Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to 'Good-bye to All That' (1895–1929) by Jean Moorcroft Wilson - review by John Sutherland

John Sutherland

The Hazards of his Love-Bed

Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to 'Good-bye to All That' (1895–1929)


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One’s initial response is, why bother? Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography of Robert Graves covers the same period as Good-bye to All That. It is no criticism to say that she writes less well than Graves. Nor can any biographer know the life of their subject as well as that person. Nor can anyone who wasn’t unlucky enough to be there know what trench warfare in the First World War was really like.

Robert von Ranke Graves was born in 1895, straddling, as the name testifies, the nations that would fight each other nineteen years later. On the English side of the family there was high professional standing. Robert was ‘prepped’ for public school and thereafter a life that history never allowed to happen. On the German side there were senior diplomats and the historian Leopold von Ranke, who pioneered positivist historiography. Graves finished his school career a precociously published poet and Charterhouse’s welterweight boxing champion, his broken nose recording that feat all his broken life.

He enrolled on the call to arms, weeks after leaving school, putting off Oxford for a short while, or so he thought. One in three Carthusians who joined up with him never heard the armistice bells – those bells which, as literary legend has it, were ringing when the telegram announcing Wilfred Owen’s death was delivered.

Graves didn’t hate the Hun: how could he, any more than could the Teutophile Charles Sorley, who had to flee Germany to escape internment in order to die fighting a country he loved? Nonetheless, as Siegfried Sassoon told Graves, they ‘had to keep up the good reputation of the poets, as men of courage’. No ninnies they.

Over the course of the war, Graves himself evolved a subtler theory of the virtues of military service, expressed in his late poem ‘The Cuirassiers of the Frontier’, in which an embattled Roman cavalryman sourly concludes: ‘We, not the City, are the Empire’s soul:/A rotten tree lives only in its rind.’ Recall the rotten tree on Remembrance Day this year.

Having been timidly homosexual for twenty years, Graves rushed into postwar matrimony and Abrahamic fatherhood. He was ‘clumsy’ in physical love, his first wife, the artist Nancy Nicolson, discovered. She declined to accept his surname. But the paths that family, guardians and class had laid down for him before the war were resolutely not taken. He dickered with Oxford. For a while he made do as a village shopkeeper. He mainly survived on scroungings from his family and fellow writers – John Masefield, Sassoon, T E Lawrence. Prose potboilers, he discovered in the mid-1920s, kept the wolf from the door so he could get on with what mattered: poetry. Good-bye to All That, like the later Claudius saga, was devised with the same aim in mind.

It was also in the 1920s that Graves embarked on a second union, this time with the American poet Laura Riding. The result was not division but enlargement – a sexual ‘trinity’. ‘Sick Love’ is one of Graves’s finest meditations on guiltless sexual promiscuity: ‘O Love, be fed with apples while you may,/And feel the sun and go in royal array,/A smiling innocent on the heavenly causeway’.

It wilfully echoes the biblical Song of Solomon: ‘Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples: for I am sick of love.’ Solomon reputedly had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Polyamory, Graves believed, on his own, less Solomonic scale, was helpful to the poet. Dutiful monogamy, another of his poems asserts, is a double death sentence:

Call it a good marriage:
They never fought in public,
They acted circumspectly
And faced the world with pride;
Thus the hazards of their love-bed
Were none of our damned business –
Till as jurymen we sat on
Two deaths by suicide.

The polygamous love bed, Graves later discovered, leads to different dead ends. But there was more stimulus for singing along the way.

Graves’s life was, in every sense, chaotic, but purposely so. He believed that ‘tranquillity’ (the Wordsworthian recipe) narcotises true poetry. The poet, like the kettle, must boil to produce. A few weeks before Graves started on Good-bye to All That, Riding enlarged the ménage to quatre with an Irish literary adventurer. It went all wrong and she jumped out of a fourth-floor window in Hammersmith. Graves followed suit. Both survived.

Graves chronicled his life story, to most readers’ satisfaction, in Good-bye to All That. What, then, will the interested reader find that’s new here? Important, but of least importance, is that Wilson corrects details. Graves wrote Good-bye to All That in eleven weeks, often working for eighteen hours a day, still in post-traumatic shock following his self-defenestration sans parachute. Wilson makes telling corrections to dates and to Good-bye to All That’s self-serving bias. She records, for example, the help and influence received from his poet father, which Graves talks down. Wilson is particularly informative (using newly turned-up sources) on Graves’s vexed relationship with Sassoon. She puts flesh on the at times skeletal narrative of Good-bye to All That. She gives a fuller portrait of Graves’s mother, Amy, who kept her son afloat with handouts and sympathy in his destitute years. Graves’s treatment of Amy in Good-bye to All That is high-handed. Wilson creates a fairer picture. Fairness was never Graves’s strong suit.

Wilson gives a fuller analysis than does Graves’s narrative of the explosive bohemianism that blew into his life with the arrival of Laura Riding, the strangely wonderful woman who firmly believed she was a ‘witch of truth’. How good Riding was as a poet is disputed. What she indisputably brought Graves was a creed that eventually flowered (by unacknowledged borrowing, some assert) into his ‘White Goddess’ deism.

Wilson unveils the poet behind the man struggling to make, not write, poetry. Graves spurned the fashionable ‘schools’: Georgianism, modernism, imagism, everything with the suffix ‘-ism’. They denoted ‘authority’, which he swore, on being demobbed, he would never live under again. He whimsically saw himself as the idiosyncratic cabbage white of poetry:

The butterfly, a cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has – who knows so well as I? –
A just sense of how not to fly

Above all, Graves was fascinated by the wordless wisdoms of childhood, a subject pondered in his poem ‘The Cool Web’, written at the climactic period of his relationship with Riding:

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

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.

How can poetry entangled, necessarily, in the web of language be true to experience? It can’t: it can only wrestle with the insolubility.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson clarifies our understanding of what Graves was about. She promises further volumes covering his next five decades. One wishes her a fair wind – it will be a long voyage.

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