‘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.’
Amy was Alfred Graves’s second wife. His first had died in 1886 leaving five motherless children, and Alfred seems to have felt anyone willing to undertake their upbringing would do. The marriage was loveless, though not particularly unhappy. Alfred – himself a composer of light verses – earned a living as a schools inspector, which makes his decision to send Graves to the coarse, unintellectual Charter-house rather baffling. Graves arrived in 1909, and at once suffered ‘an oppression of spirit’ that barely lifted during his time there. His most dreaded nightmare in later years returned him not to the hell of the trenches, but to the corridors of Charterhouse. The prudish, scholarly Graves was mercilessly tormented, and begged his parents to allow him to leave. Instead they complained to the housemaster, which only worsened Graves’s plight. In the end he took up pretending he was insane.
As its title suggests, Goodbye to All That is essentially the self-portrait of a survivor; time and again Graves reveals his ability to take extreme measures in times of crisis, and the book’s brutal, deadpan style might itself be seen as embodying his determination to pull through regardless. Both school and military anecdotes are delivered with a tight-lipped trench humour that implies the absurd is the rule. Graves is mar vellously skilled in this manner:
A sergeant of the Royal Irish Rifles had been giving a little unofficial instruction before the proper instructor arrived. He picked up a No One percussion-grenade and said: ‘Now lads, you’ve got to be careful here! Remember that if you touch anything while you’re swinging this chap, it’ll go off.’ To illustrate the point, he rapped the grenade against the table edge. It killed him and the man next to him and wounded 12 others more or less severely.
Oddly, the war doesn’t figure all that much in Graves’s early poetry. While Owen and Sassoon and Rosenberg found their styles transformed by the need to register the overwhelming horror and pity of the trenches, Graves seems to have felt poetry and war in some measure antithetical. Only a couple, such as ‘A Dead Boche’ (‘he scowled and stank/With clothes and face a sodden green’), include specific details of the front lines. Just before his 21st birthday Graves was wounded so badly by an exploding shell that for 24 hours he was given up for dead. The colonel of his battalion wrote to his parents to inform them of their loss, and Graves’s obituary duly appeared in the Times. But the orderly detailed to collect his body for burial happened to notice he was still breathing, and sent him instead to the nearest hospital. The account of this episode in Goodbye to All That is full of grim relish – ‘Old Gravy’s got it, all right!’ a stretcher-bearer exclaims – but the poem that he wrote in the immediate aftermath is full of extravagant mythical imagery and only a few pointers to the context of the war. In pieces such as ‘To Robert Nichols’ or ‘Letter to S.S. from Mametz Wood’ Graves explicitly figures poetry as a means of temporarily blocking out the terrors of combat.
Graves’s other means of escape from the brutalities of both school and the battlefield were his romantic feelings for a boy three years younger than himself whom he calls ‘Dick’ in Goodbye to All That – his real name was George Harcourt Johnstone. Graves always claimed their relationship was ‘chaste and sentimental’ and responded with fury when reprimanded for ogling Johnstone during chapel. In the trenches Johnstone’s weekly letters came to symbolise the ideal of pure love, so when Graves learned that his ‘exceptionally intelligent and fine-spirited’ chum had been arrested for propositioning a Canadian soldier. Graves’s world fell apart: ‘This news nearly finished me. I decided that Dick had been driven out of his mind by the war ... Well, with so much slaughter about, it would be easy to think of him as dead.’
Graves’s multiple injuries prevented his returning to the front line. He spent the following decade wracked by what was then called neurasthenia, translating all around him into the terms of trench warfare. The poems of this period describe ominous interiors or blighted landscapes haunted by tortured, wraith-like apparitions. ‘The Pier-Glass’ evokes the attenuated life of a servant seduced and then abandoned by her employer, whom she murders in revenge. Staring at her reflection in a cracked mirror (‘grey lips and long hair dishevelled, / Sleep-staring eyes’), she pleads for
one token that there still abides
Remote, beyond this island mystery
So be it only this side Hope, somewhere,
In streams, on sun-warm mountain pasturage,
True life, natural breath; not this phantasma.
Graves sought release from his own ‘phantasma’ in marriage to Nancy Nicholson, with whom he had four children, but, as poems like ‘Song of Contrariety’ or ‘Love in Barrenness’ testify, the relationship failed to provide Graves with the justification of his existence that he yearned for. The marriage was already faltering when he came across a poem (‘The Quids’) by one Laura Gottschalk in the American magazine Fugitive. Graves had entered into correspondence with John Crowe Ransom, a Fugitive contributor, some years previously, and he wrote at once expressing his admiration. Ransom cautioned Graves in his reply that Laura Riding – she had in the interim cut loose from her first husband – was ‘very fine personally, but very intense for company’.
