On 2 February 1918, a day after she heard that her only son had died while flying with his squadron on the Italian front, Lady Gregory wrote briefly to W.B. Yeats: ‘The long dreaded telegram has come – Robert has been killed in action. … It is very hard to bear.’ Her note concludes with a short postscript: ‘If you feel like it some time, write something down that we may keep. You understood him better than many.’
The elegies Yeats subsequently wrote – ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’, completed in March 1918, ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, completed that May, and ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’, written in June and July – have long been understood to have constituted an awkward task for the poet, since they had to be written, if not quite to order, at least in such a way as to satisfy both his great friend and patron, Lady Gregory, and Robert’s widow, Margaret. ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’, in particular, registers notes of reluctant obligation. This Arcadian dialogue, modelled on Spenser, portrays Gregory as an unassertive and indistinct figure who never took true possession of Coole Park, the family estate, which he had inherited in 1902:
[He] left the house as in his father’s time,
As though he knew himself, as it were, a cuckoo,
No settled man. And now that he is gone
There’s nothing left of him but half a score
Of sorrowful, austere, sweet, lofty pipe tunes.
The blunt description of Gregory as a ‘cuckoo’ and stark emphasis on his lack of clear achievement surely offered little by way of comfort to his grieving mother and widow. Unsurprisingly, Lady Gregory’s reaction to the poem was less than fully enthusiastic.
On arriving at Coole in April 1918, Yeats faced considerable pressure to do better as he worked on what would become ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’. ‘It is pathetic,’ he reported to his wife, ‘for Lady Gregory constantly says “it is his monument – all that remains”.’ The resulting poem, modelled on Cowley’s elegy ‘On the Death of Mr William Hervey’, celebrates a latter-day Renaissance man of exceptional promise and ability: ‘Soldier, scholar, horseman, he / As ‘twere all life’s epitome.’ In traditional elegiac mode, the poem seeks to offer consolation, both by celebrating Gregory’s excellence – he was ‘Our Sidney and our perfect man’ – and by stressing that he will now never suffer the indignity of age: ‘What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?’ For Lady Gregory the elegy was a ‘noble’ achievement. ‘I am so grateful to him,’ she told John Quinn: ‘It makes an extraordinary difference to me knowing my darling will be thus remembered.’
Later that summer Yeats produced a third poem commemorating Robert. In ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ he no longer sought inspiration from traditional models, and much of the sense of formality and distance registered in the two earlier elegies falls away. The poem offers us the illusion of Gregory’s voice speaking directly, and accords the dead airman a status analogous to that of the artist in having left behind ordinary hopes and dreams in favour of a ‘tumult in the clouds’. But the pressure Yeats faced in producing a ‘monument’ registers here, too. The poem proposes that Robert enlisted even though he felt no sense of military or national duty – ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love’ – and that he was influenced neither by a desire for glory nor by a sense that his likely death would significantly affect his tenants or his ‘countrymen’ for better or worse. This apolitical conception of Robert as a figure of heroic self-discovery and tragic joy was a distortion, though. Robert had been fundamentally sympathetic to the British imperial cause from young adulthood on, while Lady Gregory herself repeatedly described her son’s service as motivated by his ‘high mindedness’ in not wanting to ‘let others fight for the country’s safety while he stayed at home’.
Far from being either a quasi-artistic quest for self-realization, or a conventional act of duty or conformity, however, Gregory’s decision to sign up turns out to have been precipitated by an explosive personal drama that played out at Coole in the spring and summer of 1915. The circumstances of his enlistment would leave a significant mark on the writing of Yeats’s elegies, contributing to the strained and evasive qualities evident in the poems; and they would also permanently change Yeats’s transactions with Lady Gregory and the young Gregorys, and his conception of the Coole heritage itself.
Yeats’s only substantive contemporary reference to Robert’s enlistment is a passage in his occult diary, so far unpublished, written at Coole on 18 September 1915. It confirms that his trope of Gregory foreseeing his death was not simply a matter of poetic licence: Robert had indeed dreamed of a plane crash, and discussed that dream with Yeats shortly before signing up:
At Burren Robert Gregory told me of a dream he had of seeing a falling aeroplane. It fell beyond some trees which were behind a wall. Said he had told his cousin that he had had such a dream. She said she had had the same. He made her describe it before he told his. It was the same, the same wall & trees. Might have been symbolic as certain curious events followed, foreseen by these people he said or a deluded dream of actual events & told in symbolic dreams. On the other hand he is now in London trying to enter flying corp.
Robert’s papers of enlistment, now held in the National Archives in London, are dated 14 September 1915. They include his declaration that he had never suffered from ‘any serious illness or injury’ nor experienced ‘fits of any description’ and that his vision was ‘good without glasses’. An accompanying affidavit signed by his life-long friend Tony Watts-Russell attests to his ‘moral character during the past four years’.
Robert’s decision to enlist came as a blow, but not a shock, to his mother. He had indeed come close to signing up immediately after the start of the war on 4 August 1914. Writing to John Quinn on 1 September that year, she reported:
Robert all but joined the army and started off, and is much inclined to do so still, but it is an anxious time here as well, and he may be wanted more at home. I told him I had such confidence in his right judgement I would say nothing for or against, at least nothing of my personal feelings. Indeed I think in some ways it might be happier for him, but the worst is, once in the army it may be years before you can get out, and his painting would probably have gone to pieces by that time.
This is vintage Lady Gregory – telling Robert she’ll say nothing for or against, but also signalling that this requires she should reveal nothing of her ‘personal feelings’. Within a few weeks, to her relief, legal matters connected with the Coole estate put the question of him joining up permanently in abeyance:
Robert is in a tangle of trouble over the estate. We had agreed to sell when the promised Land Bill comes in, and now they say the war will put it off for years and the tenants are restless, and we must probably sell at a heavy loss. However all this troublesome business makes it impossible for the moment for Robert to join the army, as he all but did.
Her letters a year later show her apparently taking his belated decision to enlist with sorrowful equanimity. As she told Quinn on 4 September 1915, ‘Robert having got through the sale and transfer of his land has gone to London to offer himself to the army. I am not sure if he is right but I am sure it is right he should make up his own mind so I have not meddled. But I am heavy-hearted and anxious.’ Although he was 34 years old and the father of three young children, and might have used his connections to claim a relatively safe commission, Robert chose assignment from the Connaught Rangers to the Royal Flying Corps, at a time when the average life expectancy for new combat pilots had been estimated at only three weeks. But there is nothing in his or her correspondence to make a reader draw any conclusion other than the obvious: that, always more unionist in his leanings than his mother, Robert had now decided, being free of estate uncertainties, that it was his duty to join the war effort wholeheartedly.
This reasonable conclusion must now be reconsidered, due to the recent emergence of a diary kept by Margaret Gregory that had been lost to view for nearly ninety years. The diary includes details of an extramarital affair conducted by Robert from late 1914 onwards, and of the fallout once his wife, mother and Yeats came to know of it. Happily married to Robert for just over seven years, Margaret had no inkling of the relationship until he abruptly confessed to her when returning to Coole after a week away in January 1915: ‘I went to meet R. Saw something was up. Showed him my sitting room – he told me about Nora – poor Robert – but poor me – nothing will ever be the same again – can’t bear it.’ Nora was 23-year-old Nora Summers, who along with her husband Gerald was part of a circle of painters associated with the New English Art Club in London. Like Robert and Margaret Gregory, they were devotees of the bohemian artist Augustus John, and, also like the Gregorys, they maintained a house in Chelsea. Besides the Summerses, the group included poet and painter Francis MacNamara and his wife Yvonne Majolier; Francis MacNamara had been Robert’s best man in 1907, and had accompanied him, Yeats and Lady Gregory on their tour of Italy that year.
