‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ by William Butler Yeats is a twelve stanza poem that is separated into sets of eight lines, or octaves. Each of these octaves follows a consistent rhyme scheme, conforming to the pattern of AABBCDDC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza.
In regards to the meter, the lines are almost entirely written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. But, there are some instances in which Yeats makes use of iambic tetrameter. The stress is in the same position, but there are four sets of beats per line rather than five.
This poem is an elegy, or a devotional piece of writing completed after someone’s death. In this case, it is for Major Robert Gregory who was the son of one of Yeats’ closest friends, Lady Augusta Gregory. He was an airman who died in a battle in World War I. The loss of Robert inspired Yeats to consider other losses he suffered throughout his life.
Summary of In Memory of Major Robert Gregory
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that he is going to go through a number of friends he has lost. He wants to imagine that they are back again, communing with one another, and getting along perfectly. Unfortunately, the scene doesn’t last long as he is reminded of a more recent loss, that of Major Robert Gregory. He was someone the speaker did not think he would ever see die, or even grow old. Yeats speaks about three other friends and then turns to Gregory.
The majority of the poem is dedicated to Yeats’ opinions about the young man. Gregory was an all-around exceptional person. He tells the reader that Gregory was a terrific horseman who often competed in jumps and races others deemed impossible. He was smart and could’ve been a great painter or writer. Yeats brags about the man’s abilities with wood and metal. His skills were so far-reaching and masterful that it seemed as though everything he touched was his life’s work. By the end of the poem, Yeats explains that he wanted to speak more completely about the lives of a number of his friends, but the thought of Gregory took the speech from his heart.
Analysis of In Memory of Major Robert Gregory
Now that we’re almost settled in our house
I’ll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in th’ ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Climb up the narrow winding stairs to bed:
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.
In the first lines of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ the speaker, who is Yeats himself, readies the reader to hear stories of “the friends that cannot sup with us”. He adds that he is just about settled into his house. This is in reference to an actual move Yeats and his wife made around the time of Major Robert Gregory’s death.
Yeats sets the scene. He imagines the friends and how if they had been there, they would’ve “talked to some late hour” and then eventually climbed up the stairs to bed. Everyone he is going to talk about were either companion of his youth or “Discoverers of forgotten truth.” More simply, they were casual acquaintances or they were pivotal parts of his life. These lines are romanticized images of friendship, but they speak to the importance of those Yeats has lost.
Always we’d have the new friend meet the old
And we are hurt if either friend seem cold,
And there is salt to lengthen out the smart
In the affections of our heart,
And quarrels are blown up upon that head;
But not a friend that I would bring
This night can set us quarrelling,
For all that come into my mind are dead.
In the second stanza, Yeats speaks about how in an ideal world all the old friends could see the new. Their coming together would have to be a happy occasion as “we are hurt if either friend seems cold” to another. In contrast to this fantastical image of what it could be like if the friends came together, Yeats reminds the reader that it’s impossible. There is no way for any quarrels to happen as “all that come into [his] mind are dead.”
Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind,
That loved his learning better than mankind.
Though courteous to the worst; much falling he
Brooded upon sanctity
Till all his Greek and Latin learning seemed
A long blast upon the horn that brought
A little nearer to his thought
A measureless consummation that he dreamed.
Yeats speaks about one friend, Lionel Johnson in the third stanza of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’. He was someone Yeats knew from a young age and “loved his learning better than mankind”. The next lines are dedicated to the passion with which Johnson approached his education. Yeats adds that he was a man who “Brooded upon sanctity” or holiness. This was something of an obsession of his and led him to study “his Greek and Latin.”
Eventually what he learned “seemed” to bring “A measureless consummation that he dreamed.” Although these lines are not entirely clear, they speak to the man’s dedication and desire to grow closer to the things he cared about.
And that enquiring man John Synge comes next,
That dying chose the living world for text
And never could have rested in the tomb
But that, long travelling, he had come
Towards nightfall upon certain set apart
In a most desolate stony place,
Towards nightfall upon a race
Passionate and simple like his heart.
The next person Yeats describes is “John Synge,” another companion for “many a year”. He tells how this man was “Passionate and simple.” A little more context is needed to understand these lines as Yeats is referring to Synge’s own writings. He was a playwright and focused on themes of the real world, with normal people. “The living world” was his text.
And then I think of old George Pollexfen,
In muscular youth well known to Mayo men
For horsemanship at meets or at racecourses,
That could have shown how pure-bred horses
And solid men, for all their passion, live
But as the outrageous stars incline
By opposition, square and trine;
Having grown sluggish and contemplative.
The third man Yeats recalls is “old George Pollexfen”. He was Yeats’s uncle. The information the poet provides informs the reader that when he was young Pollexfen was known for his horsemanship. But, as much of a star as he was when he was younger, by the time he grew older, he was “sluggish and contemplative.”