Riding expressed her intensity in various ways. For a start she insisted on absolute fealty, which Graves, instantly besotted, was more than willing to accord her. She longed also, however, to inaugurate a ‘holy circle’ over which she might preside. Initially content with the homage rendered her by Graves and a bizarrely compliant Nancy Nicholson, in 1929 she decided to expand the ‘wonderful Trinity’ to include a not particularly talented Irishman called Geoffrey Phibbs. Phibbs was already married but, at first at least, succumbed to Riding’s imperious sway: he burnt his clothes, donated his books to the Holy Circle’s communal library, and attempted, apparently without much success, to satisfy Riding’s sexual demands. A few weeks later he disappeared, and an enraged Riding dispatched Graves to track down and recapture her delinquent lover. Phibbs consented to a meeting, which took place in the group’s fourth-floor flat in Hammersmith. After hours of argument Phibbs finally made it clear he was unwilling to return permanently, at which Riding, who was seated on the window-sill, announced ‘Goodbye, chaps,’ and jumped. Graves raced down a flight of stairs and then himself leapt out of a third-floor window. Phibbs slunk off into the night. When Riding, who had crushed lumbar vertebrae and a broken pelvis, and the less badly hurt Graves were discharged from hospital, they found – as if to complete some elaborate four-square dance – that Phibbs had moved in with Nancy Nicholson.
Riding’s appeal to Graves is made clear in dozens of the poems he composed during their 14-year association. She offered him an ‘Age of Certainty’, to borrow the title of a poem he latercalled ‘New Legends’, in which he protests her superiority to mythical heroines of every stripe, from Andromeda to Helen. However crazy her behaviour, she proceeded always with absolute confidence, brooking neither argument nor delay. Though she caused havoc almost wherever she went, for Graves these conflicts were evidence of her ineffable, otherworldly powers, ‘tourbillions in Time made’, as he once put it, ‘By the strong pulling of her bladed mind/Through that ever-reluctant element’. Riding’s own extraordinary poetry added to the mystique of her invulnerability; its severe abstract propositions enact a quest for truth pursued in relation to the purest laws of language. Only her ‘strict eyes’, he argues in ‘The Taint’, might free him from the moral and aesthetic failings bequeathed him by a ‘dishonest’ mother and a compromising father:
Agree, it is better to confess
The occasion of my rottenness
Than in a desperation try
To cloak, dismiss or justify
The inward taint: of which I knew
Not much until I came to you
And saw it then, furred on the bone,
With as much horror as your own.
You were born clean ...
Graves turned against England also. On the recommendation of Gertrude Stein, he and Riding settled in 1929 in the small Majorcan village of Deyà, which was to remain, apart from the war years 1936-45, Graves’s home for the rest of his life.
Graves suffered countless humiliations in the course of his relationship with Riding, who accepted his devotion with divine indifference. A barely sublimated masochism drives his rapturous celebrations of her perfection:
She gave no sign; they therefore tumbled prostrate
Fawning on her, confessing her their sins,
They burned her the occasion’s frankincense
Crying ‘save, save!’ but she was yet discrete.
Only by suppressing all bodily urges and ‘turning against kind’ can these worshippers hope to become ‘invisible too, and read her mind’.
Whether or not Riding invented the notion of the White Goddess – as she later claimed – she undoubtedly did perceive herself as the implacable, enigmatic redeemer of poems such as ‘Against Kind’ or ‘To Whom Else?’, in which Graves describes her as ‘not of man/Yet in human state’. She renounced sex – ‘bodies,’ she declared, ‘have had their day’ – and assumed the right to control all lives that came within her orbit. In a letter of 1932 she explained that ‘there are certain laws of being and procedure centralised in me on which Robert relies and which I am happy to realise co-operatively with him – and others who want the same security of mind.’ The lurid rituals over which Graves gloats in The White Goddess similarly indulge the male urge towards self-mutilation on the altar of the matriarchal ideal. The Muse will gladly grant the poet her love, ‘but at only one price: his life’. In ‘Darien’ the eager bard begs his mistress to behead him with ‘the curved blade of her Cretan axe’. At the very least he must have experienced ‘a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measures of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward; with a monotonous chant of “Kill! Kill! Kill!” and “Blood! Blood! Blood!” ’
Graves and Riding separated in 1939. Forced to leave Deyà by the Spanish Civil War, they had attempted a second Holy Circle on a farm owned by Schuyler and Kit Jackson in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Riding immediately set about appropriating Schuyler Jackson – who nurtured philosophical and literary ambitions – which of course necessitated banishing his wife. Kit, she insinuated, was not only mad but a witch; and indeed within weeks of their arrival Kit was safely incarcerated in the local lunatic asylum, having attempted to throttle her own daughter. Riding ritually burnt all her predecessor’s belongings and took possession of the complaisant philosopher-farmer. For many years Riding had lectured the unhappy Graves on the virtues of celibacy, but she now changed her tune; after two solid days in the Jackson bedroom she announced: ‘Schuyler and I do.’