Robert’s confession seems to have been predicated on the expectation that Margaret would simply accept the liaison. Her brief diary entry, probably written the day after he broke the news to her, signals as much, and also signals her astonishment at the idea: ‘He slept with me last night – but I couldn’t sleep – & sat in sitting room – how could he sleep so soundly, it nearly drove me mad. Wants me to go to London & tell Nora he means everything fine. How can I – it would only make open split.’ Over the next two days, though, she ceded significant ground, and, obviously hopeful of patching things up, and also apparently wanting to prevent him from enlisting, she agreed at his urging to go to see Nora Summers in person. ‘What am I to say … Where is his pride. Fancy sending me on such a mission. Do hope I can help him – as he is giving up war for my feelings.’ Her brief visit to London on 17 January 1915 was a predictably unpleasant experience, and when she returned to Coole Robert now emphasized more fully that Nora Summers loved him – an assertion that left Margaret feeling she had been deliberately ‘fooled’ and sent to London ‘on entirely false pretences.’ ‘I feel too, too, miserable & helpless for words,’ she recorded. ‘It is too terrible, not only being second, but suddenly powerless to help in any way.’
Margaret’s diary is largely blank for most of the next month and more, and the few entries she made say nothing about the state of the marriage, but it is clear that some kind of accommodation was worked out when she and Robert returned to London in April 1915. Within a couple of weeks, the Gregorys and the Summerses were dining together again; Margaret even stayed the night at the Summerses’ apartment, and ‘practically persuaded them to come to Coole’. On 30 April she received a ‘very nice letter from Robert over S[ummers] affair and hopes I won’t be worried any more – that rests entirely with him poor darling – it’s a pity he isn’t a little stronger.’
Nora and Gerald Summers did indeed come to Ireland, arriving at Coole Park on 28 June 1915, staying for three nights, and getting on so well with their hosts – ‘Perfect guests!’ Margaret recorded – that the foursome moved together to the Gregorys’ seaside property, Mount Vernon, in the Burren region of Co. Clare, rather than having the Summerses proceed to a nearby bungalow they had rented, as was originally planned. But the group’s amity was explosively punctured some two weeks later, following what Margaret termed a ‘disgusting … scene with Robert and Nora’ on 16 July. The Summerses unceremoniously left Mount Vernon, and the reconciliation between Robert and Margaret quickly began to unravel. ‘Loathesome day – Nora took me for walk & told me “what I ought to know”, Margaret records for 17 July.
[Robert] quite unconcerned when I told him. Summers moved into bungalow – he made me go to dinner with them: what is he made of? Said ‘foolish child’ to Nora – that’s all! Patted me on the back for carrying off my degradation as he wished – the CAD.
The next day brought a ‘letter from Nora about her visit – she & he are certainly a suitable pair’, and on 19 July Margaret recorded, ‘Awful awful day – R[obert] deliberately drove me mad.’ Her diary for the next nine days is either blank or entered in a hasty pencilled script that suggests the level of trauma and conflict she was experiencing. On 22 July, for instance, she wrote ‘R[obert] prefers her – Wrote for chloroform,’ while entries for later that week – including one for 26 July, on which day Yeats arrived at Coole for the summer – note her returning to ‘Burren & chloroform’. Since there is no evidence she was pregnant or injured – chloroform being routinely used for home anaesthetic at that time – it seems that she simply wanted to knock herself out in the face of an awful situation she could no longer bear.
Yet over the following month, with the Summerses showing no intention of leaving their Burren rental, and Robert remaining firmly unrepentant, Margaret, as she had done earlier that year, tried to make the best of things, even talking confidentially with Nora Summers: ‘Odd how fond I am of her, even though she is so rotten & has utterly finished my wonderful dream with Robert.’ But there was a final crisis after the Gregorys returned to Coole on 21 August 1915 for their daughter Catherine’s second birthday. The next morning, during a ‘terrible’ walk with Margaret, Robert announced his intention to enlist, saying it was now the ‘only thing possible’. He had been in an ‘awful state’ earlier that week (‘May I never see anything like it again – lost all control – said he must be with Nora’) and he now seems to have been no longer able to tolerate his conflicted home situation. ‘Gorgeous day for such a burial,’ wrote Margaret. ‘We sat by the lake – [Robert] said I had at any rate taught him to love growth – & he has taught me to love everything that I now know doesn’t exist. Saw him off. Never never never will I believe in anything moral in him again – he is all momentary drive.’ That night she had a ‘vivid dream of meeting him just outside studio door, dragging easel – & telling me he had tried & failed’. It’s a telling moment: if Robert had enacted a ‘burial’ of their marriage, her response was to begin to allow herself to acknowledge that he had in fact so far largely failed in his artistic career, and to abandon most of her former confidence in him as a creative force.
Left alone at Coole on 23 August 1915 after Robert went back to Mount Vernon, Margaret now confided partially in Lady Gregory, telling her mother-in-law only that Robert had expressed a desire to live in London on his own. Lady Gregory, she recorded, was ‘dead against it, says it is only an excuse for wildness’. But the conversation was clearly enough to arouse her suspicion, and the next day Margaret wrote anxiously that she ‘half knows. Dead against my going to see them.’ But she went anyway, to be treated to an extraordinary scene, in which first Robert ‘told his dream’ – presumably his dream of the plane crash – and then an ‘impossible interview’ took place with the Summerses, during which Nora’s face was ‘swollen purple with rage’. Finally ‘R[obert] hit Summers’, who later in the day ‘wrote begging to be allowed to go peacefully’. Once the Summerses ‘had crawled off in smashed motor car, to Galway’ on 25 August, Margaret returned the next day, shaken, to Coole, where she now more fully confided in Lady Gregory. ‘Unfortunately for her, she grasped all the real issue, but so thankful they are gone she is momentarily happy.’ By the next morning, Lady Gregory’s momentary happiness had evaporated, and in what is perhaps the most dramatic entry in the diary, Margaret recorded the following:
27 August 1915. Coole. Aunt Augusta very upset after night – so I defended R[obert]. ‘That I should have lived to know my son was a cad.’ Wish we hadn’t told her – but that would have made her suspicious. Robert decided to join army. So he can keep faith over nothing at all – nor deny himself nothing, however it kills.
The ramifications of this exchange for the established view of Lady Gregory are extraordinary, not least in obliging us to revisit more cautiously her subsequent lionizations of Robert and constant stress on her maternal care for him. The strength of her reaction to the news is signalled most emphatically by what happened when she left Coole on 1 October 1915 for her final lecture tour of the USA, a trip that would take her away for four and a half months, during which time Robert would be going off to war, perhaps never to return. That day, Margaret records simply and affectingly that Lady Gregory ‘didn’t want R[obert] to go to station’ to see her off.
