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"In Memory of Major Robert Gregory"
Part Four: Stanzas XI & XII
In these last two stanzas, Yeats loses control of his poem. His high expectations for "In Memory of Major Robert Gregory" come crashing down in the last few lines. Certain images of maturation and death are intermingled with the life of Major Robert Gregory. Throughout this poem, Yeats chooses his words and images carefully. Each line is tight and controlled with very few variations. This structure shows the reader how Yeats deals with the process of aging. As he reflects upon life, he tries more and more to control death, or at least to respond to death.
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?
Living life to the fullest is a major theme in many of Yeats' poems. This section describes how most people take the world for granted. Yeats puts Gregory on a pedestal of perfection illustrating how people should strive to live their lives. The idea of the "flare" of life is a key idea in this section. Throughout this stanza, images produced by words such as "burn," "consume," and "combustible" connect with the idea of life as a fire. Either a person burns out quickly or slowly fades away. Robert Gregory got the most out of his life even though his flame burned out too soon. This stanza exalts Robert Gregory as the gifted person that he was, but ends with a tragic phrase that even more emphasizes how his life was cut short. Robert Gregory's energy and passion were so great that when he died, everyone lost a piece of greatness. Yeats comments that Gregory's greatness and fervor for life could not last: "What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?" He poses a provocative question to the reader about the meaning of life and how life is too short.
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.
This final section shows Yeats's own bitterness toward death. He reflects upon the three stages of life: "All those that manhood tried, or childhood loved / Or boyish intellect approved." The image of "childhood loved" connects with imagination. Then "manhood tried" implies an action cut short in life. Finally, "boyish intellect" illustrates a searching for some sort of greater understanding, a coming of age. All of these images attempt to help Yeats come to a realization about the meaning of life and why people die. Yeats, however, does not accomplish the understanding he longs for. At the end of this poem, he pauses in mid-thought to contemplate his work: "A fitter welcome; but a thought / Of that late death took all my heart for speech." Just as Roberts Gregory's life is cut short, Yeats cuts his poem short. He is speechless and very disappointed with the outcome of the poem and considers it a huge failure on many accounts. Robert Gregory's death has drained Yeats, and he feels guilty that he cannot commemorate Gregory's life sufficiently by writing this poem.
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