Graves’s second marriage (in 1950) was to the unassuming Beryl Hodge, characterised in ‘Ruby and Amethyst’ as ‘good as bread/Resistant to all weathers’. This poem compares her rather unfavourably to a White Goddess-style woman (‘rare as myrrh/Her weather still her own’), yet in many ways Beryl proved, for a short while anyway, a highly effective catalyst. In poems such as ‘Mid-Winter Waking’ and ‘She Tells Her Love While Half-Asleep’ the beloved is at last figured as existing in nature, rather than perched on some remote mythical or metaphysical pedestal. Graves’s addiction to the ‘exaltation and horror’ of Muse-worship reasserted itself, however, almost as soon as his divorce from Nancy came through and he and Beryl were married. First there was Judith, who arrived ‘during the last full moon swinging a Cretan axe’, obviously unmistakable; then Margot, who to Graves’s utter consternation ran off with one of his young admirers; next came the glorious Cindy, the Black Goddess, consummate fleecer of the seventy-something poet; and finally, Juli, 54 years his junior and ‘wholly different from the others: she is not a Muse because she subjects me to no ordeals – I have had enough of those. She is simply a fixed star, vibrating.’ Like the nymphet-crazed Humbert Humbert. Graves never failed to translate his obsessions into the noblest rhetorical terms.
Yet while Humbert remains always aware of the singularity of his condition. Graves felt his ‘one story’ was the world’s as well. This is what makes him such a disastrously blinkered critic, at once ill-tempered, dogmatic and smug. His Clark Lectures (1954-5) and Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1961) are packed with denunciations of just about any poet you care to name – Milton, Pope, Dryden, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Tennyson, Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Dylan Thomas ... Graves also has an infuriating habit of rewriting other people’s poems – and even the whole of David Copperfield – to bring them closer to what he feels the White Goddess had in mind, in the process invariably ruining them.
This obsessive self-righteousness similarly limits the scope and diversity of his own work. Jarrell was surely right to insist that Graves’s oeuvre is in no sense that ‘of a great poet; when you compare Graves with Wordsworth or Rilke, you are comparing a rearrangement of the room with a subsidence of continents.’ The problem is partly that Graves seems so unintelligent about the ways in which men and women interact, which is, after all, the main subject of his writing. The patterns of gender relation his poems outline reveal a crassly stereotyped and cramping polarisation – Man Does, Woman Is, as the title of a 1964 collection has it. Of course Graves is far from unique in craving chastisement at the feet of an exalted mistress, as the ads in any telephone booth will prove, but the impulse hardly requires the evidence of every myth in history for its justification.
Graves failed, moreover, to create out of his neurosis a poetic idiom distinctive enough to suspend one’s awareness of the silly ideas being advanced. His language remains from beginning to end pretty much true to the ideals of his first mentor, Eddie Marsh, editor of Georgian Poetry. Graves enshrines his archetypal motifs of obsessive love in vague or legendary contexts from which the contemporary world is resolutely excluded. He felt all poetry should ignore the prevailing historical and technological conditions: in his foreword to The White Goddess he deplores ‘urban civilisation’ and scorns those writers still trapped in ‘the industrial machine’. ‘I do not even know,’ he loftily concludes, ‘that you are serious in your poetic profession.’
It is Graves himself who ends up seeming quaint and constricted. While the poems are interesting enough when viewed as symptoms of his personal problems, it’s difficult to take seriously their hectoring claims to some primal, universal significance. The ‘one story’ Graves had to tell was his own, and he often told it extremely well, but unfortunately he felt it had to be everyone else’s too.