A poetic career as long as an average life-span – from 1908 to 1975 – should provide plenty of grist for the biographer’s mill. But here, as in other respects, Robert Graves is an awkward subject, for the salient feature of his career is its lack of obvious stages. Looking backwards from his 70th birthday, he observed contentedly: ‘I always aimed at writing more or less as I still do.’ Having paid his debt to England, and to history, at the battle of the Somme, Graves claimed for himself a posthumous life free from jobs or other hostages to duty. It would be rich in events, but they would come capriciously at the whim of his Muse – not from any personal commitment to an orderly future. Born in another century, Graves has succeeded in never having to become a child of this one.
The central issue for any biographer of Graves, then, is the apparent contradiction between the stability of his poetic practice and the turbulence of his everyday life. Graves himself has never had any difficulty in justifying his actions: but he often seems much richer in self-confidence than in self-knowledge. He has aspired to live a ‘poetic’ life, but not in any merely ironic or self-dramatising sense, not like Gérard de Nerval and his pet lobster. If he had been more of a poseur, his road would surely have been much smoother. Despite the formal conservatism of his verse, he was never able to settle comfortably into the English poetic scene. Even before the flagrant scandals of 1929, his quarrels with his friends and fellow writers were so persistent that he was clearly destined for exile rather than incorporation. Both as poet and as citizen, Graves was a congenital misfit: a classic English bohemian, he managed to combine a tropism towards the Mediterranean with the insularity of a Victorian eccentric.
To live out his poetic myth, Graves needed a milieu that would not be too resistant to personal fantasy – hence his exile in Mallorca, or his periods of English cottage life in Oxfordshire and Devon (during World War Two). His first duty, he felt, was to his Muse – and thus to whatever woman was the vehicle of her commands – rather than to civil society. Nonetheless, he was able to reconcile this service with a keen sense of what would pass muster in the literary marketplace. Liking his comfort, and choosing to have eight children, Graves always knew what was owed to Mammon.
Martin Seymour-Smith has the task, therefore, of explaining two personalities within a single identity: the daimonic poet, and the practical man of letters. For Graves himself, this was no problem. He knew he was schizoid: but poetry justified his manic side, ordered it, and supplied a therapy for the greater mania of the war. His shell-shock only reinforced a temperament that was already at odds with common sense and the ideal of ‘integrity’. Seymour-Smith, however, must try to reduce his subject’s madness to method; and writing a more or less authorised life does not make his task any easier. His style is often cramped by his closeness to Graves and his wife Beryl: he seems unnecessarily deferential to their privacy, and too involved with their way of life at Deya – the Graves ‘cult’, if you like – to be able to ‘place’ it socially or intellectually. Graves’s emotional vagaries have left a train of complications that Seymour-Smith can hardly ignore, but cannot bring himself to treat squarely. The second half of his book is sprinkled with dark hints, omissions of last names, and footnotes of a vaguely paranoid flavour. In a sense, he is only staking a claim to the definitive study of Graves, while tacitly admitting that this claim cannot be made good until after Graves, and Laura (Riding) Jackson, are dead.
Laura (Riding) Jackson is, of course, no mean obstacle to gaining a clear and unobstructed view of Graves. Seymour-Smith’s first difficulty with her is that she is American: on the evidence of this book Americans are people he neither likes nor understands. His second is that she is Jewish, which he makes little of, despite the provocative comments of Gertrude Stein (printed by O’Prey): ‘it was terribly important for you to have liked her; for your Jesus book, after all, she was Jew every single bit of her, but ... she was the materialistic jew camouflaging her materialism by intellectualism’. Seymour-Smith does not treat Riding altogether ungenerously, and he shows due respect for her poetic talent: but he presents Graves’s relation with her as a misguided episode, perhaps even a deluded one.
The reissue of Riding’s Progress of Stories is a welcome reminder both of her literary gifts and of her ability to disconcert all who came within range of her exigent personality. ‘I haven’t any human sympathy,’ one of her characters says, ‘but I have instincts ... When I write [my stories] I feel like an animal writing about people.’ This is what gives her stories value: it is also what makes most of them tedious after the first few bright pages. Riding could always rivet attention to herself by her complete self-possession and disregard of rival wills (‘There is nothing that pleases me so much as to have people agree with me’). But in the long run she consumed both her courtiers and her own gifts – ending up as ‘Queen Famine’, in Graves’s deadly phrase.
