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...

(The entire section is 542 words.)