“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”

One of Yeats’s most beautiful and most deeply moving poems is “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory,” from his 1919 collection, The Wild Swans at Coole. You don’t need to know anything about Yeats’s three other deceased friends whom he eulogizes in this poem in addition to its main subject to be affected by it. However, the Wikipedia article on Yeat’s colleague the writer John Synge will explain the meaning of the strange line about Synge, “That dying chose the living world for text.” Also, it will help to know that “My dear friend’s dear son, / Our Sidney and our perfect man,” namely Robert Gregory, was the son of Yeats’s close friend and colleague in the Irish Literary Revival, Lady Augusta Gregory, at whose estate at Coole Park in Gort, County Galway, he often stayed and wrote many of his poems. I have visited Coole Park. The house is long since burned down, but one can walk on the extensive grounds, and the lake, about which Yeats wrote the poem, “The Wild Swans at Coole,” is still there.

The “ancient tower” to which Yeats refers in the first stanza is Thoor Ballylee (Ballylee Castle), a few miles from Coole Park, which he and his family used as their summer home between 1916 and 1929. (See photo.) Some of Yeats’s most famous poems, including “The Tower” and “A Prayer for My Daughter,” are centered here.

I’ve also copied the next poem in The Wild Swans at Coole, “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death,” in which Yeats presents his imaginative vision of Robert Gregory’s thoughts prior to his being killed in the Great War. When the Irish airman says, “Those that I guard I do not love,” he is speaking of Great Britain, not of “My country … Kiltartan Cross,” and “My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor.” I myself was confused by those lines for some years.

In Memory of Major Robert Gregory
By W.B. Yeats


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 the 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.


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.


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.


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.


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 purebred 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

An Irish Airman Foresees his Death

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public men, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.


Marnie K. writes:

Thank you for sharing this. I did not know the background of these poems.

April 15

Marney K. writes:

It was good to see you take a break from the problems of politics and headlong national suicide to share that marvelous poetry. I didn’t know the Irish airman was someone Yeats knew. Shows my ignorance.

If you ever saw the movie, Memphis Belle, you might recall the scene in which one of the B-17 crew members recites that poem as his own. I don’t know if the screenwriter was trying to make out the character as a plagiarist, or just assumed that no one in the film audience would know Yeats (!).

Not everyone enjoys Yeats; he isn’t always the most accessible poet. You certainly have good taste.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at April 13, 2011 04:08 PM | Send

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