Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 583

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”?

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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 and Pollexfen families, he symbolizes the passing Protestant Ascendancy which, “Having grown sluggish and contemplative,” is giving way to the Catholic majority.

Gregory’s portrayal in the elegy is something more and something less than the historical Gregory: He becomes a Platonic figure who reconciles, in the poem, the incomplete personages of Johnson, Synge, and Pollexfen. Gregory, Yeats’s Renaissance man, is “Our Sidney,” another Philip Sidney, the statesman-diplomat, author of the epic prose romance Arcadia (c.1580) and a collection of love sonnets, Astrophel and Stella (1591), who also died in his thirties of a fatal battle wound. However, while Gregory exhibited all the qualities of “Soldier, scholar, horseman,” in the poet’s thoughts it is Gregory as the artist who is worthy of being memorialized, though he died as a soldier and a man of action.

The younger Yeats had been active in radical political movements in Ireland, but over time he had distanced himself from those involvements, coming to defend the contributions that the Protestant Ascendancy were making to Ireland’s lasting culture. Yeats was not a soldier, and his life was not “finished in that flare” as was Gregory’s. Perhaps this was a cause for regret by Yeats when he wrote his elegy to Gregory, given the bloody sacrifices so many (such as Gregory in World War I and the Irish rebels in the Easter Rising of 1916) had made.

The concluding stanza presents a somber world, “seeing how bitter is that wind/ That shakes the shutter.” In nostalgic loss, the poet looks back again to comment on his dead friends and their deeds. However, there is nothing he can say, for “that late death took all my heart for speech.” The historical Major Robert Gregory was, perhaps, less of a Renaissance man than the one portrayed in Yeats’s eloquent elegy, but the poem is also an elegy to the poet himself, alive but now alone in his tower in the emptier present, “For all that come into my mind are dead.”

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