Virginia Woolf could be cruelly accurate in her assessments of people. On 24 April 1925 Robert Graves visited her unexpectedly and stayed too long. She described him as ‘a nice ingenuous rattle headed young man’, and declared ‘the poor boy is all emphasis protestation and pose.’ By 1925 Graves had good reason to be ‘rattle headed’. He had survived Charterhouse school, which he hated. He got through by learning to box, by falling in love with a boy he referred to as ‘Dick’ (actually called George Harcourt Vanden-Bempde-Johnstone, later 3rd Baron Derwent), and by joining a poetry society run by some charismatic masters. He said in his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, written in 1929 when he was only 34, that by the end of his time at Charterhouse ‘poetry and Dick were now the only two things that really mattered.’
He then survived the First World War, in which, as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he had been so badly wounded in the Battle of the Somme that his commanding officer wrote a letter of condolence to his parents and his death was announced in the Times (the paper was decent enough to print a correction without charge). In 1918, returned from the dead, he married Nancy Nicholson (daughter of William Nicholson the painter, sister to Ben Nicholson and herself a skilful illustrator and designer), with whom he had three children by 1922, although it was never quite clear how keen the strongly feminist Nancy was on being married to him. Meanwhile he was supposed to be studying English literature at Oxford, where he befriended T.E. Lawrence, whose wartime adventures Graves was to relate in a rather Boy’s-Own style in Lawrence and the Arabs (1927). In the early 1920s he and Lawrence planned their very own Boy’s Own adventure, Oxford-style: to drive a herd of deer from Magdalen into All Souls, where Lawrence was a fellow. In the event Lawrence contented himself with ringing a bell in college in the middle of the day, since All Souls ‘needs waking up’.
Graves and Nancy tried to support themselves while he was in theory an undergraduate by setting up a general store in Boars Hill outside Oxford, the landscape across which Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy had wandered the previous century, and where by the early 1920s both the poet laureate Robert Bridges and the future poet laureate John Masefield had established themselves in suburban comfort. Graves lived from 1919 to 1921 in Dingle Cottage at the bottom of Masefield’s garden. I walk my dog past the cottage quite often. It’s set down in a marshy hollow which has a faint air of primal swamp. The alchemy of Graves’s early art turned this into ‘a well-loved pool,/By Fox’s Dingle’. The shop didn’t thrive: Graves claimed that he ran it on Robin Hood principles, overcharging the wealthy literati of Boars Hill in order to subsidise the poorer inhabitants of neighbouring Wootton. When it went bust Graves and Nancy lost £300 they did not have. Graves’s mother, who came from the wealthy German von Ranke family (she was the great-niece of the historian Leopold von Ranke), bailed them out and bought them a cottage in Islip.
The mess and muddle that surrounded this shell-shocked and discombobulated young man intensified in the years after his encounter with Woolf. In 1926 Graves was offered a job at Cairo University, which was the only formal employment he ever had. He invited a young American poet called Laura Riding to come along, initially as his secretary, though they were soon to collaborate on one of the most influential works of criticism of the early 20th century, A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927). The three of them, with the children, spent most of 1926 in Cairo. Within a few months Riding, Graves and Nicholson were in an emotionally tangled threesome they dignified with the name of ‘the Trinity’, of which Riding seems to have regarded herself as the principal person. By June 1926 the three persons of the Trinity returned to Islip, and began to show signs of being neither coessential nor coeternal.
By the end of 1927 Graves was living with Riding in a flat in London, where they set up a private press in emulation of the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. They became keen to incorporate in what they now called the ‘Holy Circle’ the strikingly handsome Geoffrey Phibbs, later known as Geoffrey Taylor. After some months with Graves and Riding (who insisted on burning Phibbs’s clothes and confiscating his books as part of his induction into the circle) Phibbs and Graves’s wife decided they would rather be a more orthodox duo than part of the ménage.
