I wrote the following historicist analysis for Eng 373: Terrible Beauty with Dr. Churchill:
W.B. Yeats published “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” to eulogize his friend, Robert Gregory, after his death in January, 1918 (Witt 112). Gregory was an artist and decorated pilot in World War I (Witt 112) who died when he was struck out of the air over Italy (Pickering 81). Gregory’s death greatly impacted Yeats, who was a fan of his artwork, and inspired Yeats to write four poems (Witt 112-113); “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” was published along with “Shepherd and Goatherd” and “An Irish Airman foresees his Death” in The Wild Swans of Coole in 1919.
Yeats wrote “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” between June and August, 1918 (Pickering 82). The poem was influenced by “A Note” that he wrote to remember Gregory immediately following his death (Witt 112). Yeats’s note, originally published in the Observer in February of 1918, describes Gregory as a man of many talents, specifically highlighting the happiness he found in the military:
the months since he joined the Army had been the happiest of his life. I think they brought him peace of mind, an escape from that shrinking, which I sometimes saw upon his face, before the growing absorption of his dream, as from his constant struggle to resist those other gifts that brought him ease and friendship (Pickering 84)
This same sentiment is woven into the poem:
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. (Yeats 65-72)
The poem goes on to ask, “Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,/ As ’twere all life’s epitome./ What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?” (Yeats 86-88), explaining that with his many talents and love for all he was doing, he was always meant to die young. A reader who reads “In Memory of Robert Gregory” after reading Yeats’s “A Note” can imagine Gregory as a man with diverse interests, who enjoyed the excitement of flying in the military and was not afraid of dying.
However this context is not always provided. In the United States, the poem was published on the first page of the Little Review in September of 1918, right after Yeats wrote it. This published version gives the poem new meaning, offering insight into the politics of the time, not only in Ireland but also in the United States, which was already sending men to fight and die in World War I. The fact that it was published on the first page indicates that American readers greatly valued Yeats’s writing.
Yeats’s original note about Gregory’s life was not published in the United States until later, meaning the poem was initially read and interpreted independently, likely as a more general commentary on war. The same journal, the Little Review, published “A Note” in November (Witt 112).
Finally, when read in the context of The Collected Poems of W.B Yeats, published in 1996, the poem carries different meaning. Because the reader has access to a large body of Yeats’s work, including poems he wrote later in his life, the poem loses its historical contexts and becomes a more general commentary on violence. One contextualizes “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” along with “September 1913” (108), which has a similar eulogizing structure with its repetition of names of the deceased, and “Easter, 1916” (180), which echoes the same theme of making regular people into heroes that is present in the first stanza of “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”.
Pickering, Edward D. “The Artist’s Tragic Flight: Yeats’s Portrayal of Major Robert Gregory.” Journal of Modern Literature 32.2 (2009): 80-99. Web.
Witt, Marion. “The Making of an Elegy: Yeats’s “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”” Modern Philology 48.2 (1950): 112-21. Web.
Yeats, W. B. “In Memory of Robert Gregory.” The Little Review 5.5 (1918): 1-4. The Modernist Journals Project. Web. 11 Sept. 2016.
Yeats, W. B. The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Ed. Richard J. Finneran. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Scribner Paperback Poetry, 1996. Print.