[Major] Robert Gregory (1881-1918)

Criticism

Life
[William Robert]; only child of Sir William Gregory and Lady Gregory; ed., Elstree Prep. School, Harrow, Oxford; Artist, designed Abbey Theatre productions including Synge’s Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910), and some of his mother’s plays; joined the Royal Flying Corps and was killed by ‘friendly fire’ over north Italy, 23 Jan.; Yeats wrote an obituary in The Observer, and afterwards four poems about him - viz., “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”, “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”, “Shepherd and Goatherd”, and “Reprisals”; there is a portrait by Chas. H. Shanno[n], 1906 [NGI].

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Criticism
See John Wilson Foster, ‘Emblems of Diversity: Yeats and the Great War’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture (Dublin: IAP 2009), pp.3-16.

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Commentary

W. B. Yeats
‘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.’
—“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” [extract]


John Butler Yeats (letter to his son W. B. Yeats, from New York: ’His happiness (for he says he was happy) [lay] in his forgetting of self. Pleasure lies in remembering yourself, happiness in forgetting it - & we can only forget ourselves by attaining to the maximum of strenuousness - he lived at the highest pitch of exertion ... Sometimes people live to be old because they have never lived’ (Quoted in John Wilson Foster, ‘Emblems of Diversity: Yeats and the Great War’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture,Dublin: IAP 2009, p.14, citing R. F. Foster, W. B. Yeats, The Arch-Poet, OUP 2003, p.118.)

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George Bernard Shaw: Shaw wrote to Lady Gregory after her son’s death: ‘When I met Robert at the flying station on the west front, in abominably cold weather, with a frostbite on his face hardly healed, he told me that the six months he had been there had been the happiest of his life ... war must have intensified his life as nothing else could; he got a grip of it that he could not through art or love.’ (Dan H. Laurence & Nicholas Grene, eds., Shaw, Lady Gregory and the Abbey: A Corresponence and a Record, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1993, pp.137-38; quoted in J. W. Foster, op. cit., 2009, p.14 [idem].)

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Richard Kain, Dublin in the Age of William Butler Yeats and James Joyce (Oklahoma UP 1962; Newton Abbot: David Charles 1972): ‘Robert Gregory’s few pictures indicate that Yeats was probably right in judging him “a painter in the immaturity of his youth”. Gregory’s almost surrealistic landscape of Coole, with its bare outlines and subdued coloring, must have been in Yeats’s mind when he wrote in his memorable elegy, “We dreamed that a great painter had been born / To cold Clare rock and Galway rock and thorn.”’ (p.62.)

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Colm Tóibín, Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush (Dublin Lilliput 2002), gives an account the poor relationship between Yeats and Robert Gregory and the several stages in his poetic commemoration of him culminating in his poem “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (‘We dreamed that a great painter had been born / To that cold Clare 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.’ (“In Memory of Major Robert Gregory”.)

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John Wilson Foster, ‘Emblems of Diversity: Yeats and the Great War’, in Between Shadows: Modern Irish Writing and Culture, Dublin: IAP 2009, p.14, ‘[...] If John B. Yeats’s letter must have fed into “An Irish Airman”, surely too must Yeats’s letter of 1910 to Robert Gregory, quoted at length by Richard Ellmann in Yeats: The Man and the Masks. Lady Gregory had received an insulting letter from Edmund Gosse. Lady Gregory and her son expected Yeats to take up the cudgels on their behalf and were disappointed by Yeats’s reaction. The poet wrote to Gregory to exonerate himself by explaining the personality that lay behind his failure to take Gosse firmly to task. It was not that he feared a quarrel with the important and highly placed Gosse. No: the cause was a failure of instinct (a word mentioned three times in the letter), a resort to analysis (four times), especially analysis of emotion (twice), and dependence on reason (four times). Above all, impulse was too often murdered in him, and impulse or impulses was mentioned six times in this extraordinary and strained letter. One sentence reads: “As I look back I see occasion after occasion on which I have been prevented from doing what was a natural & sometimes the right thing, either because [14] analysis of the emotion or action of another or self distrustful analysis of my own emotion destroyed the impulse. One feels that Yeats is protesting too much [...] Later, in January 1915, this self-description found its way into his poem, “The People”, in which his implied opposite is not Robert Gregory but Maud Gonne, his “phoenix”.’ (pp.14-15.) Also quotes “The Mask”: ‘What matter, so there is but fire / In you, in me?’, and remarks: ‘is it not tempting to read “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death” as a kind of posthumous redress, as a way of commemorating Gregory by awarding him the virtues Yeats thought he himself lacked, at least during that episode with Gosse and the insult and Yeats’s passive response and failure to chamion Kiltartan’s mose important citizens? [...] So far is the Great War from “An Irish Airman Foresees his Death”that the poem can be read as disguised wish-fulfilling autobiography, and as part of Yeats’s entire mythography. [...]’ (p.15.)

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Notes
Anglo-Irish War: Robert’s widow Margaret was caught in ambush at gates of Ballyturin House, nr. Gort; Capt. Blake, district inspector of RIC, and two officers of 17th Lancers shot; Mrs. Blake refused to leave her husband and shot also.

Here Tokay, gone tomorrow: Robert Gregory bore resentment against W. B. Yeats for his assumed authority in “Coole Park” and particularly for his consumption of his, Robert’s, father’s cellared stock of Tokay wine.

Price tag: Robert Gregory (1881-1918), “Burren” made £11,500 in the James Adams auction rooms, 28 March 2001.

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