The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 542

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“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 Theatre in 1907. Rather than catering to a romanticized or politically acceptable subject, Synge had chosen “the living world for text,” modeling Playboy of the Western World from the actual lives of peasants in Ireland’s western islands. George Pollexfen, Yeats’s uncle and a tie to his own Protestant Irish past, is the third who “cannot sup with us.” A horseman when young, Pollexfen had later “grown sluggish and contemplative.”

Johnson, Synge, and Pollexfen were significant figures in Yeats’s life, but all had been dead for many years, and their “breathless faces seem to look/ Out of some old picture-book.” Gregory’s death, however, was different, and, coming so suddenly, it was impossible to believe that he “Could share in that discourtesy of death.” Gregory would have been the “heartiest welcomer” of Yeats and his wife to their new home because, better than the rest, he knew the tower and its stream, the bridge, the broken trees, the drinking cattle, and the water-hen.

In a reference to the sixteenth century Renaissance figure Philip Sidney, a poet who also died in war and who was elegized by Edmund Spenser, Yeats’s Gregory personified the Renaissance man. Like Pollexfen, Gregory, too, was an athletic horseman. He was also a scholar and a soldier; in the poem, however, he is mainly the artist—a painter and a craftsman—who died in his youthful prime, an event that Yeats indicates should have been no surprise when he asks, “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?” The poem closes with Yeats reflecting that he had intended to describe some of their dreams and accomplishments, but, in the end, he cannot do so, for Gregory’s death has stilled the poet’s voice.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 371

“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.