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Robert Graves (1895-1985)

Published onMar 07, 2024
Robert Graves (1895-1985)

Robert Graves



Used by permission of the Poetry Foundation

Robert Graves was born to parents Alfred Perceval Graves and Amalie von Ranke Graves in 1895 in Wimbledon, near London, England. He was one of ten children. His father was a Gaelic scholar and poet, and his mother was related to influential German historian Leopold von Ranke. Though he won a scholarship to St. John’s College, Oxford, Graves left London in 1914 to serve as a junior officer in World War I. He published his first book of poetry, Over the Brazier, in 1916. His numerous other collections include Poems: Abridged for Dolls and Princes (1971), Love Respelt (1966), The Poems of Robert Graves (1958), Country Sentiment (1920), Fairies and Fusiliers (1918), and Goliath and David (1916).

Graves often stirred controversy in his endeavors as a poet, novelist, critic, mythographer, translator, and editor. Stephen Spender in the New York Times Book Review characterized Graves as a free thinker: “All of his life Graves has been indifferent to fashion, and the great and deserved reputation he has is based on his individuality as a poet who is both intensely idiosyncratic and unlike any other contemporary poet and at the same time classical.” A rebel socially, as well as artistically, Graves left his wife and four children in 1929 to live in Majorca, Spain with Laura Riding, an American poet. Douglas Day commented on the importance of this move in Swifter Than Reason: The Poetry and Criticism of Robert Graves: “The influence of Laura Riding is quite possibly the most important single element in his poetic career: she persuaded him to curb his digressiveness and his rambling philosophizing and to concentrate instead on terse, ironic poems written on personal themes. She also imparted to him some of her own dry, cerebral quality, which has remained in much of his poetry. There can be little doubt that some of his best work was done during the years of his literary partnership with Laura Riding.”

It has been suggested that one of Graves’s debts to Riding was his long-standing fascination with the Muse of poetry. Anne Fremantle noted in Nationthat T.S. Matthews gave Riding credit for Graves’s “mystical and reverent attitude to the mother goddess,” that muse to whom he referred by a variety of names, including Calliope and the White Goddess. In his Third Book of Criticism, Randall Jarrell noted that Muse symbolism permeates Graves’s writing: “All that is finally important to Graves is condensed in the one figure of the Mother-Mistress-Muse, she who creates, nourishes, seduces, destroys; she who saves us—or, as good as saving, destroys us—as long as we love her, write poems to her, submit to her without question, use all our professional, Regimental, masculine qualities in her service. Death is swallowed up in victory, said St. Paul; for Graves Life, Death, everything that exists is swallowed up in the White Goddess.”

Critics often described the White Goddess in paradoxical terms. Patrick Callahan, writing in Prairie Schooner, called her a blend of the “cruelty and kindness of woman.” He contended, “Cerridwen, the White Goddess, is the apotheosis of woman at her most primitive. Graves finds the women he has loved an embodiment of her. If Cerridwen is to be adored, she is also to be feared, for her passing can rival the passing of very life, and the pendulum of ecstasy and anguish which marks human love reaches its full sweep in her.” Martin Seymour-Smith also noted the complex personality of the Muse, describing her in Robert Graves as “the Mother who bears man, the Lover who awakens him to manhood, the Old Hag who puts pennies on his dead eyes. She is a threefold process of Birth, Copulation, and Death.” Brian Jones, however, found the Goddess one-dimensional. He wrote in London Magazine, “It is interesting that it is often impossible to tell whether the feminine pronoun [in Poems, 1965-1968] refers to woman or Goddess or both; not that this is necessarily an adverse criticism, but in Graves both the woman and the Goddess [are] sentimental, belittled, simplified male creation[s]. The dignity and ‘otherness’ of the woman is missing.”

Graves explored and reconstructed the White Goddess myth in his book The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948). J.M. Cohen noted in his Robert Graves, “The mythology of The White Goddess, though its elements are drawn from a vast field of ancient story and legends, is in its assemblage Graves’s own creation, and conforms to the requirements of his own poetic mind.” One of Graves’s prerequisites was spontaneity. Muse poetry, wrote Graves in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1962), “is composed at the back of the mind; an unaccountable product of a trance in which the emotions of love, fear, anger, or grief are profoundly engaged, though at the same time powerfully disciplined.” Graves gave an example of such inspiration, explaining that while writing The Golden Fleece (1944) he experienced powerful feelings of “a sudden enlightenment.” According to Cohen, this insight was into a subject Graves knew “almost nothing” about. Cohen wrote that “a night and day of furious cogitation was followed by three weeks of intense work, during which the whole 70,000 words of the original were written.” Monroe K. Spears deplored this method of composition in the Sewanee Review: “Graves’s theory of poetry—if it can be dignified by the name of theory—is essentially a perfectly conventional late Romantic notion of poetry as emotional and magical; it is remarkable only in its crude simplicity and vulnerability.” Still, Randall Jarrell asserted that “Graves’s richest, most moving, and most consistently beautiful poems—poems that almost deserve the literal magical—are his mythic/archaic pieces, all those the reader thinks of as ‘White Goddess’ poems.”

