Electroplated Fish Knife

Peter Howarth

  • Robert Graves: Selected Poems edited by Michael Longley
    Faber, 136 pp, £15.99, August 2013, ISBN 978 0 571 28383 5

By spring 1919, Robert Graves was a demobilised war veteran, a new father and the author of four volumes of poetry. At this moment came ‘the first poem I wrote as myself’, as his autobiography describes ‘Rocky Acres’. After surviving years of front-line bombardment, a shell splinter through his right lung and the postwar influenza epidemic, Graves had returned to his cottage in the Welsh hills. He had always found respite there: from the dull comforts of his Wimbledon childhood, the bullying at Charterhouse and, for the last four years, the derangements of army life. In 1916, he had taken Sassoon there so that they could both work on their anti-war poems, and had begun the first draft of what would become Goodbye to All That. With the war now finally over – though Graves would suffer the delayed effects of shellshock for the next decade – he moved to Wales with his wife and baby, and found himself writing about the hills he loved to climb. ‘Rocky Acres’ celebrates this timeless ‘lost land’ of ‘harsh, craggy mountains’, the rocks and heather ‘growing without care’, silent but for the constant ‘voice of cold water’, with skies of ‘cutting snow’, even in June. This is a land of ‘fear and shock’ where the buzzard is king:

He soars and he hovers, rocking on his wings,
He scans his wide parish with a sharp eye,
He catches the trembling of small hidden things,
He tears them to pieces, dropping them from the sky.

Yet ‘this is my country,’ the last stanza begins, ‘beloved by me best’.

It’s not instantly clear why this poem is Graves’s first piece of authentic work. Though his previous volumes had included many sentimental or chirpy verses, they had also contained ‘Goliath and David’, a rewriting of the story in Goliath’s favour which anticipates Graves’s many debunkings of history, from My Head, My Head! (1925) to King Jesus (1946), of which Goodbye to All That is one. In the ‘Familiar Letter to Siegfried Sassoon’, written from billets in 1916, Graves had expressed a longing to take his friend up to the old shrines dotting the Welsh hilltops, for

Fairies and ghosts are here galore,
And poetry most splendid, more
Than can be written with the pen
Or understood by common men.

Graves’s relief at being on land ‘trampled by no shod hooves, bought with no blood’ is not wholly new, either. The second phrase suggests his wish to escape the piety of his evangelical mother as much as the fields of Flanders, and he had already written caustic poems about both.

There is something new in the poem’s tone, however. Earlier Graves poems present you with well-defined feelings: horror or peace or the creeps. ‘Rocky Acres’ is much more ambivalent. All the adjectives of this paysage moralisé are hostile – ‘careless’, ‘cold’, ‘cutting’ – and yet the climber is plainly exhilarated to be there. In 1919, Graves the walker found himself still sizing up the hills like a battlefield, unable to stop himself working out where to place the Lewis-guns for an assault on some lonely farm. But in the poem, ‘fear and shock’, or sudden death from the sky, mean freedom. Emotionally, ‘Rocky Acres’ anticipates the attitude familiar from ‘The White Goddess’, who is also to be found on top of a mountain, ‘at the volcano’s head,/Among pack ice’, where

        we are gifted, even in November
Rawest of seasons, with so huge a sense
Of her nakedly worn magnificence
We forget cruelty and past betrayal,
Heedless of where the next bright bolt may fall.

Here is Graves’s famous idea of poetry as cruel mistress, in whose service the devoted poet experiences sudden illumination and punishment as much the same thing. But though ‘The White Goddess’ scorns the lowland poets ‘ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean’, the poem itself is written in a flexible Shakespearean pentameter, with slant-rhyme couplets. Graves is not really opposed to Apollo’s measured poetry; like the bordello masochist, he sets down some fairly strict rules for his mistress, and remains half in charge of the results. Secure despite merciless exposure, the climber of ‘Rocky Acres’ personifies one of the unlikely combinations typical of Graves: the clear-eyed historian and besotted mythographer, the critical analyst and the neurotic dreamer, the undisciplined lover and tidy poet.

After his stay in Wales, Graves moved to Oxford to start a degree, switching from Classics to English. With the help of a therapist friend, W.H.R. Rivers, he began to develop the literary-critical technique that would come to be called close reading, where you tease out the multiple semantic possibilities of words. Rivers’s roughly Freudian theory was that the dream symbols of his shellshocked patients reflected a compromise between two conflicting wishes. Graves adapted this into an idea about the origin of poetic creativity:

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