On February 4 1918 Lady Gregory’ sent a telegram to WB Yeats to tell him about Robert’s death. She told him that she found it ‘very hard to bear’. She added a postscript: ‘If you feel like it sometime write something down that we may keep - you understood him better than many.’
It came at a time when Yeats had recently married. His wife Georgie Hyde-Lees was young, shared his passion for magic, introduced him to her strange gift for ‘automatic writing’; and, very important for a poet who never had much money, she was financially secure.
The Yeatses could look forward to a settled life, and months to spend at their romantic Norman tower at Ballylee, which they developed together into an attractive summer holiday home. Delighting in Thoor Ballylee’s shape, colour and light Yeats wrote: ..’the hawthorn all in blossom all along the river banks, everything is so beautiful that to go elsewhere is to leave beauty behind.’
But as Yeats’ life was entering a totally new, and calm phase, ideal for writing, the life of his closest friend was totally broken. Of course he would help her and would write something appropriate. But it was not an easy assignment. Yes Yeats knew Robert, but in recent years they were not on the best of terms. Robert resented his permanent status as a guest in his late father’s house. Robert’s wife Margaret, supported this resentment. Relationships had become awkward.
Also the political climate was changing. Two years after the Easter Rising, and subsequent executions, had not made fighting for Imperial Britain popular on the home front. Yeats’s challenge was how to present Robert Gregory in such a way that he would be acceptable to everyone. After one false start, he did so magnificently in his second poem; but triumphs in his third and brilliant poem An Irish Airman Foresees his Death.
‘Finished in that flame’
Spurred by his friend’s utter grief, and his need to bring her some consolation, Yeats did not waste time. In less than three weeks he had sketched out a poem called Shepherd and the Goatherd, probably his most pedantic poem, which comes across as forced and awkward….’And now that he is gone/There’s nothing left of him but half score/Of sorrowful, austere, sweet, lofty pipe tunes….’
His second poem, In Memory of Major Robert Gregory, works well. Yeats holds back his name as he lists Robert’s brilliance as a horseman, artist, soldier and scholar. Yeats compares those of us who live lesser lives, who burn like ‘damp faggots’ compared to Robert who died in Italian skies and ‘who consume/The entire combustible world…/As though dried straw…/Because the work had finished in that flare….’
Lady Gregory was satisfied. She had her memorial. The pressure was off Yeats, but his creative spirit was now on overdrive. He may have remembered, on the eve of Robert’s enlisting, Robert confided in him a disturbing dream he had. It was recorded in Yeats’ Occult Diary, September 18 1915, towards the end of a turbulent period in Robert’s life.
In the dream Robert saw a falling aeroplane. ‘It fell beyond some trees behind a wall. Said that he had told his cousin that he had such a dream. She said she had the same dream. He made her describe it….It was the same, the same wall and trees.’ Yeats wondered whether it was symbolic or a deluded dream?*
It was, however, dreamed as Robert was enlisting in the Connaught Rangers after a Spring and Summer of intense passion for Nora Summers, the fight with her husband Gerald, the deep distress of his wife Margaret, and his mother’s disillusionment. Yeats, however, was now inspired. In contrast to his two other poems An Irish Airman Foresees His Death has an astonishing power and beauty, accredited as being one of the finest poems in the English language.
His spirit soars
The poem frees Robert from any loyalty to Imperial Britain; it changed the ‘Major’ to ‘An Irish Airman,’ it allows his spirit to soar: ‘A lonely impulse of delight/Drove to this tumult in the clouds’..it handed the boy, who had yet to fulfil his destiny, back to his homeland, back to the people who knew him best , and back to his mother and to the house she so faithfully guarded for him.
My country is Kiltartan Cross
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.**
NOTES: * Yeats’s Perfect man - from The Dublin Review 26/06/2015.
**There was a fourth poem, Reprisals, written in November 1920. Yeats was incensed at Black and Tan barbarity in south Galway, the murder of Ellen Quinn while nursing her baby, the Loughnane brothers, and others. In the poem Yeats urges Robert to ‘rise from your Italian tomb’ to witness ‘Half -drunk or whole-mad soldiery /Are murdering your tenants there’…But Lady Gregory did not like the poem. She asked Yeats not to publish it. It was eventually published in 1948 after they both had died.