“Unsolicited enlightenment” also figured in Graves’s historical method. Peter Quennell wrote in Casanova in London, “The focal point of all of [Graves’s] scholarly researches is the bizarre theory of Analeptic Thought, based on his belief that forgotten events may be recovered by the exercise of intuition, which affords sudden glimpses of truth ‘that would not have been arrived at by inductive reasoning.’ In practice ... this sometimes means that the historian first decides what he would like to believe, then looks around for facts to suit his thesis.” Quennell suggested a hazard of that method: “Although [Graves’s] facts themselves are usually sound, they do not always support the elaborate conclusions that Graves proceeds to draw from them; two plus two regularly make five and six; and genuine erudition and prophetic imagination conspire to produce some very odd results.” Spears also questioned Graves’s judgment, claiming that “he has no reverence for the past and he is not interested in learning from it; instead, he re-shapes it in his own image ... he displays much ingenuity and learning in his interpretations of events and characters, but also a certain coarseness of perception and a tendency to oversimplify.”

The story of Graves’s translation of The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam (1967) served to exemplify the stir he was capable of making when he brought his own theories about history to his writing. First, critics and scholars questioned the veracity of his text. Graves had worked from an annotated version of the poem given him by Ali-Shah, a Persian poet; although Ali-Shah alleged that the manuscript had been in his family for 800 years, L.P. Elwell-Sutton, an Orientalist at Edinburgh University, decried it as a “clumsy forgery.” Next came the inevitable comparisons with Edward FitzGerald’s standard translation, published in 1859. FitzGerald’s depiction of romanticized Victorian bliss is epitomized by the much-quoted lines, “A Book of Verse underneath the Bough / A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou.” Graves’s translation, on the other hand, reads, “Should our day’s portion be one mancel loaf, / a haunch of mutton and a gourd of wine.” A Time critic defended FitzGerald’s translation by quoting FitzGerald himself: “‘A translation must live with a transfusion of one’s own worse life if he can’t retain the original’s better. Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle.’” The critic added that “Graves’s more dignified Rubaiyyat may be an eagle to FitzGerald’s sparrow. But FitzGerald’s work is still in living flight, while Graves’s already sits there on the shelf—stuffed.” Similarly, Martin Dodsworth commented in Listener, “Graves does not convince here. He has produced a prosy New English Bible sort of Khayaam, whose cloudy mysticism raises more questions than it answers.”

Despite his detractors, Graves maintained his characteristically independent stance (he once told his students that “the poet’s chief loyalty is to the Goddess Calliope, not to his publisher or to the booksellers on his publisher’s mailing list”) in defending his translation against the more commercially directed attempt he felt FitzGerald made. In Graves’s opinion, the poet was writing about the ecstasy of Sufi mysticism, not—as he says FitzGerald implies—more earthly pleasures. In an extensive apologia for his translation, Graves wrote in Observations, “Any attempt at improving or altering Khayaam’s poetic intentions would have seemed shocking to me when I was working on the Rubaiyyat. … My twin principles were: ‘Stick as strictly to the script as you can’ and ‘Respect the tradition of English verse as first confirmed by the better Tudor poets: which is to be as explicit as possible on every occasion and never play down to ignorance.’”

Some critics felt that such statements revealed an admirable strength of character. John Wain, for one, felt that Graves demonstrated an unswerving dedication to his ideals in his writing. He commented in the New York Times Magazine, “Robert Graves’s long, eventful and productive life has certainly been marked by plenty of fighting spirit, whatever name you give to it—combativeness, magnificent independence or just plain cussedness. He has faith in his own vision and his own way of doing things—legitimately, since they are arrived at by effort and sacrifice, by solitude and devotion—and when he has arrived at them, he cares nothing for majority opinion. He has never been in the least daunted by the discovery that everybody else was out of step. Whatever is the issue—the choice of a life style, a knotty point in theological controversy, a big literary reputation that should be made smaller, or a smaller one that should be made bigger—Graves has reached his own conclusions and never worried if no one agreed with him.” Considering Graves’s output, Wain concluded, “He is not an easy writer. He does not make concessions. He has achieved a large readership and a great fame because of the richness of what he has to offer—its human depth, its range, its compelling imaginative power—rather than by fancy packaging or deep-freeze convenience.”

