The One Story of Robert Graves
Comes only with death.
Trying to think why we should still read Robert Graves, who can seem these days a minor if prolific writer, I turn to poems like “The Face in the Mirror”:
Grey haunted eyes, absent-mindedly glaring
From wide, uneven orbits; one brow drooping
Somewhat over the eye
Because of a missile fragment still inhering,
Skin deep, as a foolish record of old-world fighting.
Crookedly broken nose—low tackling caused it;
Cheeks, furrowed; coarse grey hair, flying frenetic;
Forehead, wrinkled and high;
Jowls, prominent; ears, large; jaw pugilistic;
Teeth, few; lips, full and ruddy; mouth, ascetic.
I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.
It’s all there—the mythologizing of love bordering on lunacy, the flat-out realism of a man who was once pronounced dead in battle and survived to look squarely at the hypocrisy of the society that had put him there, the mastered verse technique allowing for patterns of thought as well as physical experience. By now, many poets have written their “face in the mirror” poems, but when Graves did it, he was being innovative.
He was a figure of his time, but his time was an absurdity—from Edwardian and Georgian England through two world wars to the Swinging Sixties and a long descent into Alzheimer’s. His writing caught much of that absurdity while also seeking a more timeless idea, not so much a theory as a synthesis of his broad reading in classics and mythology. One result was The White Goddess, his “Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth,” which T. S. Eliot published enthusiastically in 1948, and which now seems batty and brilliant by equal turns. Other poets from Yeats to Ted Hughes have created systems through which they can be read, but their best poems stand outside such obsessive endeavors. On the whole, I think this is true of Graves, whose most intriguing work comes from that realistic, pugilistic side of his personality, a jobbing writer who often put vitality ahead of truth. He has to be seen with all his warts or not seen at all.
Graves will never be read apart from his biography, and for good reason. He led a dramatic life, from a sheltered, precocious childhood in England and Wales—father a minor poet, mother descended from German immigrants—to a writerly haven in Mallorca where, surrounded by an unconventional family, he turned out book after book. Ultimately there were more than a hundred titles, a surprising number of which remain in print. He wrote novels, textbooks, translations, guides to mythology, biographies and poems. At the western edge of the Mediterranean he found the landscape suited to his intellect, a place of Old World grandeur and simplicity. His advice on living, offered to the young writer Alastair Reid, was to “Find a place where things are done by hand, and the mails are trustworthy.” When he first went there, well before mass tourism, Deyá, Mallorca, was such a place, rural but genteel and open-minded. It was most importantly not England, not the nation that spurred his rebellion with its petty conventionality, and not America, which would cause him troubles of another kind. It was also close to the literary and mythological origins that made narrative sense to his scattered and shell-shocked mind.
He was not an easy man. Even before he fell in love with the over-bearing American poet Laura Riding, he struck Virginia Woolf as a loquacious bore:
The poor boy is all emphasis protestation and pose. He has a crude likeness to Shelley, save that his nose is a switchback and his lines blurred. But the consciousness of genius is bad for people. He stayed till 7.15 (we were going to ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’. . .) and had at last to say so, for he was so thick in the delight of explaining his way of life to us that no bee stuck faster to honey.
This was in 1925, when Graves was a young war veteran, married to Nancy Nicholson (whose feminism demanded she keep her own name). He was working devilishly hard, exhausting himself on both literary and personal fronts. “Still,” Woolf concluded, “still, he is a nice ingenuous rattle headed young man. . . .”
By the time Alastair Reid met him in Mallorca in 1953, Graves was a famous writer with several bestsellers, but his enthusiasms had not been dulled by success:
Suddenly, through the beaded fly-curtain, Robert erupted. He cut a formidable figure—tall, bearlike, with a large torso and head, a straw hat, a straw basket shouldered, and a look set on the edge of truculence. He sat himself down and started asking me a series of questions, as though mapping me. Then he reached for the book I was reading—Samuel Butler’s “Notebooks.” He crowed with pleasure and began looking for his favorite passages, telling Butler anecdotes with zest. Abruptly he got up, thanked me for the conversation, and left. After I came to know Robert well, I found that he often assessed people suddenly by some sign—a mannerism, a stray remark, a misplaced enthusiasm. I imagine that if I had been reading Ezra Pound’s “Cantos” my memory of Graves might fill no more than this paragraph.