They were my close companions many a year.
A portion of my mind and life, as it were,
And now their breathless faces seem to look
Out of some old picture-book;
I am accustomed to their lack of breath,
But not that my dear friend’s dear son,
Our Sidney and our perfect man,
Could share in that discourtesy of death.
In the sixth stanza of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ Yeats makes sure to tell the reader that these men were truly significant in his life. They were his “close companions many a year.” So much so, he feels as though they were a “portion of” his “mind and life”. He juxtaposes the closeness of these men in his heart to their status in the larger world. They are “breathless faces” looking out as if from “some old picture-book.”
He goes on, bringing the poem back to Major Robert Gregory. Yeats tells the listener that he is accustomed to the deaths of these three men, but not yet to Gregory’s. He mentions the poet Philip Sidney who was known for his elegies.
For all things the delighted eye now sees
Were loved by him: the old storm-broken trees
That cast their shadows upon road and bridge;
The tower set on the stream’s edge;
The ford where drinking cattle make a stir
Nightly, and startled by that sound
The water-hen must change her ground;
He might have been your heartiest welcomer.
The seventh stanza of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ describes how the world reminds Yeats of the young man. Whenever he sees anything, he knows that that thing was also loved by Gregory. These include the “old storm-broken trees” and the “tower set on the stream’s edge”. Simple places and sights were important as well. Such as the “ford,” or shallow area of the river, where cows drank and made a stir.
It is clear that Yeats saw this man as a good person. He “might have been,” he states “your heartiest welcomer.” He would’ve greeted anyone wholeheartedly.
When with the Galway foxhounds he would ride
From Castle Taylor to the Roxborough side
Or Esserkelly plain, few kept his pace;
At Mooneen he had leaped a place
So perilous that half the astonished meet
Had shut their eyes; and where was it
He rode a race without a bit?
And yet his mind outran the horses’ feet.
The eighth stanza informs the reader that the young man was also good at riding horses. There were “few” who could keep up with him when he rode in places such as “Castle Taylor” and “Esserkelly plain”. To give an example of Gregory’s skill as a horseman, he tells the story of a time that he leaped across a place that was “so perilous,” it made all those watching close their eyes in fright. There is another time that he did a race without “a bit” in the horse’s mouth.
After talking up the man’s skill in this stanza, he concludes by saying that he was a great horseman, but he was an even better thinker. His mind was faster than the “horses’ feet.”
We dreamed that a great painter had been born
To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn,
To that stern colour and that delicate line
That are our secret discipline
Wherein the gazing heart doubles her might.
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And yet he had the intensity
To have published all to be a world’s delight.
The man’s level of skill is increased in the ninth stanza as Yeats tells how they dreamed that he could’ve been a “great painter.” This was all the more remarkable because of the area in which they all lived. In Ireland, Yeats states, everything was a “stern color.” Therefore, someone who looked at this landscape and is inspired by it has a mighty heart.
The young man was a “Soldier, scholar, horseman” but also someone who could’ve “published all to be a world’s delight.”
What other could so well have counselled us
In all lovely intricacies of a house
As he that practised or that understood
All work in metal or in wood,
In moulded plaster or in carven stone?
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
And all he did done perfectly
As though he had but that one trade alone.
Yeats’ devotion to this young man is very clear in the tenth stanza of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ as he brags about how knowledgeable he was on a variety of topics. These included the “lovely intricacies of a house “ and “metal or…wood.” He knew a lot about everything, making it seem “As though he had but that one trade alone.” His expertise seemed so well developed that he could’ve been a master horseman, or solider or craftsman.
Some burn damp faggots, others may consume
The entire combustible world in one small room
As though dried straw, and if we turn about
The bare chimney is gone black out
Because the work had finished in that flare.
Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
As ’twere all life’s epitome.
What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?
It does not seem possible to Yeats, as he concludes ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ that this man died. In fact, he adds in the eleventh stanza that he never thought Gregory would grow old at all. His light has gone out, like a “bare chimney” and he, the man they all saw as “life’s epitome” is gone.
I had thought, seeing how bitter is that wind
That shakes the shutter, to have brought to mind
All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved
Or boyish intellect approved,
With some appropriate commentary on each;
Until imagination brought
A fitter welcome; but a thought
Of that late death took all my heart for speech.
In the final eight lines of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ the speaker tells the reader that he has tried to bring to mind everyone that “childhood loved,” “boyish intellect approved” and “manhood tried.” It was his goal to speak appropriately and respectfully about each one. He doesn’t feel like he was able to do this as well as he wanted. He thought that eventually “imagination” would bring him “A fitter welcome” for his dead friends, but, when he thought about the “late,” or most recent, “death” his “heart” was taken from his speech.