The publication of The Centenary Selected Poems (1995) and Collected Writings on Poetry (1995) offered additional insight into Graves’s creative preoccupations. Collected Writings on Poetry is based on a series of lectures Graves delivered at Cambridge in 1954 and 1955 and Oxford between 1961 and 1965, as well as several addresses made during visits to the United States. “[Graves] believed you had to live like a poet, and so he did,” wrote Lorna Sage in Observer, adding, “He spoke with an Outsider’s edgy authority, as you can see in Collected Writings on Poetry.” Neil Powell noted in the Times Literary Supplement, “[Graves] was certainly not a reliable nor even a wholly competent critic, yet the essays and lectures are worth reading for quite other reasons. One consequence of his curiously innocent egocentricity is that his comments on other poets often reveal much more about himself than about their ostentatious subjects.” While praising Collected Writings on Poetry, Powell questioned the omission of Graves’s love poetry and humorous verse from The Centenary Selected Poems which, in his view, “present[s] Graves as a much duller writer than he is.”

Together Dear Robert, Dear Spike (1991), a volume of correspondence, and Miranda Seymour’s biography Robert Graves: Life on the Edge (1995) expanded public and critical understanding of the poet. Dear Robert, Dear Spike contains selected letters from the decade-long correspondence between Graves and Spike Milligan, a veteran of war 20 years Graves’s junior and the author of Adolf Hitler, My Part in His Downfall. Despite the age difference and their widely dissimilar social backgrounds, they apparently shared much in common, particularly the lasting physical and emotional scars of combat experience. “Both had compelling reasons to hate war,” remarked Patrick Skene Catling in Spectator. “As a result, they both rejected authority and always maintained a defiant sort of artistic integrity.” According to Mulligan, quoted by Catling, “The common bonding of our friendship was his mischievous, iconoclastic perorations on all stratas of stupidity and unreasonableness.”

An Observer review praised the “great insight” provided by the Graves-Mulligan correspondence, which began in 1964. Their letters, as Catling noted, appear “in the easy style of love letters, recounting the small colorful details of their work, opinions, domestic arrangements and moods.” Sage similarly commended Seymour’s Robert Graves: Life on the Edge, described by the critic as a “balanced, convincing, rounded” portrait. Commenting on the biographer’s description of Graves’s near-death wounding on the Somme in 1916, Sage noted, “as Miranda Seymour says—it would have been hard [for Graves] not to feel a touch mythic, ‘as if he had been borne again.’”

Mark Ford summarized Graves’s “wholesale rejection of 20th-century civilization and complete submission to the capricious demands of the Goddess” with a quote from The White Goddess: “Since the age of 15 poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric.”

Graves died in Majorca, Spain on December 7, 1985.


I've watched the Seasons passing slow, so slow

In the fields between La Bassée and Bethune;

Primroses and the first warm day of Spring,

Red poppy floods of June,

August, and yellowing Autumn, so

To Winter nights knee-deep in mud or snow,

And you've been everything,

Dear, you've been everything that I most lack

In these soul-deadening trenches—pictures, books,

Music, the quiet of an English wood,

Beautiful comrade-looks,

The narrow, bouldered mountain-track,

The broad, full-bosomed ocean, green and black,

And Peace, and all that's good.

“The Adventure”

(Suggested by the claim of a machine-gun team to have annihilated
an enemy wire party: no bodies were found however)

To-day I killed a tiger near my shack
Among the trees: at least, it must have been,
Because his hide was yellow, striped with black,
And his eyes were green.

I crept up close and slung a pointed stone
With all my might: I must have hit his head,
For there he died without a twitch or groan,
And he lay there dead.

I expect that he'd escaped from a Wild Beast Show
By pulling down his cage with an angry tear;
He'd killed and wounded all the people -- so
He was hiding there.

I brought my brother up as quick as I could
But there was nothing left when he did come:
The tiger's mate was watching in the wood
And she's dragged him home.

But, anyhow, I killed him by the shack,
'Cause -- listen! -- when we hunted in the wood
My brother found my pointed stone all black
With clotted blood.