Reid’s recollections appeared in The New Yorker (September 4, 1995) and included an account of his eventual falling out with Graves. It was over a woman the older man had decided was his latest muse. She resented being put in the position. Reid saw her as a real person rather than a symbol, and they fell in love. Graves never forgave him.
It’s that other side of Graves’s biography, when his ability to measure people with any accuracy broke down and he turned them into symbols, muses or goddesses to be courted in a “high silk pavilion” that won’t wash now. Yet it was bound up in something more profound—an irrational element he believed essential to poetry—and it fueled his most visionary writing. In addition to early collections of poetry arising from his battlefield experience, Graves wrote books of criticism, On English Poetry (1922) and Poetic Unreason and Other Studies (1925), that helped lay the groundwork for the academic practice of close reading and influenced critics like William Empson. But Graves was too unconventional to be caught up in an academic career. A brief period of teaching at the Royal Egyptian University confirmed his anti-academic personality without completely undermining his scholarly proclivities. He had to make a living as a writer.
His first bestseller was a biography of his friend T. E. Lawrence (1927), his second the scathing (and to some of his friends, offensive) memoir, Good-Bye to All That (1929). This now-classic account of his schooldays includes a masked admission of his early homosexuality, followed by his experience in the trenches and the struggles of his first marriage. In later life Graves the muse worshipper would pretty much erase Graves the war poet. A number of books have sought to demonstrate that you can’t have one without the other. Soldier and lover are the same contradictory man, the same face in the mirror.
Paul Fussell gave him serious consideration in The Great War and Modern Memory (1975), and the biographies by Martin Seymour-Smith, Miranda Seymour and Richard Perceval Graves have all been good, largely because Graves’s life story is worth telling. The new book by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, an expert on the poets of World War I, takes up the narrative established by Graves himself and deepens it with new material. Her telling of Graves’s early homosexuality is more open but still confusing. If you need to know precisely how he acted as a homosexual, you won’t get much help here. It’s all still very cloudy, wrapped up in his boyhood friendships and loyalties, with a gauze of closeted innocence and idealism. Wilson writes sympathetically about young men in the trenches, their need to acknowledge their deep bonds, their bravery in openly expressing them to each other. Graves’s friendships with Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and T. E. Lawrence demanded this honesty, which sometimes broke down—most notably when he married Nancy Nicholson while trying to prove his “affections [were] running in the more normal channels.” Wilson appears to think that Graves’s entire mythos of heterosexual obsession began with a massive suppression of earlier impulses. Who knows? Clearly his early friendships were intense and at times legally dangerous. These friends were also literary competitors. Owen was killed a week before the Armistice, and Graves maintained a mixed view of his poetry, which is now thought to be the finest to have come out of the war. Like Sassoon and Owen, Graves befriended W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist who pioneered treatment for shell shock. It was Rivers who introduced these young poets to a sort of depth psychology that valued their literary stirrings.
Wilson’s book, at times so detailed that its pages blur before the eyes, is best in chapters on the war, a bit muddier about what follows. She has found new material in previously unexplored letters and diaries, and also in Sassoon’s heavily annotated copy of Good-Bye to All That. Graves’s book was written hastily for money after his estranged lover, Laura Riding, attempted suicide by jumping out of a third-story window. Graves ran down one flight of steps and followed her, jumping from the second floor. Riding nearly died of her injuries, but Graves was unhurt. This catastrophe followed a period in which Robert and Nancy had invited Laura into their marriage. Laura complicated the trio by adding a fourth lover, who eventually ran off with Nancy. You can see the difficulties of narration. Friends like Sassoon lost patience with Robert in all this. As Wilson writes,
Sassoon’s copy of Good-bye to All That makes it clear how much his opinion of Graves had changed after the advent of Laura. The most entertaining of the insertions are the selection of commercial illustrations, photographs and drawings that poke fun at the two of them. A perfectly innocuous frontispiece photograph of Graves is rendered absurd by the cut-out caption ‘LITTLE JACK RABBIT’ pasted beneath it.
