Electroplated Fish Knife
- 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:
The nucleus of every poem worthy of the name is formed in the poet’s mind during a trance-like suspension of his normal habits of thought, by the supra-logical reconciliation of conflicting emotional ideas. The poet learns to induce the trance in self-protection whenever he feels unable to resolve an emotional conflict by simple logic … As soon as he has thus dissociated himself from the poem, the secondary phase of composition begins: that of testing and correcting on commonsense principles, so as to satisfy public scrutiny.
If a poem’s creative power comes from the way it combines incompatible feelings, then good criticism must mean putting your finger on the poet’s sore spots. After the humiliation of exile from court, Graves argued confidently, Shakespeare worked through his discontent in the writing of Hamlet. ‘As each scene developed he must have become aware of the political allusions occurring in it, but I cannot believe that he realised what now seems obvious enough: that Hamlet was a political allegory of his own disharmony.’ A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), written with Laura Riding, attacks the editorial urge to remove the crucial ambiguities of Sonnet 129 by tidying up the commas. ‘Shakespeare’s punctuation,’ they argue, ‘allows the variety of meanings he actually intends.’ The close reader’s task is to recognise the simultaneous presence of conflicting possibilities, and find a meaning embracing ‘as many meanings as possible, that is, the most difficult meaning’. The young William Empson, who had been reading Graves for some while, adapted this insight for Seven Types of Ambiguity, which became one of the founding books of modern literary criticism; Riding later took him to task for stealing the idea.
Close reading later got itself a bad name after it was taken up by a group of poet-critics led by Graves and Riding’s one-time allies John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate to fight a turf war within the American academy. Ransom and Tate were convinced that the sociological or philological approaches of their colleagues couldn’t cope with poetry as poetry. The use of external, comparative frameworks meant that a poem was always interpreted as evidence for something else, 16th-century social change, for example, or the history of verb development. Ransom and Tate thought that a poem’s semantic complexity made it unique, and so impossible to paraphrase or summarise without injustice. The critic’s job was to explore how the form organised the play of latent meanings into a whole, not to explain away the complexity by analysing the poem in terms of its cultural milieu. Only by preserving the poem’s integrity like this could criticism resist the homogenising pressures of scientifically organised civilisation. At this point, close reading, difficult modern poetry and highbrow cultural criticism began to move in lockstep, and became the majority position in the 1940s and 1950s. To opponents of this position, however, the belief that poems could evade social processes was fantasy, and close reading was reactionary formalism.
In fact, there was nothing necessarily anti-historical or apolitical about close reading, as Empson’s 1930s essays on the ideology lurking in the ambiguities of pastoral verse had shown. And recent critical opinion is much more sympathetic to the idea that close reading is the methodological glue which holds Eng. Lit. together, since it’s as useful for the suspicious appraisal of historical sources as for detecting psychological nuance. If that’s right, then the part Graves played in inventing close reading has been by far his greatest legacy to modern literature – not because his poems are bad, but because some version of close reading is taught to every child at school. Yet it is also true that close reading’s tendency to isolate the poem was there from the beginning. Alongside the promise to explain how modern poems worked, Graves and Riding’s approach also demanded a commitment to the poem’s truth that at times bordered on worship.
The close reading of Sonnet 129 that inspired Empson occupies one chapter of A Survey of Modernist Poetry. The rest of the book looks over everything that’s wrong with the poetry world of the time, errors which modern poets and (we infer) close reading are out to fix. Poetry has been ‘narrowed down by the specialisation of all other general activities, such as religion and the arts and sciences, into a technical branch of culture. It has changed from a “humanity” to an “art”.’ So its power to reveal any truth unknown to scientific civilisation is neutralised. It simply says what everyone already thinks in a way that feeds the readers’ appetite for gentility, supplying ‘the high polish of civilisation’ like the electroplating on a Sheffield fish knife. The true poet, however,
does not write because of the demand of the reader to be fed with poetry but because certain poems demand to be written and the poet is ‘somebody who is obsessed by Making’. Once the poems are made, his personal activity ceases in them. They begin a life of their own towards which he has no responsibility of advertising or selling: that they teach the reader at all is an accident, an affair entirely between them and the reader.