At this, Riding – described by Allen Tate as ‘the maddest woman’ – flipped. When the four of them met to talk things through in April 1929 she threatened suicide unless Phibbs returned to them. Phibbs called her bluff, but unfortunately Riding wasn’t bluffing. With a magnificently period farewell – ‘Goodbye, chaps’ – she jumped out of a fourth-floor window. Her intention was either to die or to display her magical powers, depending on how delusional one thinks she was. Graves jumped after her from a lower window. Both survived – and Riding, despite broken vertebrae, was able to walk again through the intervention of a back surgeon called Mr Lake. Riding (never one to underestimate the powers of her own imagination) responded to this medical miracle by asking, ‘How do you know I didn’t invent Mr Lake?’
The consequent scandal, combined with Riding’s hospital expenses, led Graves in 1929 to write Goodbye to All That as a money-spinner, and indeed to say goodbye to all that by emigrating to Mallorca, where he remained for the rest of his life, apart from a period in Devon during the Spanish Civil War and various subsequent trips to England and elsewhere. The house he built in Mallorca, funded chiefly by royalties from I, Claudius (1934), is still a museum to his memory. Graves and Riding continued to enact a tormenting reel of emotional self-destruction until their final separation in 1939. She introduced further men into the group, stopped sleeping with Graves, and then took up, permanently, with a man called Schuyler Jackson. By the late 1930s Graves had begun a relationship, which lasted until his death in 1985, with Beryl Pritchard, who had been on the edge of this magnetic circle of master manipulators for some time.
In his later and less eventful years Graves enjoyed, or perhaps simply sought, the attentions of a series of strikingly beautiful dark young women whom he called his ‘Muses’, and whom Pritchard seems patiently to have accepted as the necessary facilitators of his art. One of them, Cindy Lee, persuaded him in 1965 to run away to Mexico, which was a good place to find mind-enhancing drugs. The trip (in both the geographic and the pharmacological senses) was not a success, and he returned to his wife in a Mallorca which was increasingly a place of pilgrimage for drug dealers and would-be poets.
Graves was responsible for at least some of that cultural tourism as a result of his massive work of mythology and poetics, The White Goddess (1948), which became a cult classic. Before it appeared many people thought it was unpublishable, and not a few since have found it unreadable. In it Graves argued that Neolithic and Bronze Age religions were matriarchal, and that the ultimate force behind the process of writing poetry was the White Goddess, who demanded sacrifice, and whose will could be embodied in ‘Muses’ who might be expected to manifest the destructive but revivifying cruelty of their mistress. When explaining his poetic credo in 1957 he stated that ‘no Muse-poet can grow conscious of the Muse except by experience of some woman in whom the Muse-power is to some degree or other resident.’ Graves’s speculations about tree alphabets and Celtic mythology made The White Goddess anathema to what he called ‘university folk’ and a source of delight to those who believed that life was a vast hieratic mystery which primitive academic virtues – or destructive Apollonian vices, if you prefer – such as historical accuracy could only obscure.
The White Goddess might politely be described as eclectic. Graves had devoured J.G. Frazer’s Golden Bough. He had read the powerful work of Jane Harrison on the matriarchal roots of Greek religion in her Prolegomena: A Study of Greek Religion (1903). The anthropologist and war psychologist William Rivers (whom Graves met at Craiglockhart hospital, when Siegfried Sassoon was also a patient there in the summer of 1917, and to whom he dedicated On English Poetry in 1922) had also inspired his interest in early matriarchal societies. The White Goddess reads as though, after taking all this in and shaking it up with much Celtic folklore, mad uncle Robert then devoured half a pound of magic mushrooms and decided to give the dons something to think about. (Sober Apollonian Footnote: Graves seems not to have experimented with magic mushrooms until 1953, but before this date his mind might be said to have been capable of auto-hallucinogenesis). The result is what T.S. Eliot described as a ‘prodigious, monstrous, stupefying, indescribable book’. In our sober and unpoetic age one might feel a twinge of nostalgia for a period in which it was possible to write sentences like these:
Poetry began in the matriarchal age, and derives its magic from the moon, not from the sun. No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had 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 measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of: ‘Kill! Kill! Kill!’ and ‘Blood! Blood! Blood!’