Robert and Nancy had bred like rabbits, you might say, producing four children he would eventually abandon for Laura, but Sassoon’s obsession with breeding also displays the prejudice of his class. He was, after all, a fox-hunting man. Literary jealousy explains some of it, sexual jealousy may underlie some more of it, and Graves admitted he was less interested in accuracy than his own emotional truth.
That impulsive side of his character can be simultaneously damning and attractive. Graves was eccentric, exasperating, moody. Even when his infatuation with Riding estranged him from most of his old friends and acquaintances, who found her egotism insufferable, they would still admit to an affection for him. If readers in our time find much of his work dismissible, he still manages to stick like a thorn in the side of modern literature. The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Sixth Edition) reprints six of his poems. Alastair Reid made his own count: “Of the thousand-odd poems that Robert wrote, I can think of eleven that are sufficiently strong and singular as to belong unquestionably to the canon of English poetry.” In 2012, Michael Longley published a slender Selected Poems of Robert Graves, and not all of it sticks in the memory. His introduction recalls that, as young poets, he and Derek Mahon thought of Graves “as one of our heroes.” He notes the influence of Graves on Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and also on the Movement Poets, who would have responded chiefly to his lucid ironies, perhaps setting aside objections to his frequent abstraction. His poem called “The Suicide in the Copse” would surely have caught Philip Larkin’s attention:
The suicide, far from content,
Stared down at his own shattered skull:
Was this what he meant?
Had not his purpose been
To liberate himself from duns and dolts
By a change of scene?
From somewhere came a roll of laughter:
He had looked so on his wedding-day,
And the day after.
There was nowhere at all to go,
And no diversion now but to pursue
What literature the winds might blow
Into the copse where his body lay:
A year-old sheet of sporting news,
A crumpled schoolboy essay.
In the 1970s, the BBC’s serialization of his novel, I, Claudius was hugely popular. It would arguably influence the current television renaissance, precisely because Graves never forgot the importance of vulgarity in art. He even published a book on swearing.
But then, he published so much on so many things. There remain aficionados of his science fiction, which I have never read, and his many historical novels. He’s just not easy to place, and it’s that confounding aspect of his life and work I find attractive. It’s worth spending time with a few of his poems—war poems, love poems and myth poems—to glimpse some of what he did so well.
When Sassoon and Graves met, as young, scarcely trained officers in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, they were opposites in their poetry. Sassoon was appalled by the crudity and violence Graves had already brought into his verse, such as his description of “A Dead Boche”: “. . . he scowled and stunk / With clothes and face a sodden green, / Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired, / Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.” By the end of the war, the wounded Graves was turning to more delicate subjects in a state of denial, while Sassoon wrote fiercely and lodged his courageous protest against the entire enterprise. Both men behaved heroically in battle, Sassoon earning the nickname Mad Jack. Both were wounded, Graves so badly that his parents received a letter from his commanding officer telling them he had died of wounds, and his obituary was published in the Times. His account in Good-Bye to All That makes no pretense at glory, pointing out that he was running in full retreat when a shell exploded behind him:
One piece of shell went through my left thigh, high up near the groin; I must have been at the full stretch of my stride to have escaped emasculation. The wound over the eye was nothing; it was a little chip of marble, possibly from one of the Bazentin cemetery headstones. This and a finger wound, which split the bone, probably came from another shell that burst in front of me. The main wound was made by a piece of shell that went in two inches below the point of my right shoulder and came out through my chest two inches above my right nipple, in a line between it and the base of my neck.
He remembered “being put on the stretcher and winking at the stretcher-bearer sergeant who was looking at me and saying: ‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right.’” Over the years, journalists and interviewers often asked him to retell the tale. “You died in the war,” one stated in an interview I found on YouTube. “Only once,” Graves responded with a smile. He said it wasn’t painful and left him with no fear of death, only the feeling that he had received a second life. By the time he found himself on a hospital train next to a wounded German flyer, it was too late to assure his parents he was still alive.
The wound to his lung, which had to be drained of blood, gave him trouble for years. But the neurasthenia, as shell shock was often called, would at intervals completely incapacitate him, causing real problems for those who loved him. Graves was frequently mad. Yet he fought free of madness in making poems such as “Not Dead,” “Two Fusiliers,” “Bazentin, 1916,” “Corporal Stare,” “Haunted,” “Sergeant-Major Money,” “Recalling War” and others. “The Untidy Man” briefly brings the war home:
There was a man, a very untidy man,
Whose fingers could nowhere be found to put in his tomb.
