Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895-1929), Jean Moorcroft Wilson, Bloomsbury, 461 pp. £25 (hardback) The curly-haired, broken-nosed, cloaked and Córdoba-hatted Robert Graves still granted audiences in the summer of 1970 when I spent a few days in the Majorcan village of Deyá. But he demanded adoration, was magisterial and remote, arrogant and austere. We discussed his important poem ‘Children of Darkness’:
We spurred our parents to the kiss, Though doubtfully they shrank from this – Day had no courage to pursue What lusty dark alone might do: Then we were joined from their caress In heat of midnight, one from two.
When I suggested that it had been inspired by T. E. Lawrence’s perverse notion that children are responsible for their own conception by provoking lust in their parents, he vehemently rejected my idea. (I later found an unpublished Graves letter that substantiated my claim.) Lawrence, ashamed of his secret illegitimacy, was obsessed by his parents’ lust; Graves, the son of happily married parents, was not. Forgetting that as a young man he had once been Lawrence’s faithful disciple, dazzled by one of the outstanding heroes of the war whom he called a ‘great man’ and ‘the most remarkable living Englishman,’ and ignoring the fact that Lawrence had written part of Graves’s first bestseller Lawrence and the Arabs, the old poet egoistically exclaimed: ‘I was never influenced by anyone. I always influenced other writers.’
The 75-year-old Master was very different from the young casualty of war in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s biography. Life-writers either acknowledge
the work of their predecessors, pretend they don’t exist, or attack rivals to ‘correct’ supposed errors. Wilson generously admits that the previous biographies – by Graves’s friend Martin Seymour-Smith (1982), his nephew Richard Perceval Graves (3 volumes, 1986-95) and Miranda Seymour (1995) – were ‘extremely helpful’. She truthfully claims that she’s discovered many new letters by Graves’s sister, his great friend George Mallory (who died climbing Mount Everest), his doctor W. H. R. Rivers and, most important, Siegfried Sassoon’s personal copy of Goodbye to All That, in which he angrily annotated all the factual inaccuracies. Wilson is very good at examining evidence, depicting Graves’s character and explaining his motives. She also has an acute comparison of Graves and his comrade-in-arms Sassoon, the subject of her previous biography. Both poets became courageous daredevils to overcome their German names: Robert von Ranke Graves and the Wagnerian Siegfried.
Wilson’s book is extremely repetitive, however, and contains a few errors. Her subtitle is oddly inaccurate, for her life begins with Graves’s family background and childhood, not with the Great War. Graves criticised Edmund (not Thomas) Burke; Harriet Weaver (not T. S. Eliot) was editor of The Egoist; and Joseph Conrad, writing in his third language, did not attempt to ‘purify English’. Wilson also has the strange habit of making absurd statements: Graves did not know if he would survive the war, did not know when he first met Nancy Nicholson that she would be his future wife, did not know when he met Laura Riding that she would become central to his life. How could he?
Graves was six feet, two inches tall, had a broken nose from boxing and a loud commanding voice. He claimed to have inherited his ‘clumsy largeness, endurance, energy, seriousness and thick hair’ from his German grandfather. Laura Riding, in a rare affectionate moment, called him ‘tall, well-read, clumsy, strong, clumsy sweet, eyes blue-grey, a voice for ballads, tender with everything’. He loved to embellish facts and was cavalier about rules. The soldier was, paradoxically, ‘a sound militarist in action however much a pacifist in thought’. His poetry soon questioned the war in which ‘youth, beauty, idealism and extreme, if foolhardy, courage are no match for brute strength, cold steel and violence’.
Graves fought in two of the bloodiest battles of the war: Loos in 1915, when the British suffered 60,000 casualties in only three days, and the Somme in 1916. Sappers used corpses to build up the parapets, and the front line from the Belgian coast to the Swiss border rarely moved more than ten miles either way during the next few years. Intelligent, self-confident and daring, the nineteen-year-old Graves was an outstanding officer. He found combat both boring and exciting, and expected to die by following suicidal orders. Wilson writes that on the Somme on 20 July 1916 Graves was ‘hit by shrapnel from an eight-inch shell, which penetrated his left thigh and passed through his right lung and shoulder’. Men rarely recovered from this kind of wound. Heavily drugged and unconscious, he was given up for dead. His commander wrote his parents that he had died of wounds and his death was officially announced in The Times of 4 August.