Seymour-Smith’s account of Graves’s involvement with Riding in 1926-1939 supplies new clues to the puzzle of how someone as turbulent as Graves could have fallen completely under Riding’s sway. One of her attractions was her promise of control over time and change: ‘bodies have had their day’ was the kind of pronouncement she could get Graves to believe in. She appealed strongly to his streak of romantic masochism, playing on the sexual guilt and fear instilled in him by his puritan mother.
Considering Graves’s obsession with the feminine, surely his mother deserves closer attention than she gets from Seymour-Smith. He drops a few hints about Graves’s sexual eccentricities, but does not probe deeply into his emotional development. It is curious that when Riding became sexually infatuated with other men, in 1929 and 1939, Graves showed a childlike complaisance where one would expect him to have felt outrage and betrayal. In between, the celibacy which she enforced on him from about 1933 seemed to make the union closer, rather than undermining it.
Riding’s power, one could argue, rested on her ability to exploit Graves’s long-standing idée fixe about sex: that it was the most important thing in his life, but also something that someone else – his current Muse – should take responsibility for. This was an awkward rule for everyday life, but handy for writing love-poetry, since the best poems of this kind are typically one-sided and obsessive, like Graves’s. The Muse’s function, for Graves, is to trigger the self-consuming mania craved by her poetic devotee; she is a neutral spirit, like that required by the Lover’s counterpart, the alcoholic.
Certainly Riding’s behaviour was often destructive or bizarre – she once went to the Dorchester night-club wearing a tiara that spelled out her name in capital letters. But Graves himself was not a model of decorum; and Seymour-Smith’s irritation with Riding’s outrages upsets the balance of his book, especially when combined with his adulation of Beryl Graves. Though Seymour-Smith apparently detests T.S. Matthews, his Under the Influence (1978) gives a much more lively impression of Graves’s domestic milieu in the Thirties. While it is true that Riding got Graves in trouble with the police and with almost everyone he knew, it was the kind of trouble he wanted, since it confirmed his inclination to leave England and set up a coterie existence at Deya. There is no evidence that she hindered Graves’s development as a writer, or lowered the standard of his work. A good case can be made that she raised it, given the Georgian footling of much of his early verse (long expunged from his Collected Poems). Seymour-Smith is usually informative and convincing on Graves’s poetry, so it is a pity that he does not look closely at the specific question of Riding’s influence on it. A poem like ‘The Cool Web’, written shortly after Graves met Riding, displays major advances in force and technique over his earlier verse.
Paul O’Prey’s edition of letters from and to Graves does not make his character any less puzzling. ‘My idea of a poet,’ Graves told Robert Nichols in 1917, ‘is a woman suffering all the hardships of a man.’ In this volume, however, one sees little of his sensitive side, and much of the Graves who buried fathoms deep all weakness or grief, even when his eldest son died in battle. Above all, the book displays Graves the literary man – and with a folio-sized chip on his shoulder. For most of his life he has dearly loved a good quarrel, and has been ready to launch one at the drop of a sentence: favourite occasions have been meetings with Cambridge graduates, slights to Laura Riding, being asked a favour, or having to ask for a favour himself. When he gets the right foil, such as the hapless Siegfried Sassoon, the standard of nastiness is worthy of the Great Literary Rows. O’Prey’s choice of letters leaves the impression, fairly or not, that Graves has been a man with few private attachments who has nourished himself mainly on controversy, and has escaped only occasionally from his bluff everyday self to visit what he calls ‘the land at the top of the beanstalk’ of poetry.
Like Seymour-Smith’s Life, O’Prey’s edition is an inside job by someone who has been a long-term guest of the Graves household. The correspondence has been carefully winnowed, and pruned of ‘any matter which might unnecessarily offend someone still alive’ (which makes one wonder what ‘necessary’ offences have been left in). The scholar will be annoyed by the token index and by O’Prey’s feckless habit of putting ‘No Date’ wherever Graves hasn’t dated a letter himself. As with Seymour-Smith, the book suffers from being at once authorised and provisional. Nonetheless both works have a wealth of insight and new documentation on Graves; and together they buttress the case for his importance in modern British letters.
The poet himself has now, at the age of 87, passed into the realm of venerable benignity (though one can hardly say that he is showered with honours – the knighthoods and laureate-ships and OMs have been saved for writers of more docile temperament). He has laid down his pen, after some hundred and forty books; for much of his time he relives the war to which, in 1929, he had tried to bid ‘goodbye’. Of all his poetic contemporaries he has had the longest and fullest life; yet the poems themselves have remained spare and short. What ever fits of lust or malice he may have allowed himself in the everyday world, he can justly claim that in his lyrics he has never been unfaithful to his Muse.