Memorial Day

gregoryAn editorial in the paper reminded me that on Memorial Day we remember those who died in the war; on Veterans Day we remember the ones who returned. In either case, not just a day added to the weekend, but a day to reflect. Here is Yeats, reflecting on the death of Lady Gregory’s son, who died in 1918 in an air battle over Italy. My favorite line comes near the end: “What made us dream that he could comb grey hair?”

In Memory Of Major Robert Gregory

 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.

 Always we'd have the new friend meet the old
 And we are hurt if either friend seem cold,
 And there is salt to lengthen out the smart
 In the affections of our heart,
 And quarrels are blown up upon that head;
 But not a friend that I would bring
 This night can set us quarrelling,
 For all that come into my mind are dead.

 Lionel Johnson comes the first to mind,
 That loved his learning better than mankind,
 Though courteous to the worst; much falling he
 Brooded upon sanctity
 Till all his Greek and Latin learning seemed
 A long blast upon the horn that brought
 A little nearer to his thought
 A measureless consummation that he dreamed.

 And that enquiring man John Synge comes next,
 That dying chose the living world for text
 And never could have rested in the tomb
 But that, long travelling, he had come
 Towards nightfall upon certain set apart
 In a most desolate stony place,
 Towards nightfall upon a race
 Passionate and simple like his heart.

 And then I think of old George Pollexfen,
 In muscular youth well known to Mayo men
 For horsemanship at meets or at racecourses,
 That could have shown how pure-bred horses
 And solid men, for all their passion, live
 But as the outrageous stars incline
 By opposition, square and trine;
 Having grown sluggish and contemplative.

 They were my close companions many a year,
 A portion of my mind and life, as it were,
 And now their breathless faces seem to look
 Out of some old picture-book;
 I am accustomed to their lack of breath,
 But not that my dear friend's dear son,
 Our Sidney and our perfect man,
 Could share in that discourtesy of death.

 For all things the delighted eye now sees
 Were loved by him; the old storm-broken trees
 That cast their shadows upon road and bridge;
 The tower set on the stream's edge;
 The ford where drinking cattle make a stir
 Nightly, and startled by that sound
 The water-hen must change her ground;
 He might have been your heartiest welcomer.

 When with the Galway foxhounds he would ride
 From Castle Taylor to the Roxborough side
 Or Esserkelly plain, few kept his pace;
 At Mooneen he had leaped a place
 So perilous that half the astonished meet
 Had shut their eyes; and where was it
 He rode a race without a bit?
 And yet his mind outran the horses' feet.

 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.

 What other could so well have counselled us
 In all lovely intricacies of a house
 As he that practised or that understood
 All work in metal or in wood,
 In moulded plaster or in carven stone?
 Soldier, scholar, horseman, he,
 And all he did done perfectly
 As though he had but that one trade alone.

 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?

 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. 

William Butler Yeats                                                       



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