A few years before The White Goddess appeared Graves had written a very readable though extremely prescriptive guide to clear prose style called The Reader over Your Shoulder (1943), which has now been reprinted with a helpful introduction by Patricia O’Conner. In it he anatomised the writing of many of his contemporaries, and did so with such ruthlessness that one friend suggested the book should be subtitled ‘A Short Cut to Unpopularity’. The prose of Eliot (with whom Graves was supposed to have collaborated on the study of modernist poetry he eventually wrote with Riding) is given a chilly slap: it ‘seems to shrink from the responsibility of “bestowing judgment”’. Ezra Pound’s prose is flogged as ‘wilfully loose’ and as a ‘yawp for yawp’s sake’. The critic I.A. Richards is subjected to a sliding studs-up tackle: ‘If I.A. Richards really finds the communication of simple experiences so much more difficult than most people do, this is probably because he avoids defining the terms he uses.’ The most palpable of its many hits is delivered to Graham Greene’s dreadful sentence ‘Kay Rimmer sat with her head in her hands and her eyes on the floor’ simply by appending to it: ‘And her teeth on the mantlepiece?’ But along the way Graves gives much sound advice about how to write so as to be understood.
If Graves had applied to the passage from The White Goddess I’ve just quoted the principles set out in The Reader over Your Shoulder, he would have found in it a clear violation of Principle 5 (‘There should never be any doubt left as to when’), and probably of Principle 6 (‘There should never be any doubt as to how much or how long’), as well as of Principle 7 (‘There should never be any doubt left as to how many’). Who were these writhing dancers ‘uncouthly’ bent forward? And as for the Naked King, could we have some regnal dates please? And what about Principle M of the ‘Graces of Prose’: ‘Alliteration should be sparingly used’? Ah, but the poet inspired by the goddess can talk about the matriarchal magic of the moon until the ‘acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires’ pulls him back to the mundane world in which cliché is cliché and overstatement is overstatement.
Randall Jarrell once said that Graves was divided between ‘the logic-chopping regimental explainer’ and the poet who is ‘Baby, Lover, Victim howling in dreadful longing for the Mother, who bears, possesses and destroys’. Graves needed the tangles, rages, passions, betrayals, devotions of his exhausting emotional life in order to write. But he also thought poets should, like writers of prose, be aware of the reader over their shoulder. In a slightly patronising letter to Wilfred Owen he wrote: ‘Make new metres by all means, but one must observe the rules where they are laid down by custom of centuries.’ As Philip Larkin noted in a mildly feline review of Steps (1958), Graves sought poems which are ‘moon magical enough to walk off the page’ but was unable to ‘leave a poem alone when he had finished it’. Many poets combine the ululating shaman with the martinet who summons the howls of the shaman to order. But in few poets do those two voices shout at each other across the parade ground as loudly as they do in the work of Robert Graves.
This makes him a very difficult subject for a biography. The first volume of Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Life is extremely thorough. It sets out the facts of Graves’s life throughout the period covered by Goodbye to All That (roughly speaking up until Riding’s leap from the window), and is an excellent guide to the exact number of grains of salt with which to take the claims made by Graves in his autobiography. Generally this is rather a lot of grains, often it’s tablespoons – as when Graves summarises the events that led to his departure from England, including Riding’s auto-defenestration, by the sentence ‘New characters appeared on the stage.’ Moorcroft Wilson – who has written biographies of Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and Sassoon – has a carefully forensic style, and tends to rely on remarks by Graves’s contemporaries to convey his character. She has such a store of these that one does get from the book a sense of what a fusion of confusions he was: his friend and later enemy (a pattern often repeated) Sassoon described him as ‘a sort of sallow, victimised, faithful Jester in the storm’ and as ‘a little uncouth and out of focus’ – which, along with Woolf’s barbed description of her unwanted visitor, just about has Graves wrapped up. There is no doubt that Moorcroft Wilson’s thoroughness and sobriety will make this book a valuable resource for scholars. But Miranda Seymour’s Robert Graves: Life on the Edge (1995), which covers the whole of his life in only a few more pages than it takes Moorcroft Wilson to bring us to 1929, remains a better read – partly because Seymour is willing to confess that Graves could be completely impossible.
