Old Gravy

Mark Ford

  • Robert Graves: Life on the Edge by Miranda Seymour
    Doubleday, 524 pp, £20.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 385 40423 9
  • Robert Graves and the White Goddess by Richard Perceval Graves
    Weidenfeld, 618 pp, £25.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 297 81534 2
  • Robert Graves: His Life and Work by Martin Seymour-Smith
    Bloomsbury, 600 pp, £25.00, June 1995, ISBN 0 7475 2205 7
  • Robert Graves: Collected Writings on Poetry edited by Paul O’Prey
    Carcanet, 560 pp, £35.00, June 1995, ISBN 1 85754 172 3
  • Robert Graves: The Centenary Selected Poems edited by Patrick Quinn
    Carcanet, 160 pp, £15.95, April 1995, ISBN 1 85754 126 X

‘Since the age of 15 poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric,’ Graves writes at the start of The White Goddess (1948), his synoptic account of the history of Western myth. His eccentricity took many forms, as many as the mercurial goddess herself, yet Graves seems never to have doubted the central narrative to which his life and work were dedicated:

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling

he declares in one of his best-known poems, ‘To Juan at the Winter Solstice’. Although Graves only began formulating his Muse theories in the mid-Forties, the ‘one story’ of his vocation dominates his entire career.

Graves’s ‘poetic principles’ involve a wholesale rejection of 20th-century civilisation and complete submission to the capricious demands of the Goddess. ‘a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into snow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag. Her names and titles are innumerable.’ All true poems are invocations of this volatile ‘Mother of All-Living’, and their effect is immediate – ‘the hair stands on end, the eyes water, the throat is constricted, the skin crawls and a shiver runs down the spine.’ The Goddess tends to appear to male poets in the guise of a cruel woman to whom they are irresistibly attracted, but a woman poet must be her own Muse. Only a handful – such as Sappho, the seventh-century Irish poet Liadan, and of course Laura Riding – proved briefly capable of managing this double role, while Graves felt that no homosexual man could hope to be authentically inspired.

As Randall Jarrell first pointed out in an excellent essay of 1955 (collected in The Third Book of Criticism), the psychic configurations mapped by Graves’s dotty belief-system are not particularly unusual, indeed can be shown to make perfectly clear ‘pathological sense’. Graves’s life and work fit together with the neatness of a case-history in which each new fact or turn only confirms the original prognosis. For the biographer, or rather his three biographers, this cuts both ways: Graves’s obsessions generate all manner of sensational events to be described, explained and connected, yet the cumulative impact is numbing rather than enriching. The more details one learns of Graves’s thinking and behaviour, the less interesting a figure he comes to seem.

‘My religious training,’ Graves observes in an early chapter of Goodbye to All That (1929), ‘developed in me a great capacity for fear – I was perpetually tortured by the fear of hell – a superstitious conscience, and a sexual embarrassment from which I have found it very difficult to free myself.’ He records two particularly formative incidents: when he was eight, at one of his prep schools, the headmaster’s daughter and a friend ‘tried to find out about male anatomy from me by exploring down my shirt-neck when we were digging up pignuts in the garden’. Then, when he was ten, he found himself having to wait a quarter of an hour in the cloak-room of his sisters’ school, peered and giggled at by hundreds of passing girls:

I knew they hated mc because I was a boy sitting in the cloak-room of a girls’ school; and my sisters, when they arrived, looked ashamed of me and seemed quite different from the sisters I knew at home. I had blundered into a secret world, and for months and even years afterwards my worst night-mares were of this girls’ school, which was always filled with coloured toy balloons. ‘Very Freudian,’ as one says now. My normal impulses were set back for years by these two experiences.

Graves’s sexual unease is one of the dominant themes of Goodbye to All That, a book that charts as self-consciously as, say, To the Lighthouse, the transition from Victorianism to modernity. Given his period and class, Graves’s arrested development sounds standard enough, but it seems that it also reflected his strait-laced German mother’s high Protestant ideals. Martin Seymour-Smith, Graves’s first biographer and a close friend, traces the demonic bloodlust of the White Goddess all the way back to Graves’s cradle: ‘The infant looked up into its mother’s face, and sensed that – without much ambiguity – she wanted to kill him, and not quickly.’ Miranda Seymour (no relation) and Richard Perceval Graves (the poet’s nephew) present Amy Graves in less hysterical terms, but agree that her rigid notions of purity helped inculcate Graves’s sexual difficulties. When on holiday with his family in Brussels in 1912, a young Irish girl staying in the same pension began a mild flirtation with the tautly coiled Graves, then on the cusp of manhood: ‘It frightened mc so much,’ he confesses, ‘I could have killed her.’

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