Lady Gregory’s indictment of Robert as a ‘cad’ might briefly give us pause, given that she had an affair with Wilfrid Blunt in 1882–3, early in her own marriage. But her dismissal of her son seems not to have been on account of his moral failure in cheating on Margaret so much as for his total lack of concern for her well-being. As she apparently recognized, Robert was deliberately humiliating his wife, and to a significant extent enjoying doing so. Lady Gregory herself had long harboured guilt about the betrayal she had inflicted on her husband, Sir William Gregory. Though the affair with Blunt had apparently remained secret, she ended it in some distress, and had then remained a dutiful and affectionate wife – with more than a hint of compensatory care – for the remaining decade of Sir William’s life. In the poems she wrote and gave to Blunt when they parted, she had hoped that the experience of having shown ‘weakness’ herself would give her greater ‘charity’ in judging others’ failings. Robert, by contrast, emphatically declined to see his liaison with Nora Summers as something to be guilty about; as Margaret noted the day after the violent events of 24 August, he didn’t ‘seem to realize in the least the rotter he has proved himself’. What she describes in her diary is sometimes fundamentally ugly: a man getting a charge out of hurting a woman who clearly still loves him even after being deceived and abused.
Soon after enlisting, Robert began training as a pilot; he entered active service on the German front in summer 1916, was quickly promoted to Captain, then Flight Commander, and finally became a Squadron Commander in June 1917. That summer he won the Military Cross for ‘conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty’ and was also awarded the Légion d’honneur by the French government. To chart Gregory’s flying career through the combat records and flight logs that survive is to recognize how little detail of his bravery has been described in the published record, or even in the laconic, self-effacing content of his own combat reports. It is almost certain, for instance, that Gregory engaged in one-to-one combat in March 1917 with Manfred von Richthofen – the Red Baron, Germany’s greatest air ace of World War One – and actually succeeded in bringing his plane down, the only occasion this happened in von Richthofen’s career before he was killed by ground fire in 1918.
Despite the trauma of 1915, Margaret Gregory remained hopeful – most of the time – for reconciliation with Robert, and during his leaves from active duty over the next two and a half years the marriage was sustained publicly, and with some interludes of what seems to have been mutual happiness. But her diary charts a repeated pattern of hurtful or indifferent behaviour on Robert’s part, with periods of loving attention from him being routinely followed by withdrawal, and a failure to write her more than occasional letters when he returned to duty. Their exchanges in summer and autumn 1917, when Robert commanded a squadron based at Colney and was often able to spend nights and sometimes several days at a time with Margaret in London, are characteristic – ‘18th day since any news from Robert’, she writes in early August. Robert ‘seemed depressed’, she records of a dinner on 8 September 1917: ‘all rather sad & dull – I can’t fight his moods – no power’. She became pregnant around this point – a development that left her ‘dreadfully depressed’ as it was emphatically unwanted – and this was quickly followed by news of Robert’s transfer to command Squadron 66 in Italy. Following farewell dinners with friends, and then with his old squadron on 20 October – the day on which Yeats married elsewhere in London – Gregory left for his new post on 24 October 1917. ‘[T]o Charing Cross to see him off,’ Margaret wrote: ‘Perfectly miserable – wept all down Strand.’ In early December 1917, after several weeks of increasingly severe haemorrhaging, she suffered a miscarriage. The event gave her ‘the greatest relief and joy anyway – How thankful Robert will be if he even bothers to be thankful’.
For all her depression, and the occasional hostility she felt towards Robert, the news of his death in January 1918 came as stunning blow, leaving her seriously depressed for months, feeling vulnerable and emotionally isolated, and anxious in her role as single mother of three children. Most of all it heightened the conflicted nature of her situation at Coole, where Lady Gregory continued to hold significant sway, even though Margaret, having inherited Robert’s entire estate on his death, was now the legal owner. Just as had been the case for Robert during the fifteen years of his ownership, Margaret ended up possessing the estate de jure, but never quite de facto, with Lady Gregory successfully resisting or outflanking most of her efforts to sell it outright. These conflicts and their implications for the future of Coole and Lady Gregory, along with the significant personal fallout from the events of 1915, would be crucial influences on the writing of Yeats’s elegies.
Although he arrived at Coole on 26 July 1915, Yeats was not a direct witness to any of the volatile events at Mount Vernon. We can be quite sure, however, that he was soon well aware of what had taken place. Margaret’s diary entry of 27 August, recording Lady Gregory’s response to hearing about the affair, concludes by noting that her mother-in-law was ‘off to Connemara’ the next day, and that Yeats was ‘to come to Burren’.
One reason for her surprising decision to send Yeats into the epicentre of the marital conflict rather than let him stay at Coole on his own may have been the presence at Mount Vernon of Alick Schepeler, a close friend of the Gregorys and the Summerses from the New English Art Club circle, and the former mistress of Augustus John and Wyndham Lewis. Yeats had first met Schepeler a few weeks earlier, beginning a correspondence with her in connection with his clairvoyant searches for a will left by Sir Hugh Lane, who had drowned earlier that year on the Lusitania. If sparks had not already been struck between them then, they certainly had been since Yeats’s arrival at Coole. Margaret records for 29 July that ‘Uncle Frank [Persse] drove Auntie [Arabella Waithman, Lady Gregory’s sister] over in the evening – said how attracted Yeats was with Alick.’ This entry is ambiguously worded, but regardless of who was reporting Yeats’s interest, it was evidently already open knowledge. It is also clear that Lady Gregory was ready to encourage the connection. Recently turned fifty, Yeats had begun to voice a resolute desire to marry, openly lamenting his years of ‘barren’ passion for Maud Gonne, and his consequent lack of an heir, in the introductory poem to Responsibilities in 1914. Having tried, without success, to serve as matchmaker for him for some years, Lady Gregory seems to have regarded Aleck Schepeler favourably, perhaps because a relationship with a friend of Robert and Margaret would have bound Yeats far more closely to the orbit of Coole Park. In a letter to Schepeler after her visit, she commented directly on Yeats’s obvious interest in her.
So it was that just a day after Lady Gregory termed her own son ‘a cad’, and four days after Robert Gregory had assaulted Gerald Summers, Yeats came as a guest into the tense atmosphere at Mount Vernon, with Margaret recording the event in another syntactically ambiguous diary entry: ‘Yeats arrived – Alick in great excitement – of course delighted about R[obert] and the army.’ Given Schepeler’s intimate knowledge of events at Mount Vernon – the diary confirms she was there for most of August, and that she and Margaret had ‘[compared] notes about’ Robert’s and Nora Summers’s ‘guiltiness’ – it seems most likely that it was she who was ‘delighted’ by Robert’s decision to enlist; if it was in fact Yeats’s view, it was not one he subsequently repeated. At Mount Vernon the attraction between the guests quickly blossomed, with Yeats characteristically drawing on the occult as mode of seduction. What Margaret termed ‘a ridiculous séance’ on the first night of Yeats’s stay was followed the next day by his effort at ‘making Alick call up spirits – which she half did and got frightened’. Returning from a walk that night, Margaret ‘saw them through the window’ – a wonderfully cryptic entry, suggesting that matters may have quickly moved from the occult to the physical plane. Given her close friendship with Margaret, Schepeler’s burgeoning relationship with Yeats that autumn ensured he was not only conversant with the circumstances of Robert’s enlistment, but also likely well-informed of what happened between the Gregorys in the months immediately ahead. Fleeting comments in his correspondence with Lady Gregory confirm that he had discussed the explosive events at Coole with both her and Schepeler.
Seen through the lens of Robert Gregory’s affair with Nora Summers and its aftermath, much in ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ at once acquires new resonance, not least the poem’s praise for Robert’s ‘[m]ost courteous’ manner. The closing song, in which the Goatherd imagines the dead man growing younger, and revisiting and unpacking the experiences of his life, is perhaps the most strikingly reinflected:
Knowledge he shall unwind
Through victories of the mind,
Till, clambering at the cradle-side,
He dreams himself his mother’s pride,
All knowledge lost in trance
Of sweeter ignorance.