Facts matter, but they may reveal less about human beings than fictions. And if you want to get to know Graves, Goodbye to All That, despite its many inaccuracies, knocks the spots off any biography as a guide to his psychology as well as that of his class and of the generation who fought in the First World War. In that work (which began as a novel, and then was transformed into an autobiography dictated at haste) Graves patently makes himself into a ‘character’. His nickname in the officers’ mess was ‘von Runicke’. This played on his mother’s maiden name of von Ranke (which was also his middle name, and caused him some trouble during the war), but also suggests that his messmates already saw in him a combination of the visionary mythologist and comic performer. By 1929 the war had become the stuff of anecdote, and von Runicke the barrack-room banterer could relate with delight that the charges once levelled against the goat-major of the Welch Fusiliers included the allegation that he ‘did prostitute the royal goat’ to a goat breeder in Wrexham, and that divisional command could be relied on to issue orders about ‘verdigris on vermorel-sprayers, or the keeping of pets in trenches’ just at the climax of any attack.
The aftermath of the war left Graves suffering from a bad attack of not gallows humour but trench humour – an affliction which particularly affected public schoolboys who were put in situations of overwhelming physical and psychological pressure. Observing themselves from the outside as though they were the subjects of a potential anecdote became the principal mechanism for abstracting themselves from horror. So when Graves describes being hospitalised in London after his near fatal wounding, he says: ‘I heard here for the first time of my supposed death; the joke contributed greatly to my recovery.’ Captain Graves in his grave became something he could see from the outside, both a mess-hall anecdote and a thing dead in a trench, like the dead whom he described decomposing into a fine rainbow (‘The colour of the dead faces changed from white to yellow-grey, to red, to purple, to green, to black, to slimy’), or like the dead Boche in his gruesome poem of that name:
he scowled and stunk
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.
What makes Goodbye to All That such a great piece of writing about warfare is not just the way it sublimates the most painful experiences of Graves’s life into crisp and impersonal anecdote, but the fact that in doing so it allows the pain behind the act of sublimation to show through. So he writes after the death of the poet Charles Sorley that ‘a black depression held me,’ as though depression needs to be represented as a force outside himself; and when he predicts his own breakdown he sees it as an external force which turns him into an object he can see from the outside: ‘It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.’
But when he tries to describe directly how he felt it comes out strangely distorted. So he relates his move away from what he calls ‘pseudo-homosexuality’ after his betrayal by Dick (who in April 1917 was arrested for soliciting a corporal in the military police) like this: ‘My heart had remained whole, if numbed, since Dick’s disappearance from it, yet I felt difficulty in adjusting myself to the experience of woman love.’ Here ‘myself’ is a mechanism to be tweaked and coaxed, not to the love of a particular person, but to generic ‘woman love’; and ‘myself’ seems a separate entity from the numb heart it contains. When he describes later flashbacks to the war, he notes that they were all from its early stages: ‘the emotion-recording apparatus seemed to have failed after Loos’. This is a remarkable way of putting it: not ‘my emotions’ but ‘the emotion-recording apparatus’. A soldier on the Western Front can be tweaked and adjusted towards normality, but contains within himself potentially insubordinate mechanisms akin to a film camera or tape recorder that can malfunction beyond repair.
