Adjusting the Mechanism
- Robert Graves: From a Great War Poet to ‘Goodbye to All That’, 1895-1929 by Jean Moorcroft Wilson
Bloomsbury, 461 pp, £25.00, August, ISBN 978 1 4729 2914 3
- The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge
Seven Stories, 613 pp, £30.00, September 2017, ISBN 978 1 60980 733 7
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.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 20 · 25 October 2018
Colin Burrow, in his review of Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography of Robert Graves, would not be quite so bemused if he had a better understanding of the background to Graves’s work (LRB, 11 October). Burrow’s irritation with The White Goddess (1948) is instructive. I once said to Laura Riding: ‘But there are some good ideas in there [The White Goddess], aren’t there?’ She drew her shoulders up and smacked the table. ‘Of course there are!’ she said, eyes wide. ‘He got it all from me!’ The figure of the ‘white goddess’ itself sprang from her earliest collection of poems, The Close Chaplet (1926), although she makes perfect sense of the notion, while Graves exaggerates it to a grotesque extent. The lengthy discourse in The White Goddess on words and their meanings, and their ‘sympathetic associations’ with each other (e.g., apple = Avalon = Apollo and so on) derive directly from Riding’s essays and writings on language, from Contemporaries & Snobs (1928), Anarchism Is Not Enough (1928), and on and on through her work, including her poems. The confusion shared by all commentators concerning The White Goddess and, equally, any number of Graves’s poems, is down to the fact they have not bothered to read Riding’s work. As Graves emphatically wrote in 1963, when he was still clear-minded, to his critic Douglas Day (Swifter than Reason), until critics understood her, they would not understand him.
By contrast with The White Goddess, Burrow finds The Reader over Your Shoulder (1943) ‘very readable’ and with ‘much sound advice’. The sparkling spring for that book is to be found in Laura Riding’s essay, ‘The Exercise of English’ (1936). Graves gives no acknowledgment of Riding in his book. So much for her, ‘the maddest woman’. So much for Nancy Nicholson, a ‘feminist’. So much for Beryl Graves (‘Beryl Pritchard’, as Burrow calls her), somehow on ‘the edge of this magnetic circle of master manipulators for some time’. So much for Margot Callas, with ‘a shelf-life of only about three years’. Burrow and Moorcroft Wilson don’t get it: Graves could not have survived without them. They kept him to a proportion – ‘Blup, blup, blup,’ Nicholson and Riding used to sing to him whenever he pontificated. He knew their value. Take, for example, the quotation Burrow finds in Wilson’s book:
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.
This is from one of Graves’s finest poems, critics agree, ‘The Cool Web’, published in 1926 in a collection dedicated to ‘NN and LR’. Guess where the ‘cool web of language’ comes from. Guess where the entire meaning comes from.
‘Facts matter,’ Burrow says. Well, fictions abound in his review, as they do in Wilson’s book. Riding’s ‘auto-defenestration’ wasn’t from a ‘fourth-storey window’: it was the third storey. Graves’s house in Mallorca was not ‘funded chiefly by royalties from I, Claudius’; it was bought jointly by Riding and Graves, was designed by Riding, and was registered in Riding’s name in 1932, two years before I, Claudius was published. ‘In collaboration with Riding he wrote A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927),’ Burrow says. No, he didn’t write it: she wrote it, he collaborated, as recent scholarship, of which Moorcroft Wilson and Burrow seem blithely unaware, demonstrates.
The ‘fact’ is that acknowledgment of Riding’s place in Graves’s work would enhance his reputation, not diminish it, by lending it a sane perspective. Graves was a fine poet, as Burrow acknowledges, and never more so than during his 14-year association with Riding, which even his previous biographers admit. What does that suggest?
Nottingham Trent University