But Riding and Graves want to teach the reader how the accident happens. The modern poem is difficult, they think, because it works like a recipe. The gaps in the syntax and the verbal ambiguity require the reader to construct her own version; the modern poem belongs ‘to anybody who will be at pains to write it’. But this effort puts off the ordinary reader, who ‘does not want to understand poetry so much as to have poetical feelings’ supplied ready cooked. Poems therefore need a super-reader, energetic enough to make creative inferences, and sufficiently isolated from ordinary life that she is able to accept ‘the independence of these poetic facts, as real facts, from any prose or poetical explanation in the terms of practical workaday reality which would make them seem unreal, or poetical facts’. Close reading isn’t merely a way to understand an author’s suppressed complexes. The confident historical reconstructions of Shakespeare’s emotions or E.E. Cummings’s motives become an invitation to the reader to enter a different regime of truth entirely, one equivalent to science but unavailable to it. Graves and Riding draw an analogy with the ordinary Christian who is suddenly asked to take turning the other cheek seriously; he would be as shocked and horrified at such an ‘obnoxious modernism’, they claim, as the ordinary reader is when asked to read poetic modernism. To read poetry on Graves and Riding’s terms requires serious commitment, and as cheek-turning conscientious objectors knew, guarantees social ostracism.
Although the Survey is a brilliant defence of modernist poetry, it was not meant to win allies. It treats literary journalism as poetry’s mortal enemy, and spares few of its favourite poets a dressing-down for their moments of compromise with public taste. Graves’s quarrelsome letters of the period finished off several of his surviving friendships, including one with T.S. Eliot, with whom he’d originally planned to write the book. Graves and Riding’s isolation was also personal. Her arrival in Graves’s life – first as secretary, then as mistress – would end his first marriage, separating him from his children and his parents, who were subsequently hurt even more by the ungrateful portrait of them in Goodbye to All That. That book is dedicated to Riding, because only her firm hand had given Graves the courage, he felt, to expose the absurd repressions of his family, and of his social class, which had played its part in the lunacy of the Great War and his own troubles afterwards.
As compensation, the pair collected cultish circles around themselves in England and Majorca, where their intense literary mentoring would often merge into affairs arranged for each other, or emotional collaborations that usually left the younger admirers feeling awestruck and exploited. Riding usually gets the blame for pulverising her guests’ resistance by alternating kindness and intense criticism, both delivered with the highest possible motives. But Graves must have colluded; ‘the power of a Goddess is circumscribed by the condition of her worshippers,’ he admitted in The White Goddess, written in the aftermath of Riding’s departure. The emotional cross-wiring and remote-control manipulation would give Graves one model for the courtly machinations in I, Claudius, where no gesture is unconscious and no word innocent. They also conform to the pattern of close reading. The complex overtones and cross-correspondences of meaning emerge precisely because the poem is decontextualised, isolated from the ordinary limits everyday speech provides. And if the real close reading must ‘enter the life of the poem and submit itself to its conditions in order to know it as it really is’, as the Survey requires, any real submission will make the reader too involved to distinguish afterwards quite what belongs to the poem and what to her. Close reading requires reading too much into things. It’s the critical counterpart to Graves’s fascination with scenarios where ‘the thinker is also the thing known,’ a description of religious faith from My Head, My Head which could apply equally to the traumatic memories of the soldier-patient, the self-trapping schemes of Roman courtiers and the ‘dreams, paranoiac visions and delusions’ that herald the White Goddess’s approach to the unlucky reader. Close reading entangles as much as it demystifies, in much the same way that Graves’s brisk demythologisings of Moses (My Head), Jesus (King Jesus, The Nazarene Gospels) or Western patriarchal religion (The White Goddess) actually license a hermeneutic orgy to which every possible hint and resemblance is invited to confirm Graves’s counter-story.
The poems, too, dwell on ominous over-interpretations. In ‘An Occasion’, a fellow veteran’s lamplit reading of a poem about the ‘houseless dead’ of the First World War is interrupted by ‘the rising thunder-storm’ outside, and then sudden silence:
Two bolts clicked at the glass doors, and a shrill
Impetuous gust of wind blew in with a shout,
Fluttering your poems. And the lamp went out.