That view of himself as a wrecked but adjustable mechanism, which could be shot and wrenched and then sewn up and sent back to do more drilling and killing, or be forcibly redirected towards ‘woman love’, was a profound consequence of having been part of the mechanism of war. In Lawrence and the Arabs, Graves contrasted the de-individuating destruction of the Western Front to the ‘romantically appealing’ revolt in the desert which Lawrence had orchestrated. He then made the strange statement that it was ‘perhaps fortunate’ that the ‘poets who got badly involved in the war were all infantrymen in France’. Living in an environment where around half of one’s friends were slaughtered by snipers, mortars and machine guns is an odd form of good fortune; but by describing it this way Graves acknowledged how deeply being a part of mechanised and impersonal warfare shaped the way he thought about himself and the way he wrote.
The evasions of Goodbye to All That give insights into the whole Graves generation. They suggest why people who had survived the trenches might be drawn towards psychological systems that presented the hope of reassembling the mind as though it were a mechanism. It also helps to explain why that generation was drawn towards the ‘scientific’ forms of literary criticism developed by I.A. Richards in the 1920s, which treated poems as delicately balanced instruments that could elicit from their readers a suite of counterpoised impulses from the intricate mechanism of the nervous system. The war taught poets and soldiers that the apparatus of the mind and the body might be anatomised and manipulated. But Goodbye to All That also casts light on the curious later history of Graves himself. It is not hard to see why someone who had lived through the Western Front might wish to break free from its mechanical and homosocial regimens and imagine a White Goddess who could turn suffering into a purpose of being, about whom he couldn’t jest but simply scream, and who indeed might allow him to rejoice while the machine of his body or of his emotions was torn apart.
Moorcroft Wilson presents Graves as not just a ‘Great War poet’ but as a great war poet too. By the later 1920s, as she notes, he was suppressing his war poetry from collections of his verse: he, at least, was clearly not proud of it. The blend of humour and anguish in Goodbye to All That makes him a great prose writer about the war. But that same mixture doesn’t work so well in verse. His war poems often seem uncertain how to balance the bravado of the barracks against the stench of trench warfare. The poem that Graves, ever the joker in the storm, wrote about his own supposed death on his 21st birthday on 24 July 1916, is a mock mythological vision, in which he descends to Hades and throws Cerberus a sop made of army-issue rations:
There’s still some morphia that I bought on leave.
Then swiftly Cerberus’ wide mouths I cram
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam.
The hound of hell falls asleep, and he escapes with ‘O Life! O Sun!’ Elsewhere Graves has the war inverting other myths: his version of ‘Goliath and David’ (‘For Lieut. David Thomas, 1st Batt. Royal Welch Fusiliers, killed at Fricourt, March 1916’) reverses the biblical tale of giant-killing: ‘“I’m hit! I’m killed!” young David cries,/Throws blindly forward, chokes … and dies.’ As Moorcroft Wilson notes, Graves’s verse repeatedly describes the war from a child’s perspective. This enabled him to make creative use of the disjunction between his habitual tone of voice and the experiences described in the war poetry: so ‘Nursery Memories’ relates a child seeing a dead dog, ‘His horrid swollen belly/Looked just like going to burst.’ Its headnote is: ‘The first corpse I saw was on the German wires, and couldn’t be buried.’
Graves’s war poems are vivid indices of a particular cultural moment rather than great poems. They are evocative because they are so patently, so childishly, not up to the horror they describe. In ‘It’s a Queer Time’, written before he had seen any action, he conjoined the idylls and good chappery of a Georgian public schoolboy poet with a violence that turns his past upside down:
You’re charging madly at them yelling ‘Fag!’
When somehow something gives and your feet drag.
You fall and strike your head; yet feel no pain
And find … you’re digging tunnels through the hay
In the Big Barn, ’cause it’s a rainy day.
Oh springy hay, and lovely beams to climb!
