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In Memory of Major Robert Gregory

By William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

William Butler Yeats peom William Butler Yeats was a Nobel Prize winning Irish playwright and poet born on June 13, 1865 at Sandymount in County Dublin, Ireland to Susan Mary (née Pollexfen) and John Butler Yeats.

It was Yeats' mother who introduced him and his sisters to the Irish folktales he would grow to love dearly. In his youth he also spent much time at his father's (an accomplished artist) art studio.

In 1884 he enrolled in the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin to pursue his own interest in the arts, whereupon he had some of his first poems printed in the Dublin University Review.

As he became a more successful poet and playwright, Yeats embarked upon his first lecture tour of the United States in 1903 and then again in 1914, 1920, and 1932. 

At the ripe old age of 51 years Yeats married a much younger Georgie (George) Hyde Lees in October 20, 1917. They had two children; Anne (born 1919), for whom he wrote A Prayer for My Daughter and Michael (born 1921) for whom he wrote A Prayer for My Son.

William Butler Yeats died on January 28, 1939, at the age of seventy-three at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, France. According to his wishes he was first buried there and then re-burried in 1948 at Drumcliff churchyard, County Sligo, Ireland. His gravestone is inscribed with the epitaph Cast a cold Eye, On Life, On Death. Horseman, pass by!

In his poem/elegy In Memory of Major Robert Gregory Yeats seeks to comfort Lady Gregory and himself by glorifying Major Robert Gregory. As many of us can imagine, or may attest to, losing a good friend is extremely difficult. The poem is equally relevant today when many young soldiers are losing their lives in battles overseas.

In that regard, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory is not just written for one man, but for all who have been lost to the horrors of war.  Major Robert Gregory himself symbolizes the promise of all the young men who died much too early.  In his poem Yeats also remembers three of his other dear friends who died young.

William Butler Yeats was known to confront many of his frustrations and emotions through his poetry. Rather than keep his emotions bottled up inside, he strived for, and was successful at, achieving a catharsis. He aspired to help his readers achieve the same.

In Memory of Major Robert Gregory


I
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 stair to bed:
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.

II
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.

III
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.

IV
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.

V
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.

VI
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

VII
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.

VIII
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.

IX
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.

X
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.

XI
Some burn dam 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?

XII
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.

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