The click of the bolts is a brilliant touch, as if the houseless dead were cocking their pistols as they force entry. The real world is just as threatening in ‘The Cool Web’, which claims that language waters down the child’s vivid apprehension of roses, the ‘black wastes of evening sky’ and the drumming of soldiers. But if we try to get back behind it,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.
The repetition makes the speaker sound slightly hypnotised by what lies beyond language’s limits, and the comma-less last line runs a touch too fast for comfort. ‘Sick Love’ knowingly creates the paranoia it predicts. ‘O Love, be fed with apples while you may,’ it begins:
Though in what listening horror for the cry
That soars in outer blackness dismally,
The dumb blind beast, the paranoiac fury
After that, every invitation to ‘be warm, enjoy the season’ or to ‘delight in momentariness’ is poisoned: the audience becomes the close reader looking for the suppressed horror behind every line. In this case, it comes as much through the poem’s measured pace as the vocabulary, with the refusal to speed up or slow down only increasing the feeling of foreboding.
To the poet of The White Goddess, in which the goddess’s presence always stirs together feelings of love, fear and hate, these ambivalences guarantee that the poem is the genuine article. But although Michael Longley has looked out a number of early and unpublished poems to give this well-made selection some appropriate roughness, the overall feeling is that these are poems whose ambivalences have been rather carefully polished for public presentation. In ‘It Was All Very Tidy’, the well-trimmed house with its neatly mown lawns turns out to belong to Death, who is found carefully settling his accounts by ‘cancelling out/The last row of figures’. But Graves’s poems are pretty neat, too. ‘Dance of Words’ offers advice to novice poets hoping to catch one of the goddess’s bolts:
To make them move, you should start from lightning
And not forecast the rhythm: rely on chance,
Or so-called chance for its bright emergence
Once lightning interpenetrates the dance.
Rely on chance, except it isn’t really chance; start from lightning, except the dance comes first; by the end of stanza two of this predictably formatted poem, the advice is to keep ‘the choreography plain, and the theme plain’. ‘Flying Crooked’ is a self-portrait as butterfly, which ‘lurches here and here by guess/And God and hope and hopelessness’, but the rhyming couplets time their take-off and landing to the second. A number of other party-turn poems with good jokes in them (‘Wm. Brazier’, ‘Leaving the Rest Unsaid’) have their eye on the audience’s delighted laughter in a way that the Survey of Modernist Poetry, with its high-minded indifference to worldly success, would never have countenanced. ‘A Last Poem’ admits it:
A last poem, and a very last, and yet another –
O, when can I give over? …
Shall I never hear her whisper softly:
‘But this truth is written for you only,
And for me only; therefore, love, have done’?
Graves has been unable to stop writing because he has never quite been able to give the goddess his full attention; his poetic eye has always wandered. In fact, there may be something in the goddess which requires this. ‘New Legends’ is a promise to Riding to give up the psychodramas fuelled by dreams of himself as her sole protector:
Content in you
Mistress of air and ocean
And every fiery dragon,
Chained to no cliff,
Asking no rescue of me.
The original title of the sequence from which this comes, ‘Against Kind’, drew on a phrase from the epilogue to Goodbye to All That: ‘By mentioning you as a character in my autobiography I would seem to be denying you in your true quality of one living invisibly, against kind, as dead, beyond event.’ It’s not so much a repudiation of legendary goddesses as the reinstallation of another, the woman who has no needs and therefore can’t be hurt by the more or less openly expressed wish that she were dead. It worships her lack of kind and lack of kindness, but as the poem’s stanzas diminish by one line each time, the final ‘content in you’ is missing:
Content in you,
Niobe of no children
Of no calamity.
Content in you,
Helen, foiler of beauty.
This might be because the formally minded Graves disapproved of a one-line stanza. To me it confesses an inability to rest content in Riding as she was, without any mythologising comparisons or the theatrical self-dramatisation they offered Graves too. Perhaps I’m over-reading.