The process described here is detailed at length in A Vision, where it is termed ‘Dreaming Back’ – a procedure in which the spirit of someone who has died is compelled to revisit the ‘good and evil of his past life’ and work through to atonement for their failings. As Yeats describes it:
The dream may be dreamed through by the Spirit once, or many times with short or long periods of awakening, but the man must dream the event to its consequence as far as his intensity permit; not that consequence only which occurred while he lived, and was known to him, but those that were unknown, or have occurred after his death. The more complete the exploration, the more fortunate will be his future life. … it is said that if his nature had great intensity, and the consequences of the event affected multitudes, he may dream with slowly lessening pain and joy for centuries.
Seen in these terms, ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ enacts, or at least imagines, an expiation of Robert’s guilt at having hurt his wife and mother, with his dead spirit stripping away his responsibility for events. He is returned first to youthful joyous love and artistry in the poem – ‘He’ll practise on the shepherd’s flute, / Or on the close-cropped grass / Court his shepherd lass’ – and then to childhood innocence and reunification with the mother – ‘Till, clambering at the cradle-side, / He dreams himself his mother’s pride’. Read at face value once we know about Robert’s affair and behaviour towards Margaret, the poem simply seems to wish away the conflicts that had racked the Gregorys; but read in the context of A Vision, it offers a delicate compliment, already subtly ascribing to Robert the ‘great intensity’ and moral complexity needed for a successful Dreaming Back.
When Yeats arrived at Coole on 6 April 1918, for his first meeting with Lady Gregory since both Robert’s death and his own marriage the previous October, he entered a house in which the grieving process was still at an extremely raw stage. Lady Gregory had moved from her long-established bedroom into what had been Robert’s room just two days before, wanting to ‘prevent it being a closed room’. Margaret in turn proceeded to redecorate what had been Lady Gregory’s room, possibly even taking it over as her own – either course being freighted with potential significance in the underlying battle for primacy at Coole. Property valuers had spent a full day in the house four weeks earlier, in preparation for the settlement of Robert’s will, a process which likewise cannot have failed to call attention to the question of who would take charge of the estate. Yeats’s arrival – at a time when he was deeply invested in his recent marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees and in the automatic script they were exploring together, and also preoccupied with his acquisition and renovation of Thoor Ballylee, then nearing completion – could not have been more awkward. As Roy Foster has succinctly put it, ‘In a few short months WBY’s relationship to Coole had changed dramatically.’
Yeats’s marriage had marked a pivotal shift in his relationship with Lady Gregory. He had made significant efforts to assure her that the terms of their friendship would not change, writing in December 1917, for instance: ‘My wife is a perfect wife, kind, wise, & unselfish. I think you were such another young girl once. She has made my life serene & full of order.’ But some degree of jealousy and a sense of dispossession on Gregory’s part, and a pulling away and new independence on his part, were inevitable. To praise her for precisely the qualities he saw in his new wife of course surely managed to suggest that George – as Yeats called her – was a replacement for his old friend; and Gregory was certainly conscious of being supplanted. In the very wake of his announcement of the engagement – after some of the most intimate exchanges of their long correspondence, during which he had appealed repeatedly to her for advice when he was unsure whether to propose to George or to Iseult Gonne – Yeats would register a pained response to a remark in which she seems to have combined criticism of him and some degree of jealousy, telling her she ‘had hurt me very much by something you said about [my] being married in the clothes I bought to court Iseult in’. To add to this volatile mix, George Yeats herself was understandably suspicious of Lady Gregory. The record of the automatic writing suggests conscious effort on George’s part, even before the visit to Coole, to assert her own claims to primacy and to circumscribe her new husband’s relationship with his old friend.
The stage was thus set for significant tension all round. ‘Yeats and his bride came,’ records Margaret on 6 April: ‘she hideous – very badly made – but apparently quite pleasant. Aunt Augusta very prepared to dislike her.’ Talk of Robert and the possibilities of a new poem were surely soon to the fore, but Yeats’s first priority after his arrival seems to have been finishing ‘Solomon to Sheba’, a poem celebrating the intensity of his new married life. After some days of swirling tension, an explosion finally occurred at dinner on 17 April. Yeats’s recollection of the event, written some three years later, reads as follows:
In April we went to Coole. Margaret Gregory received us both rather rudely. One night … she began at dinner to contradict as usual every thing I said & instead of avoiding reply as I had done hitherto I turned on her. I had come down to dinner in the highest of spirits with this wicked intention & at the end of dinner went up stairs in the highest spirits. George told me I had behaved badly but had so much sympathy with me, that we omitted our usual precaution against conception. … From then on we expected the conception of a child. We had not waited quite as long as the spirit had advised thanks to Margaret Gregory.
The premeditated counterblast to what he saw as Margaret’s rudeness was thus, for Yeats, an assertion of his authority and of his masculinity: an attack on one woman here leads to heightened sympathy from and with another, and a sexual arousal that made the Yeatses forgo contraception. But the incident also highlights the massive investment the poet had in his own centrality in a larger occult plan. Having been forewarned by Lady Gregory, he was well aware that Margaret was still ‘distracted with grief’ over Robert’s death, and he also knew about Margaret’s recent miscarriage. Yet Yeats not only congratulates himself for his ‘wicked intention’ in challenging her at the dinner table, but also sees the incident as accelerating the timetable for his fathering of a child that his Vision Notebooks show he expected to be the reincarnation of a seventeenth-century Irish noblewoman, and an avatar. The dinner-table exchange thus had significant dynastic implications, even if Yeats may not have recognized them: Robert and Margaret’s stillborn child, an actual heir to Coole Park and its traditions, is eclipsed by Yeats’s focus on his own prospective child, whom he expects to be the incarnation of a higher power, and by implication a maker of Ireland’s future.
Margaret’s diary now restores to us something of the other side of the unpleasant encounter. ‘Yeats too insolent over “Chelsea”,’ she records. ‘I sobbed my eyes out – & told Aunt Augusta what I thought of him.’ This suggests that Yeats’s putdowns were centred on the Chelsea coterie that had fostered Robert’s affair and the resulting conflicts of 1915. He had directly dismissed this world on occasion before (though not apparently to the young Gregorys in person) as peopled by those with too much money to need to work, and insufficient talent to have real work to do. The upshot of the dinner-table encounter was that two mornings later the Yeatses left Coole, taking lodgings in Galway city briefly before moving into Ballinamantane House, near Gort, where they would stay until moving into the restored cottage at Thoor Ballylee in early September – a decamping abrupt enough to suggest that the situation had soured beyond quick repair. The blow-up ushered in a long period of outright hostility between Yeats and Margaret Gregory – he would recall this in 1932 as ‘a time when she & I were enemies’ – and her diary confirms that even the occasional subsequent visits Yeats made to see his old friend and patron that summer were fraught with tension. Lady Gregory was ‘full of Yeats’s meanness’ following a dinner at Coole with him and the young Seán MacBride on 22 July, for instance. In January the following year she would tell Yeats that it was ‘impossible’ for her to entertain him at Coole while Margaret was still there, adding reproachfully, ‘I wondered what had become of you I had not heard from you for so long. I suppose you have been busy.’
