In Memory of Major Robert Gregory

by William Butler Yeats

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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443

Of the men that Yeats explicitly eulogizes in the poem, all of them were the poet's dear friends or family members. Most of them were also poets or writers—even Gregory, who was a soldier, is described as having a keenly artistic mind. All of the men also died young, with the marked exception of George Pollexfen (who, coincidentally, is also the only man among those mentioned who wasn't a poet or artist). In drawing this parallel, Yeats seems to be attesting to the unaccountable loss that occurs with the death of a young artist: while we grieve after the passing of an artistic mind, more painful still is the cessation of their artistic potential—the art they had yet to create, rather than dying, was denied existence, and thus the world is cheaper for it.

However, the inclusion of Pollexfen must be remarked upon, especially as it stands in such contrast to the other men. While Pollexfen was not a poet and he did not die young as the others did, his inclusion among these other figures draws attention to the fact that the loss of a sturdy, solid man should not be diminished in comparison to the loss of exalted artistic minds.

Despite the fact that the lives and deaths of great intellects are those most often eulogized, Yeats affords Pollexfen the same importance in the poem as great literary figures like Lionel Johnson and John Synge, and his grief for his beloved uncle is just as keen as his grief over the loss of his intellectual literary contemporaries. Indeed, despite the fact that famous minds are mourned by the public and their legacies persevere in social consciousness, the sadness that might be felt at their loss is nothing compared to the grief that occurs after the death of a dearly loved friend or family member.

In fact, the only eulogy that is markedly different than the others is that of Gregory, for which the elegiac poem is named. However, the preeminence of Gregory's death in the poem seems to stem from its recency, instead of any greater level of affection Yeats felt for him in comparison to the other men. While the poet does espouse the uncommon character of the man that marked him as both physically and mentally exceptional, the intensity of Yeats's grief derives from how soon the poem was written after the death of Gregory. While Yeats has had time to grow accustomed to the idea of the absence of his other friends, he has not quite grown into the void that has been left by Gregory's wake, and he's still struggling to cope with the loss.

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