“A Dead Boche”

To you who’d read my songs of War     

And only hear of blood and fame,          

I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)       

”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,          

Today I found in Mametz Wood           

A certain cure for lust of blood:   


Where, propped against a shattered trunk,     

In a great mess of things unclean,        

Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk        

With clothes and face a sodden green,        

Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,    

Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.


August 6, 1916.—Officer previously reported died of wounds, now reported wounded: Graves, Captain R., Royal Welch Fusiliers.)
…but I was dead, an hour or more.  
I woke when I’d already passed the door  
That Cerberus guards, and half-way down the road  
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed.  
Above me, on my stretcher swinging by,
I saw new stars in the subterrene sky:  
A Cross, a Rose in bloom, a Cage with bars,  
And a barbed Arrow feathered in fine stars.  
I felt the vapours of forgetfulness  
Float in my nostrils. Oh, may Heaven bless
Dear Lady Proserpine, who saw me wake,  
And, stooping over me, for Henna’s sake  
Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back  
Breathless, with leaping heart along the track.  
After me roared and clattered angry hosts
Of demons, heroes, and policeman-ghosts.  
“Life! life! I can’t be dead! I won’t be dead!  
Damned if I’ll die for any one!” I said….  
Cerberus stands and grins above me now,  
Wearing three heads—lion, and lynx, and sow.
“Quick, a revolver! But my Webley’s gone,  
Stolen!… No bombs … no knife…. The crowd swarms on,  
Bellows, hurls stones…. Not even a honeyed sop…  
Nothing…. Good Cerberus!… Good dog!… but stop!  
Stay!… A great luminous thought … I do believe
There’s still some morphia that I bought on leave.”  
Then swiftly Cerberus’ wide mouths I cram  
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam;  
And sleep lurks in the luscious plum and apple.  
He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple
With the all-powerful poppy … then a snore,  
A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor  
With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun—  
Too late! for I’ve sped through.  
           O Life! O Sun!

“It’s a Queer Time”

It's hard to know if you're alive or dead

When steel and fire go roaring through your head.

One moment you'll be crouching at your gun

Traversing, mowing heaps down half in fun:

The next, you choke and clutch at your right breast

No time to think—leave all—and off you go ...

To Treasure Island where the Spice winds blow,

To lovely groves of mango, quince and lime—

Breathe no goodbye, but ho, for the Red West!

It's a queer time.

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.

Or you'll be dozing safe in your dug-out—

A great roar—the trench shakes and falls about—

You're struggling, gasping, struggling, then ... hullo!

Elsie comes tripping gaily down the trench,

Hanky to nose—that lyddite makes a stench—

Getting her pinafore all over grime.

Funny! because she died ten years ago!

It's a queer time.

The trouble is, things happen much too quick;

Up jump the Bosches, rifles thump and click,

You stagger, and the whole scene fades away:

Even good Christians don't like passing straight

From Tipperary or their Hymn of Hate

To Alleluiah-chanting, and the chime

Of golden harps ... and ... I'm not well to-day ...

It's a queer time.

“The Legion”

Is that the Three-and-Twentieth, Strabo mine,
Marching below, and we still gulping wine?'
From the sad magic of his fragrant cup
The red-faced old centurion started up,
Cursed, battered on the table. 'No,' he said,
'Not that! The Three-and-Twentieth Legion's dead,
Dead in the first year of this damned campaign-
The Legion's dead, dead, and won't rise again.
Pity? Rome pities her brave lads that die,
But we need pity also, you and I,
Whom Gallic spear and Belgian arrow miss,
Who live to see the Legion come to this,
Unsoldierlike, slovenly, bent on loot,
Grumblers, diseased, unskilled to thrust or shoot.
O brown cheek, muscled shoulder, sturdy thigh!
Where are they now? God! watch it straggle by,
The sullen pack of ragged, ugly swine.
Is that the Legion, Gracchus? Quick, the wine!'
'Strabo,' said Gracchus, 'you are strange tonight.
The Legion is the Legion, it's all right.
If these new men are slovenly, in your thinking,
Hell take it! you'll not better them by drinking.
They all try, Strabo; trust their hearts and hands.
The Legion is the Legion while Rome stands,
And these same men before the autumn's fall
Shall bang old Vercingetorix out of Gaul.'


After a week spent under raining skies,

In horror, mud and sleeplessness, a week

Of bursting shells, of blood and hideous cries

And the ever-watchful sniper: where the reek

Of death offends the living ... but poor dead

Can't sleep, must lie awake with the horrid sound

That roars and whirs and rattles overhead

All day, all night, and jars and tears the ground;

When rats run, big as kittens: to and fro

They dart, and scuffle with their horrid fare,

And then one night relief comes, and we go

Miles back into the sunny cornland where

Babies like tickling, and where tall white horses

Draw the plough leisurely in quiet courses.