The stately rhetoric and architecture of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ seem only the more impressive once we know that it was composed in such circumstances. Yeats read a first draft to Margaret Gregory on 26 May – she recorded that it was ‘fine, nearly very fine’ – and he then added and revised for two more weeks, until he could report to Ezra Pound that he considered it ‘one of my best poems’. But if the elegy gives generously in its central gestures of praise for the dead Robert, it is nonetheless framed and phrased in ways that quietly register the unpropitious circumstances of its composition. The opening stanza, easily passed over, is particularly suggestive in this respect:
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 th’ 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.
The first line unobtrusively calls attention to the setting in which the meditation nominally takes place: the tower at Thoor Ballylee, which Yeats had bought in March 1917. The property was being restored, and he and George would not move in for three more months, and then only to the cottage at its foot rather than into the tower itself – hence ‘almost settled’. But the word ‘settled’ here is a heavily freighted term, since in ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ Yeats had pointedly characterized Robert as ‘no settled man’. The opening of ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ thus serves as an elliptical reminder that, unlike the now-dead Robert who had left no mark, leaving all ‘as in his father’s time’, Yeats himself was about to achieve a powerful independence from Coole Park, where he had been for so long merely a guest – ‘no settled man’ himself, and, in his earlier years at least, one who had ‘ruffled in a manly pose’. Even the climb up the ‘narrow winding stair to bed’ in this opening stanza is, by implication, an assertion of privilege and of virility, since it is explicitly a journey to be taken only by Yeats and his new wife – her presence is implied by ‘our’ in the opening line – and not either by living guests or by the dead spirits he goes on to evoke. As such it offers us a passing echo, perhaps, of that image of Yeats and George going ‘up stairs in the highest of spirits’ on 17 April 1918 after the unpleasant evening of conflict with Margaret Gregory.
Ezra Pound, for one, was so struck by the gendered and eroticized schema and arrogant tone of Yeats’s early references to the tower that he sarcastically referred to Thoor Ballylee as Yeats’s ‘phallic symbol on the bogs – Bally phallus or whatever he calls it’. An underlying association in Yeats’s mind between Robert’s death, the argument with Margaret, the forgoing of contraception, and the birth of his daughter Anne the following year is further hinted at by the fact that when he came to write ‘A Prayer for my Daughter’ in 1919, Yeats would again use the archaic stanza form he had drawn on for the first time for ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ – the so-called Cowley eight-line stanza, in which the lines rhyme in the pattern aabbcddc. These are the only occasions in his canon in which he recruited this unusual form for entire poems, and since the Cowley stanza is traditionally associated with elegy it was thus on the face of it an odd choice for a work celebrating his first child’s birth. Given his characteristic attention to form, it is hard to dismiss the echo as being merely coincidental. If it was indeed a deliberate signalling of a connection between the two poems, the echo looks like another potentially aggressive move, with Yeats again emphasizing his creative and sexual capacity, and his success in effectively supplanting the dead man. The conjunction quietly indicates that it is his offspring, not Robert’s, who are imagined as continuing the traditions of courtesy, decorum and accomplishment that had characterized the now significantly compromised heritage of Coole Park: ‘And may her bridegroom bring her to a house / Where all’s accustomed, ceremonious; / For arrogance and hatred are the wares / Peddled in the thoroughfares’.
Yeats had bought Thoor Ballylee, three miles from Coole, in part as a way of affirming his continuing connection with Lady Gregory. In ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ he declares that he ‘For an old neighbour’s friendship chose the house / And decked and altered it for a girl’s love’. But the purchase was far from unequivocally welcome to Lady Gregory, since whatever pleasure she had in seeing him settled, and settled nearby, was complicated by his new independence and her consequent loss of influence. The implications of Yeats’s privileging of ‘love’ over ‘friendship’ in the lines from ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ would have been readily apparent to her: what the poet does for ‘a girl’s love’ is clearly of a different order from what he does for ‘an old neighbour’s friendship’. Just as his seemingly flattering declaration immediately after his marriage – that she must once have been a ‘perfect’ young girl like George – was unfortunately double-edged in indicating that she was no longer young, so Yeats’s lines in ‘Meditations in Time of Civil War’ again manage to highlight Lady Gregory’s age and secondary status, even as they nominally emphasize her continuing centrality in his life. Though she dutifully acted as Yeats’s representative and agent over the many months of restoration of Ballylee, and indeed conducted the bargaining with the Congested Districts Board by which he managed to acquire the property for just £35, she seems to have been well aware that his purchase of the tower was to some extent a gesture of appropriation. Until its acquisition by the Board, Ballylee had long been part of the Coole estate, and thus until quite recently Robert’s possession. She was careful to remind Yeats of this in early 1917, when the transfer was formalized: ‘Robert didn’t get one penny for the castle. I don’t know what he got for the stony acre.’ The implication is clear enough: Yeats’s advantageous purchase price, which she had negotiated with her friend Henry Doran, came to some degree at her own son’s expense.
But the property had not, of course, been solely Robert’s. In his absence on military service, Margaret had assumed principal responsibility for decisions regarding the estate, and her permission had thus been required for the sale to Yeats to proceed. Lady Gregory seems to have acted as something of a go-between, telling Margaret ‘how set’ Yeats was on the purchase, and reporting back to him that her daughter-in-law ‘seemed content’ to agree to the transaction – a wording indicative of a continuing level of reluctance or resistance on Margaret’s part. Even after the purchase had been agreed, Yeats received one last reminder that the property had been under Margaret’s control when his cheque for payment was briefly returned to him since the sale could ‘not be closed till “Gregory estate is transferred to Board”’. As a final bitter coincidence that can only have heightened her sense of the implications of the transfer, Lady Gregory received the documentation of Yeats’s new ownership of Ballylee, on his behalf, around 1 June 1917, in the midst of what would prove to be her son’s last visit home, during which he made the decision to sell the remaining outlying Coole lands. Given that Yeats had already told her that he planned to marry, one way or another, in the next few months, his purchase of Ballylee, in part intended to provide an Irish base for his married life, surely served to emphasize the contrast between her own son’s troubled marriage and problematic financial circumstances, and Yeats’s flourishing and assertive state.
If Yeats’s desire to buy Thoor Ballylee was in one sense highly flattering to Lady Gregory – in dramatizing his desire to put down roots in the Galway landscape where they had first gathered folklore together twenty years earlier – it must also have served to remind her that even what still remained of the once-proud Coole estate was now to be sold, and that this surviving remnant was, by summer 1918, legally under neither her own control nor her now-dead son’s. The declaration of independence that begins ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ thus contains a veiled acknowledgement – conscious or not – that the soon-to-be ‘settled’ Yeats had to some degree taken over the both the actual property of the man it elegizes and his effective authority, much as he had recently asserted his dominance over Robert’s widow by more direct means over the dinner table. The opening of the poem, at least, is thus fundamentally engaged as much with Yeats’s own efforts of self-construction as it is with memorializing Robert.