You’re back in the old sailor suit again.
It’s a queer time.
The slangy and deliberately inadequate response to being shot and flashing back to the past, ‘it’s a queer time,’ is not simply satirical, nor is the public-school voice crying ‘Fag!’ When Sassoon published his denunciation of the war in the summer of 1917 Graves was shocked. He helped to ensure Sassoon was not court-martialled but instead consigned to Craiglockhart, where he could be pieced back together by that able mechanic of the mind, William Rivers. But Graves, unlike Sassoon, believed protest against the war was hopeless, and that ‘our only possible course would be to keep on going out until we got killed’. Graves was simultaneously a public school team player and his own rebellious little brother, inclined at once to insubordination and to infantile regression to a sanitised past. His way of holding that all together was to deploy the cheery slang of the good chap in ways that made it quite clear it wasn’t adequate to the world of the machine gun. It was indeed a queer time.
Did Graves improve as a poet? His Complete Poems is still in print. Reading all 800-odd pages of it from cover to cover is a curious experience. It’s like seeing the history of English poetry and criticism in the 20th century unfolding from a deliberately eccentric angle yet one which was never quite distinctive enough to create a school or a movement. In the early verse, there’s a strong vein of Hardy and Housman and of Masefield in narrative mode; there are also pulses of Skelton-influenced deliberately unmilitary doggerel (‘my rhymes no longer shall stand arrayed/Like Prussian soldiers on parade’) as though the muse is desperate to be demob-happy. By the late 1920s you begin to hear tones which had an influence on early Auden, of reflective philosophic song overshadowed by over-rich image:
There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
Graves resisted the formal and syntactic disruptions of high modernism. Lawrence introduced him to Pound with ‘Ezra Pound; Robert Graves – you will dislike each other.’ The few occasions on which he tried to sound ‘modern’ are prize-winningly awful: in a 1929 poem about man’s position in the universe he wrote the all but incomprehensible sub-Empsonian lines ‘We have no truck either with the forebeings/Of Betelgeux or with the atom’s git.’
His poetry from the period after The White Goddess was often sustained by his private mythology. Graves claimed that ‘the true poet must always be original … he must address only the Muse – not the King or Chief Bard or the people in general – and tell her the truth about himself and her in his own passionate and peculiar words.’ That did damp down some of the jokes and showing-off that can make the early verse seem so unbalanced. But goddess-worship also gave him a new set of ways of deceiving himself. An ageing male poet who argued for matriarchy in the 1950s and 1960s might seem well ahead of his time. But Graves also used goddess-worship to justify falling again and again for a sequence of beautiful young women whom he conveniently regarded as more or less interchangeable vehicles of the goddess’s power. When one of his earlier muses, Margot Callas, was leaving him he wrote:
Have you not watched
The immanent Goddess fade from their brows
When they make private to her mysteries
Some whip-scarred rogue from the hulks, some painted clown.
Principle 1 of Poetic Misogyny states that ‘the poet should project ugliness onto the brow of a woman who no longer needs him.’ Principle 2 states that ‘the poet should generalise the behaviour of an individual woman into that of an entire sex.’ Blaming her behaviour and her ugliness on the departure of the goddess may be a sophisticatedly mythicised version of these old tricks, but that doesn’t elevate it much beyond a standard-issue male sulk. Graves elsewhere uses the goddess to explain why each of his muses might expect to have a shelf-life of only about three years:
This they know well: the Goddess yet abides.
Though each new lovely woman whom she rides,
Straddling her a year or two or three
Should sink beneath such weight of majesty.
But his belief that a poet should throw his entire being into love of the goddess or her mutable proxies did enable him by the 1960s to create a poetic idiom which hung together better than the combination of pain and self-mockery which had characterised his wartime verse. Some of the later love poems are simply beautiful, like ‘The Snapped Thread’:
Two souls, now unalterably one
In whole love always and for ever,
Soar out of twilight, through upper air,
Let fall their sensuous burden.
