come to love “learning better than mankind.” Another absentee is John Synge, among the greatest of the Irish playwrights; his Playboy of the Western World had inflamed literary Dublin when first performed at the Abbey...

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In Memory of Major Robert Gregory Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” has frequently been praised as being among Yeats’s greatest poems; some critics claim that it is the first of his poems that exhibits the full range of his poetic voice, a voice that later received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Although the poem’s meter varies slightly, the rhyme scheme is regular, with an ababcddc pattern throughout. On one level, the poem exhibits a straightforward literalness grounded in the actual lands of western Ireland. When the poet describes Thoor Ballylee, “The tower set on the stream’s edge” with its “narrow winding stair” and the “old storm-broken trees/ That cast their shadows upon road and bridge,” it is a faithful rendering of the landscape. Gregory was a physical product of those Irish counties, “born/ To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn.”

In opposition to the poem’s solid physicality, however, is the element of dream, of melancholy memory that infuses the poem and raises it beyond mere description. The opening stanza describes the poet reflecting on the past, remembering those gone—both long gone and recently gone—who cannot join him in the tower for talk and drink: “All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.” Reflecting on Gregory’s promise as an artist, the poet states that “We dreamed that a great painter had been born.” Continuing with these dreamlike qualities, Gregory’s hair is used in a synecdoche to represent the impossibility of his ever attaining a ripe old age when Yeats asks, “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”

In one of the central stanzas of the poem, Yeats divides humankind into two categories: Some plod along over the many years, doing what they must do, while others make their contributions and quickly pass on. In a metaphor, he compares those who “burn damp faggots” to others, such as Gregory, who died in Italian skies at thirty-seven and who “may consume/ The entire combustible world . . ./ As though dried straw, and if we turn about/ The bare chimney is gone black out/ Because the work had finished in that flare.” The intensity of their lives is both the compensation for and the cause of its brevity.