Similar revealing subtexts can be detected elsewhere in the poem. In extolling the fallen airman as ‘our Sidney and our perfect man’ Yeats presumably intended – as with his image in ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ of Robert recovering the innocence of the cradle, and becoming once again ‘his mother’s pride’ – to offer a restorative gesture to the Gregorys, in which all thoughts of Robert cheating on his wife, hitting Gerald Summers, ‘losing all control’ and proving to be a ‘cad’, could be replaced by an image of him as perfect courtier and Renaissance man. As Peter Sacks has observed, though, the three dead spirits Yeats summons up first in the poem are all figures of problematic masculinity: Lionel Johnson, whose body, Yeats claimed elsewhere, was discovered during autopsy to have the sexual organs ‘of a child’; John Synge, whom he had described as being of ‘low vitality’ and ‘condemned to the life of a monk’; and finally George Pollexfen, once a ‘muscular youth’ known for his athleticism, who had subsequently withdrawn into nervous hypochondria – ‘Some love affair had gone wrong when he was a very young man; he had now no interest in women.’ In the poem, Robert by implication avoids the failings of these men, all of whom were possessed of an intense artistic inwardness that was, for Yeats, significantly compromised in some way by the limitations of their sexual vigour: Robert alone, the elegy tells us, ‘had the intensity / To have published all to be a world’s delight’. But despite the rhetorical force of that implication, the poem nonetheless remains utterly precise in its limiting language: Gregory had the intensity ‘to have published all’ but manifestly he did not actually publish. So too with the famous ‘Soldier, scholar, horseman, he, / As ‘twere all life’s epitome’; we leap over that powerfully qualifying ‘As ‘twere’ at our peril. Rather than claiming that Gregory transcended the shortcomings of Johnson, Synge and Pollexfen by managing to unite profound artistic sensibility with robust physical and sexual energies, the poem may thus be suggesting that he, too, was in fact significantly compromised in his abilities: that his fast-burning physical intensity had prevented him from reaching the inwardness necessary to achieve real creativity. Margaret had herself come to just such a conclusion, judging Robert to have been ‘all momentary drive’ and then dreaming of him ‘outside’ his studio door, dragging his easel, and acknowledging his own failure as a painter.
If Robert Gregory enlisted in September 1915 partly or mainly as a means to escape a domestic life that had become fraught with conflict, his dream or premonition of a crashed aircraft suggests that he did so expecting, even hoping, to die in action. ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ is the most powerful of Yeats’s three elegies partly because it ends up responding most directly to the actual circumstances that motivated Gregory to join up, and thus obliged Yeats to engage more directly with his own mixed feelings about its subject.
Notably, none of the three elegies makes any kind of conventional claim for Robert’s death as an heroic contribution to a valiant or necessary war. Given Lady Gregory’s resistance to Robert’s enlistment, this is unsurprising: as an Irish nationalist, she was unwilling to give unequivocal support to the British cause, and indeed in May 1918, during the very period Yeats was drafting ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, she wrote and co-signed with him a letter to the press condemning proposals to introduce compulsory conscription in Ireland, on the grounds that obliging Irishman to fight in a British war would ‘destroy all hope of peace in Ireland and goodwill towards England in our life time’. Yet however pointedly Yeats sought to return Robert to the landscape of his Galway home in ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ – ‘My country is Kiltartan Cross, / My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor’ – the poem’s central movement, as we have seen, defines his motivations as fundamentally non-political: ‘Those that I fight I do not hate, / Those that I guard I do not love.’ It was neither duty nor a sense that the war would change the fortunes of his Irish neighbours that motivated him to fly, the poem claims: ‘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.’ Instead, it is a ‘lonely impulse of delight / Drove to this tumult in the clouds’.
The wording here is again precisely suggestive once we consider the events of 1915. The airman thinks that neither his death nor heroic victory could make much difference to his countrymen – on the face of it an odd claim, not fully explainable away as ‘sprezzatura’ or aristocratic indifference to the ordinary world, but with a sharper resonance if it suggests, by extension, that whatever became of him, the rifts that had opened up in his marriage, and between him and his mother, could not be easily healed. The phrases ‘lonely impulse of delight’ and ‘tumult in the clouds’ have likewise been routinely interpreted as ascribing to Gregory precisely the kind of artistic distance and pride that Yeats saw as essential to true creativity; as indeed they do. But ‘lonely’ – a word Yeats used very infrequently after 1900, and then rarely with positive connotations – brings a slightly different inflection than his more typical usage ‘solitary’; the latter implies deliberate detachment, the former, an element of distress. A similar set of inflections is operative in ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ in which Gregory’s art is recalled as expressing ‘loneliness’ and a ‘sorrowful’ music.
The prospect of death is embraced at the end of the poem, but the motivations precipitating that embrace are, the wording tells us, thoroughly uncomfortable ones: ‘The years to come seemed waste of breath / A waste of breath the years behind.’ Yeats’s phrasing here has been read as granting artistic intensity, philosophic gravity and personal dignity to Gregory’s impulse to fly, taking him beyond the merely personal, or the transiently political. But read another way the poem says, quite transparently, that Gregory felt his current life and his future prospects were barren, that he could no longer be at one with the world he had occupied, and that he was in effect motivated by a death wish. As with the two earlier elegies, the Gregory family would surely have found much here that was uncomfortably direct beneath the lapidary surface text that ostensibly praises and ennobles; and it is thus perhaps unsurprising that neither Margaret nor Lady Gregory left any substantive record of her private response to the poem.
For both women, Robert’s death would have significant consequences. Lady Gregory admitted to George Bernard Shaw that she was ‘maimed without him’. That summer she doubted whether she would ‘ever do any original writing again’, and indeed the lion’s share of her subsequent work would be biographical and autobiographical prose. She remained determined to keep Coole and its traditions alive if possible, telling John Quinn that whereas she had been planting trees the previous month ‘for Robert’ she was now planting trees for her grandson Richard. But her son’s death had left Margaret as the sole legal owner of what remained of the estate; and while Robert had consistently deferred to his mother’s wishes, and would presumably have supported her desire to retain the house and core demesne lands, Margaret felt little such obligation of loyalty. By 1919, as the War of Independence intensified the challenge of maintaining the property and left Ireland in her view unsafe for her children, Margaret became increasingly determined to sell what remained. The final straw for her came in May 1921, when she was the sole survivor of a tennis party ambushed in their car by the IRA at the gates of Ballyturn House, a few miles from Coole. Margaret was convinced it was pure chance that she had not been killed, as she was the last to leave the car and the only passenger to ‘take cover behind the left side of the motor’, though a later account by one of the gunmen suggests she was spared out of regard for Lady Gregory’s well-known nationalist sympathies. The experience further soured her already negative opinion of Ireland – out of every 1,000 Irishmen, she wrote, ‘995 are swine’ – and that summer she dismissed Coole categorically as ‘both useless and impossible financially’. She acceded to Lady Gregory’s appeal a few months later to rent her the house and demesne by the year, but did so only on strict condition that she herself would no longer ‘pay for any outgoings of any kind’ on the property. This agreement allowed Lady Gregory to maintain the house for a few more years, and fortuitously gave her enough time to negotiate the arrangement by which she stayed at Coole as a tenant after the sale of the residual demesne to the Forestry Commission in 1927. Margaret’s resolute intention to sever her Irish connection would, however, prove incomplete, as a deepening friendship with Guy Gough of the neighbouring Lough Cutra estate, begun in 1919, eventually culminated in them marrying nine years later.
For Nora Summers, too, the events of 1915 had unexpected consequences. After Robert left to enlist, she began an intimate relationship with Yvonne Majolier, who had been abandoned by Francis MacNamara the year before. Nora and Gerald Summers and their one son, along with Majolier and her four children, together formed an extended household for many years. In her memoirs, Majolier’s eldest daughter offered a decorously insinuating reminiscence of the two women at the heart of this ménage, in a passage which recounts Nora Summers’s interest in breeding goats: ‘Pedigree goats have the hysterical emotions of neurotic women: jealousies and loves that spoil their milk and interfere with their health … Goats don’t like men … they are Lesbian’. Alick Schepeler’s intimate relationship with Yeats, begun during the eventful summer of 1915, seems to have petered out by that year’s end, although Margaret’s diary suggests that there may have been a brief renewal of the affair in early March 1917. Her friendship with Margaret continued and even intensified after Robert’s death, and she was again invited to Coole in summer 1918. On 8 August Margaret recorded having taken ‘Alick to Ballylee’ and ‘discussed sale’ with her – an entry which suggests a degree of continuing resentment on her part at Yeats’s purchase of the property. The visit also gave an opportunity, perhaps, for both women to consider what might have been had Yeats married Schepeler rather than George Hyde-Lees. But Schepeler’s connection with the poet was by then over. The now-married Yeats seems to have kept a careful distance from his old paramour while she was at Coole, writing disapprovingly of her to Lady Gregory, and there would be no further encouraging letters from Coole to her after this final visit.