By this point Graves was openly presenting himself as a ‘romantic’ poet who wrote in opposition to the Apollonian masculine rationalism of all those vile university professors and dons. But actually he owed much of his popularity at this period – he was professor of poetry at Oxford between 1961 and 1966 – to the fact that his verse was in many respects a poetic expression of orthodox academic literary tastes. The metaphysical love poems which abound after Riding’s departure and during the time when Graves was captivated by his muses are full of Donne-like moments and vocabulary. They were written during the period when academic critics were fascinated by the metaphysical Donne and by Shakespeare’s supposedly metaphysical poem ‘Let the bird of loudest lay’, with its description of lovers who ‘loved, as love in twain/Had the essence but in one’. ‘The Snapped Thread’, which includes the line ‘Two souls, now unalterably one’, appeared in 1966, the same year as Empson’s essay on Shakespeare’s ‘Phoenix and the Turtle’, and a decade after Wilson Knight’s The Mutual Flame: On Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnets’ and ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’. And Donne – darling of critics since Eliot’s review of Grierson’s anthology of Metaphysical Lyrics in 1921 – repeatedly feeds the vocabulary of Graves’s 1960s love poetry: the first line of ‘Perfectionists’, ‘Interalienation of their hearts it was not’, adapts Donne’s favoured prefix, ‘inter’ (Donne used ‘intertouched’, ‘interbring’ and ‘inter-assurèd of the mind’) to represent alienated mutuality. Graves’s ‘Muse poetry’ grew in parallel to the critical invention of an English poetic tradition which had the Donne of ‘The Ecstasy’ and ‘A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning’ at its heart. And he has fallen from favour with the waning of those critical fashions.
There is another reason for his fall, which is a far greater historical irony. In collaboration with Riding he wrote A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927). This book influenced I.A. Richards and his pupil Empson as they developed the technique of what became ‘close reading’ or ‘practical criticism’, in which poems considered purely as words on the page were subjected to close scrutiny without reference to their biographical and historical context. Generations of students were trained in this way of reading, which assumed the complete separation of art and biography. It is a critical method which is very unkind to the relentlessly autobiographical and often egotistical Graves. His poems need the support of biography. The most vivid of them are about things that happened to him, about torment – of war, of love, of love gone wrong – deflected into verse, and rely on the jokes, fictions and evasions that people invent in order to cope with things they can’t bring themselves to talk about directly. His later love poetry – which read in bulk can sound as though Shakespeare’s sonnets to the so-called ‘dark lady’ are being recited on an endless fast-forward loop with ‘White Goddess’ and ‘Muse’ substituted for the dark mistress – depends for its force on being entirely (to go back to Woolf’s perfectly apt word) ingenuous. These are meant as real addresses to a woman who causes him pain and whom he loves partly because she causes him pain. The muse to whom he speaks is in part a figment of his thoroughly messed-up emotional urges, but you have to believe the goddess and muse are real in order to be able to appreciate the force of a poem such as ‘The Leap’:
Forget the rest: my heart is true
And in its waking thought of you
Gives the same wild and sudden leap
That jerks it from the brink of sleep.
It’s so simple, kid’s stuff almost, to rhyme ‘true’ and ‘you’ in a love poem; but then it jerks you into another world with that comparison between a thought of the lover to the jolt we’ve all felt when pulled back from sleep. There is, indeed, a childish side to Graves, ‘the poor boy’ as Woolf called him when, at the grand old age of 43, she opened the door to her 30-year-old uninvited guest. He had nightmares all his life, and there was something childlike in his devotion to Dick, to Riding, to his muses, and even in his braggadocio responses to the war. It’s only by reading his poems as a species of biography that they will be recognised for what they are: ‘ingenuous’ works in all the main senses of that word. Graves was a high-born officer and public schoolboy (ingenuus, or well-born), but also candid to the point of naivety.