He had rolled his head far underneath the bed:
He had left his legs and arms lying all over the room.
His verse-epistle, “A Letter from Wales,” dramatizes the doubleness and unreality soldiers felt in the trenches, leaving them in the end with no knowable identities. Its technique is understated and quietly compelling, like something out of Frost. “Welsh Incident,” on the other hand, reads like a fragment of Hemingway. Graves was modern without being Modernist. A stickler for traditional meters, he was also constantly innovating and experimenting.
If Graves’s place as a war poet has been rightfully restored, it is still as a poet of love, history and mythology that he may be best remembered. His relationship with Riding lasted more than a decade of conflict and activity. They started a fine press, publishing Gertrude Stein and others. They collaborated on books, supported each other’s work. Riding’s often crabbed and hermetic poetry had no greater champion than Graves. Her strange verses influenced the early Auden, and still today she seems a significant if marginal figure. Her “Divestment of Beauty” stakes out an important feminist position: “Forswear the imbecile / Theology of loveliness, / Be no more doctor in antiquities. . . .” Her work attracts the Language Poets of our time, involved as it is in the problem of meaning. If I find it hard to locate or warm to the person in her poems, I can still appreciate their purposes. When the Spanish Civil War forced Graves and Riding to leave their home in Mallorca, they went first to England, then to the US, where Riding left Graves for another man. She eventually gave up poetry altogether, while he returned to Spain, remarried, fathered more children, and kept writing at the same prodigious pace.
The person in Graves’s poetry is, somewhat like Yeats, a sort of holy fool, though no one would argue that Graves achieved Yeats’s verbal tension and dynamism or wrote so many unforgettable poems. Graves can be charming in his foolishness:
Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher
Swept off his tall hat to the Squire’s own daughter,
So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly
Singing about her head, as she rode by.
He can write a Shakespearean comedy in “Down, Wanton, Down!” and a marvelously varied lyric in “Counting the Beats,” which I quote here in full simply for the pleasure of doing so:
You, love, and I,
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I
What care you or I ?
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
Night, and a cloudless day,
Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day
From a bitter sky.
Where shall we be,
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home, O where then shall we be
Who were you and I ?
Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.
Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.
For Graves, love and war could devastate equally. “The Survivor,” surely recalls both Laura Riding and his near-death in the war. Another pivotal poem on both subjects is “Spoils,” in which love’s relics can “burn a hole through two-foot steel.” “The White Goddess” distills his strange study of myth (“What was that whiteness?” I might ask with Frost). “Amergin’s Charm” is one of Graves’s remarkable translations, and here I should also mention his lively prose version of Apuleius’ The Golden Ass. To Graves, the mythological realm was one of play for mortal stakes. He was trying to get at timeless truths—the very quality that pushes many of his poems outside of current fashion. Perhaps that is why I still want to read him. Anyone who resists his own time, futile as the project may finally be, takes on a semi-heroic stature. In his most anthologized poem, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” Graves achieved his most graceful and moving braiding of myths, which can seem as courtly as Sir Philip Sidney:
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such stories as they stray into.
There was something of the wacky wizard in his appearance, particularly in old age, with his halo of white hair and his black Spanish hat. You might say he prefigures New Age thinking. “I have myself eaten the hallucigenic [sic] mushroom, psilocybe,” he writes in a preface to The Greek Myths (revised edition, 1960), “a divine ambrosia in immemorial use among the Masatec Indians of Oaxaca Province, Mexico; heard the priestess invoke Tlaloc, the Mushroom-god, and seen transcendental visions. Thus I wholeheartedly agree with R. Gordon Wasson, the American discoverer of this ancient rite, that European ideas of heaven and hell may well have derived from similar mysteries.” Crazier things have been said. And Graves’s idealization of matrilineal societies easily seems an improvement upon the world we inhabit now.
This is why I read Graves—skeptically, not devotedly, but with more than passing interest. He might have bored Virginia Woolf, but he was rarely boring in what he wrote. And when he says of his great multi-formed goddess that we should “Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,” I think he has found in his unreason a very reasonable desire.
 Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895–1929), by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Bloomsbury Continuum. $35.00.