Having provided the ‘monument’ expected of him, Yeats turned his attention elsewhere after the summer of 1918, and over the next two years Robert Gregory barely features in his correspondence. In November 1920, however, he revisited Robert’s death once more, as the wave of violence ushered in by the Black and Tans during the Anglo-Irish War reached its height.
‘Reprisals’ is not a secure presence in Yeats’s canon, since Lady Gregory’s objections to the poem meant that it was not published during his lifetime. Even now it appears only sporadically, and then as an appendix, in collected editions of his work. Nor can it be readily termed an elegy for Robert: its central occasion is a complaint against the immorality of the British government for allowing the ‘Half-drunk or whole-mad’ Black and Tans to conduct their campaign of terror against the Irish civilian population. The poem was inspired specifically by the murder of Eileen Quinn, a Coole tenant shot by Black and Tans from a passing lorry as she sat outside her house suckling her child. Following closely on a series of burnings and shootings near Coole, the rape of two local sisters as their father and brother were forced to watch, and the death of Mayor Terence MacSwiney of Cork from his long hunger strike protesting British policy, the killing left Lady Gregory near despair about the prospects for Ireland, and more contemptuous of unionist orthodoxies than she had ever been. In her journal she records her rising discomfort at the singing of ‘God Save the King’ in the Church of Ireland church in Gort, and at the disdain for MacSwiney registered by one of her unionist neighbours. On the day she heard of Eileen Quinn’s murder, the journal concludes as follows: ‘When I pray “God save Ireland” the words come thrusting through “Gott strafe England” in spite of my desire not to give in to hatred.’
Although previously inclined to view the Sinn Féin movement in negative terms – as an excuse for land-grabbing and the settling of local scores under the banner of patriotic action – Lady Gregory became increasingly republican in her sympathies as the war raged on, praising the Irish Volunteers for their ‘fine work [in] keeping order, putting down disorder, spilling out poteen on the roadsides, stopping robberies [and administering] punishment [of thieves]. They are building up a new country, with these methods, and with their Courts.’ Her friendly dealings with and deferential posture towards the local Sinn Féin committee undoubtedly helped preserve peaceful relations on the Coole estate during this period, as she strove to finalize the sale of some of the remaining lands to tenants. But her change of view was not merely self-serving. Beginning in early October 1920, wanting a record of the Black and Tan ‘horrors’ to be made known in England, she sent a sequence of six reports on the violence in her area, in the form of a weekly ‘diary of local events’, to the London journal The Nation, where they were published anonymously, though identified as the work of a ‘distinguished writer and landlord’. This was a dangerous venture, since her mail was regularly opened by military forces during this period, and she was well aware that she might easily have become a target for reprisal by the Black and Tans if the articles were identified as hers.
The third of her six reports, published on 13 November 1920 under the title ‘Murder by the Throat’, offers a harrowing account of the killing of Eileen Quinn. Citing information from a local informant, Lady Gregory graphically highlights the violence of the murder – ‘The whole place was splashed with blood like a butcher’s shop’ – the victim’s suffering as she died, and the anguish of Quinn’s husband and children. Although she had not told Yeats of her authorship of the articles up to this point, it is likely that he read some or all of them, not least since ‘Murder by the Throat’ appeared in an issue of The Nation that also included the first printing of his poems ‘A Meditation in Time of War’, ‘Towards Break of Day’, and ‘On a Political Prisoner’. She certainly assumed he had done so – writing to him on 4 December 1920 she commented ‘I daresay you recognize me in the “Nation” but of course I don’t want my name given’ – so it seems probable that ‘Reprisals’ was at least partly a response to ‘Murder by the Throat’.
Reflecting on the anarchy seeping Ireland, the poem openly questions whether Robert Gregory’s service during the Great War – for a cause ‘that we / Imagined such a fine affair’ – may have been pointless, since the sacrifice made by Irish servicemen has manifestly neither ushered in a safer or better world for their countrymen, nor, given the British government’s apparent indifference to the Black and Tan violence, earned respect or honour for their country. Even Gregory’s personal apotheosis in finding ‘delight’ amongst the clouds is called into question – ‘Today / Can ghost or man be satisfied?’ – and what had seemed ‘a good death’ is now construed as not even leaving ‘dear’ memories. ‘Reprisals’ invites Robert’s ghost to ‘rise’ from his ‘Italian tomb’, to come to Kiltartan and survey the horrors now taking place, and then ‘close your ears with dust and lie / Among the other cheated dead.’ Sending Lady Gregory the new poem on 26 November, Yeats told her that he had already sent it to The Times for publication and would offer it to The Nation if The Times declined to print it. He had not asked her leave to do so, he said, on the grounds that ‘one must make what appeal one can now and at once’. The poem was, he believed, ‘good & good for its purpose’.
In her journal, Lady Gregory recorded a distraught response to reading the poem:
Yeats writes enclosing lines he has written and has, without telling me, sent to The Times, I dislike them – I cannot bear the dragging of R from his grave to make what I think a not very sincere poem – for Yeats only knows by hearsay while our troubles go on – and he quoted words G.B.S[haw] told him and did not mean him to repeat – and which will give pain – I hardly know why it gives me extraordinary pain and it seems too late to stop it … and I fear the night.
Expecting that publication was inevitable, she made no immediate reply to Yeats, but when the poem had still not appeared in The Times by 2 December, she wired ‘begging him to suppress it’. In a letter to him the same day, she emphasized that the poem was ‘personally painful’ to her, but also stressed that she thought it would be in any case be politically ineffective or even counterproductive if published. The Kilmichael ambush of 28 November 1920, in which the IRA inflicted major casualties on a well-trained British unit, was likely ‘to stir up violent feelings against Ireland again’, she noted, thus making it a poor moment ‘to appeal to emotion in Britain’. She would not have thought it ‘right to object’ to the poem if it might have been influential, she added, but she simply didn’t think it either good in itself – even its ‘“cheated dead” motif’ was hackneyed – or ‘likely to do good’. Yeats promptly complied, wiring to have ‘Reprisals’ withheld. He also wrote to Lady Gregory, swiftly and rather unconvincingly backpedalling from his assertion that the poem was ‘good and good for its purpose’ by saying that he had written it ‘less because it would be a good poem than because I thought it might touch some individual mind of a man in power’ and asserting that he had ‘long hesitated’ before writing. Most tellingly, he hoped that her ‘objection’ to it was ‘entirely on public, or local grounds, & not on any personal dislike’.