“The Morning Before the Battle”

To-day, the fight: my end is very soon,

And sealed the warrant limiting my hours:

I knew it walking yesterday at noon

Down a deserted garden full of flowers.

... Carelessly sang, pinned roses on my breast,

Reached for a cherry-bunch—and then, then, Death

Blew through the garden from the North and East

And blighted every beauty with chill breath.

I looked, and ah, my wraith before me stood,

His head all battered in by violent blows:

The fruit between my lips to clotted blood

Was transubstantiate, and the pale rose

Smelt sickly, till it seemed through a swift tear-flood

That dead men blossomed in the garden-close.

“The Next War”

You young friskies who today
Jump and fight in Father's hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you're bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father's loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you'll have to play, all in;
It's the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don't change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers.

“Nursery Memories”

I. – THE FIRST FUNERAL           

(The first corpse I saw was on the
German wires, and couldn’t be buried)

The whole field was so smelly;
    We smelt the poor dog first:
His horrid swollen belly
    Looked just like going burst.

His fur was most untidy;
    He hadn’t any eyes.
It happened on Good Friday
    And there was lots of flies.

 And then I felt the coldest
   I’d ever felt, and sick,
But Rose, ’cause she’s the oldest,
   Dared poke him with her stick.

He felt quite soft and horrid:
   The flies buzzed round his head
And settled on his forehead:
    Rose whispered: ‘That dog’s dead.

‘You bury all dead people,
   When they’re quite really dead,
Round churches with a steeple:
  Let’s bury this,’ Rose said. 

‘And let’s put mint all round it
   To hide the nasty smell.’
I went to look and found it—
    Lots, growing near the well.

We poked him through the clover
    Into a hole, and then
We threw brown earth right over
   And said: ‘Poor dog, Amen!’

“Over the Brazier”

What life to lead and where to go

After the War, after the War?

We'd often talked this way before

But I still see the brazier glow

That April night, still feel the smoke

And stifling pungency of burning coke.

I'd thought: "A cottage in the hills,

North Wales, a cottage full of books,

Pictures and brass and cosy nooks

And comfortable broad window-sills,

Flowers in the garden, walls all white,

I'd live there peacefully, and dream and write."

But Willy said "No, Home's no good

Old England's quite a hopeless place

I've lost all feeling for my race:

But France has given me heart and blood

Enough to last me all my life

I'm off to Canada with my wee wife.

"Come with us, Mac, old thing," but Mac

Drawled: "No, a Coral Isle for me,

A warm green jewel in the South Sea.

There's merit in a lumber shack

And labour is a grand thing ... but

Give me my hot beach and my cocoanut."

So then we built and stocked for Willy

A log-hut, and for Mac a calm

Rockabye cradle on a palm—

Idyllic dwellings—but this silly

Mad War has now wrecked both, and what

Better hopes has my little cottage got?

“The Persian Version”

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer's expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece - they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

“Sergeant-Major Money”

It wasn't our battalion, but we lay alongside it,

  So the story is as true as the telling is frank.

They hadn't one Line-officer left, after Arras,

  Except a batty major and the Colonel, who drank.


'B' Company Commander was fresh from the Depot,

  An expert on gas drill, otherwise a dud;

So Sergeant-Major Money carried on, as instructed,

  And that's where the swaddies began to sweat blood.


His Old Army humour was so well-spiced and hearty

  That one poor sod shot himself, and one lost his wits;

But discipline's maintained, and back in rest-billets

  The Colonel congratulates 'B' Company on their kits.


The subalterns went easy, as was only natural

  With a terror like Money driving the machine,

Till finally two Welshmen, butties from the Rhondda,

  Bayoneted their bugbear in a field-canteen.


Well, we couldn't blame the officers, they relied on Money;

  We couldn't blame the pitboys, their courage was grand;

Or, least of all, blame Money, an old stiff surviving

  In a New (bloody) Army he couldn't understand.

“The Trenches”

(Heard in the Ranks)

Scratches in the dirt?

No, that sounds much too nice.

Oh, far too nice.

Seams, rather, of a Greyback Shirt,

And we're the little lice

Wriggling about in them a week or two,

Till one day, suddenly, from the blue

Something bloody and big will come

Like—watch this fingernail and thumb!—

Squash! and he needs no twice.

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