Lady Gregory had numerous reasons for objecting to ‘Reprisals’. Her frustration at Yeats’s apparent disengagement from Irish politics had been building for months, and as he had not been in Galway since autumn 1919 she was acutely conscious of his reliance on ‘hearsay’ in responding to events she was witnessing at close quarters. His few artistic responses to the Anglo-Irish conflict to this point had been muted or narrowly literary at best. In an unpublished letter to The Times in September 1920, for instance, he expressed greatest outrage at the burning of the Labane parochial hall – a building intended for the performance of ‘village plays’ and designed by William Scott (the architect who had planned the renovations for Thoor Ballylee) – rather than at the terrorizing of locals and the destruction of homes. Even his revisions to The King’s Threshold in November 1920 in the wake of MacSwiney’s death might be seen as somewhat opportunistic and self-involved, since they served as much to heighten the play’s call for respect for artists as to protest the raging conflict in Ireland.
Yeats’s indiscretion and discourtesy in sending the poem for publication without consulting Lady Gregory is notably the first point of complaint in her journal entry responding to ‘Reprisals’. Her anger at him for that discourtesy can only have been heightened by the fact that she had written to him just eleven days earlier, telling him that it had been ‘a strange sensation – a little sad too’ for her to encounter another of his poems ‘for the first time’ in print rather than in his ‘own writing’. Given this recent complaint, his decision to send ‘Reprisals’ to press without consulting her may have seemed deliberately hurtful rather than merely careless or inconsiderate. But perhaps her most crucial complaint in the journal is her characterization of ‘Reprisals’ as ‘not very sincere’.
Like his earlier elegies, the poem registers the mixed feelings that mark all of Yeats’s representations of Robert. Its opening claim – ‘Some nineteen German planes, they say, / You had brought down before you died’ – is symptomatic.* We are offered a number that seems tellingly precise and impressive, but is made unsettlingly provisional by the modifying word ‘some’ and by the prominently hanging ‘they say’. The poem thus manages to give generously with one hand – highlighting Gregory’s prowess – while raising a degree of doubt with the other; much as, overall, it begins by building him up as a man of valour, but ends by highlighting the apparent pointlessness of his death in action.
For Lady Gregory, the poem’s imagined repatriation of Robert to Kiltartan from the far remove of his ‘Italian tomb’ must have been particularly upsetting, since this ‘dragging of R from his grave’ effectively restores him to his home landscape only just long enough to become embittered and silenced, without allowing him even the brief possibility of either being honoured or imaginatively reunited with his mother, widow, or children. The poem here also pointedly evokes the figure of Robert’s father, Sir William Gregory, then more than a quarter-century dead but still a ‘revered’ memory for the tenants at Coole. Nominally a celebration of the continuing power of the Gregory lineage, this evocation also quietly succeeds in reminding us that, in Yeats’s scheme, the ‘cuckoo’ Robert had never enjoyed such respect or fixity. As in ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ he is symbolically eclipsed by a man who had died when he was still a child.
Like ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’, ‘Reprisals’ was surely animated in part by Yeats’s continuing conflicted desire for, and jealousy of, the Coole heritage, and his wish to supplant the dead man. ‘Reprisals’ expresses outrage at the ‘murdering’ of Coole tenants but at the same time implicitly indicts Robert for his failure to protect them and thereby maintain the paternalistic Ascendancy authority which Sir William Gregory had successfully exercised. The poem hence manages at the same moment to regret Robert’s death – by figuring it as symptomatic of the decline of the landed tradition in an Ireland now plunged into anarchy – and to relish its reenactment. Whereas ‘Shepherd and Goatherd’ had called frank attention to the way that there was ‘nothing left’ of Robert save ‘half a score / Of sorrowful, austere, sweet, lofty pipe tunes’, ‘Reprisals’ denies even this scant measure of legacy, serving in the end to diminish his seeming achievement of personal intensity and happiness, and his combat prowess – the two things Lady Gregory would have been able to hold on to as positive aspects of his service. However uneasily, ‘In Memory of Major Robert Gregory’ had praised Robert as the image of a courteous and accomplished Renaissance man, while ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’ had credited him with artistic and visionary force. ‘Reprisals’ by contrast seems only to have reminded Lady Gregory of Robert’s very real limitations, the continuing pain of his loss, and her resentment at Yeats’s increasing distance and seeming disregard for her feelings.
The tensions and hostilities at work in the ‘Reprisals’ episode added to the complex dynamic of resentments and dependencies between Yeats and Lady Gregory; but, as so often in their long friendship, the fundamental bonds that united them remained intact. After complying with her wish that he suppress the poem, Yeats made no effort to publish it, even after her death, and ‘Reprisals’ seems not to have been mentioned between them again after 1920. The Summers affair of 1915 and the continuing impact of Robert’s death would register occasionally in his later work, however. In ‘Coole and Ballylee 1931’, his last extended elegy celebrating the Gregory lineage and estate, Yeats wrote of Lady Gregory as being the ‘last inheritor’ in a place ‘Where none has reigned that lacked a name and fame / Or out of folly into folly came’ – a wording that suppresses the embarrassments and destructive effects of Robert’s affair from the record. Coole, the poem continues, was in its heyday a place which ‘Seemed once more dear than life’, where the ‘ancestral trees’ ‘glorified / Marriages, alliances and families, / And every bride’s ambition satisfied’ – a claim that also notably erases Margaret Gregory’s unhappy experiences.
Relations between the two writers were probably not fully repaired until Yeats’s six-month stay at Ballylee in 1922 – a period when Margaret was absent – during which he and Lady Gregory were together often in the kind of close intellectual companionship that had marked the earliest period of their friendship, and during which they shared a sense of being embattled and united amidst the turmoil of the Civil War. Robert’s death, Margaret’s consequent ownership of Coole, and the progressive sale of what remained of the Gregory lands seem initially to have persuaded Yeats that, as he had long feared, the cultural and personal legacies he valued at Coole were now in eclipse. Yet as with his anxious and urgent response to Lady Gregory’s near death in 1909, and to the possible sale of Coole in 1912, his anticipation of the final dissolution of the estate and its traditions would again prove premature. Although Robert was dead, and his widow intent on leaving Ireland, Lady Gregory herself was rather more robust and determined than she initially seemed in the aftermath of the loss. Learning of her indomitablity in the face of a death threat in 1922, Yeats was impressed and perhaps also comforted to recognize more clearly that if the Coole lineage had indeed been broken in the literal sense by Robert’s death, it was still impressively alive in her. ‘Reprisals’ represents Yeats’s de-mythologizing, and even hostile, impulses towards the Gregory tradition at their most acute, resulting in a poem that not only offended Lady Gregory, but did so sufficiently to make her question his sincerity and the basis of their friendship. His memories of the death threat of 1922 would some fifteen years later form the basis for his representation of her in ‘Beautiful Lofty Things’: a new expression of his always greater counter-instinct to mythologize her, and of his readiness to acknowledge how – as in her resistance to the ‘not very sincere’ qualities she detected in ‘Reprisals’ – she had served as his ‘strength and [his] conscience’ over the many years of their partnership.
* The factual basis of this uneasily-worded claim has gone unquestioned for the nearly nine decades since the poem was written. As Robert’s surviving records show, and Lady Gregory herself would have known, he was responsible for three or perhaps four confirmed ‘kills’ f German planes. In his phrase ‘brought down’ Yeats may have been conflating ‘kills’ with what was termed ‘driving down’ – the feat of forcing an enemy plane to flee from combat or seek to land –the latter being something the Gregory had accomplished numerous times as a plot.
For permission to cite unpublished Gregory material, I am grateful to: the Gregory family; the Berg Collection, New York Public Library; the Manuscript Division, New York Public Library; the Public Record Office, London; the National Library of Ireland; the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.
Read more in The Dublin Review issue No. 35 Summer 2009.