Both Graves and Hemingway (after his African plane crashes) were reported dead and lived to read their own obituaries, and both had unstable mistresses who jumped out of windows and broke their backs. Graves wittily remarked that he decided to live after his supposed death had inspired an outpouring of warm feelings. Though he came through the war, he continued to suffer. He experienced survivors’ guilt and the horrific effects of shell-shock. For ten years he experienced nightmares and was terrified of ringing telephones and train journeys, of certain smells that reminded him of gas attacks and loud noises that sent him running for cover.
The favourite poets of Graves – never entirely a modernist – were John Skelton, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman and the war poets: Charles Sorley and Isaac Rosenberg. Compared to the caustic poetry of Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Graves’s early work seems weak: he uses obsolete diction and a child’s viewpoint, indulges in sentimentality and the supernatural. ‘It’s a Queer Time’ is one of his best war poems:
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.
But he rightly thought most of his war poetry was not good enough to include in his Collected Poems.
Henri Barbusse’s novel Under Fire was published during the fighting in 1916. But most of the war memoirs, novels and plays poured out a decade after the war when the soldiers could understand but not exorcise their traumas: Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928), Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928), Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1928), R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (1928), Graves’s Good-bye to All That (1929), Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929). In all these books the autobiographical heroes experience the destruction of idealism in war. In Good-bye to All That, his greatest book, Graves condemned the pettiness of regimental rules, even in combat; the incompetent, much hated staff officers and colonels in the regiment; the sacrificial slaughter and likelihood of an early death. But he also explained why men fight: their family pride, national patriotism, military oath, solidarity with comrades, shame of cowardice and threat of execution.
Wilson’s biography is fascinating on Graves’s tormented sexual development. He came from a puritanical Victorian background, but was attracted to pretty boys at Charterhouse, where homosexual masters tolerated and even encouraged same-sex gratification. Graves bitterly observed: ‘In English preparatory schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and hated, treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion.’ He was shocked into heterosexuality in 1917 when the riveting object of his desire, Paul Johnstone, was arrested for soliciting and tried in court. From then on Graves contrasted ‘clean-living’ and ‘clean words’ with the ‘beastly’ and ‘unclean’, and wrote: ‘propped against a shattered trunk,/In a great mess of things unclean,/Sat a dead Boche’. T. E. Lawrence stamped on the front cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom ‘The sword also means clean-ness and death’ – and evoked a world without sex. Graves moved from homosexual attractions at school, homosexual friends and patrons (Sassoon, Robbie Ross and Eddie Marsh), and men without women in war to his first chaste
love and relations with two domineering militant feminists. Physically wounded and psychologically traumatised by war, he needed a strong woman to dominate, even humiliate, him. Late in life the aged poet surrounded himself with a harem of young mistresses and muses.
Graves’s first wife, sister of the painter Ben Nicholson, was the boyish Nancy, who roughly cropped her hair and wore a farmer’s smock, tight breeches and high boots. She kept her own name, and as the marriage service was read in January 1918 refused to ‘obey’ her husband and swilled champagne so she would, at least, get something out of the wedding. Both virgins, embarrassed about sex, had a bad opening night. Nancy later complained that Graves was ‘both too demanding and rather clumsy’. Nevertheless, they managed to produce four children in six years. Always short of money, despite frequent gifts from their parents, they opened a short-lived village shop in Boars Hill, outside Oxford, when Graves was a mature student at the university. (George Orwell later ran a village shop, with equal unsuccess, in Hertfordshire.)
In 1926 Graves summoned the American poet Laura Riding, whom he’d never met and who had recently ended her unhappy liaison with Allen Tate, to act as his secretary and mollify his contentious marriage. His impulsive offer recalled Mabel Luhan summoning D. H. and Frieda Lawrence (with Dorothy Brett as a marital buffer) to join her in Taos, New Mexico. Everyone who knew her – except Graves in his rapture of distress – agreed that ‘Riding Roughshod’ was tense, nasty, vampiric and, as T. E. Lawrence noted, had ‘bewitched and bitched’ the impressionable poet. Her despotic pronouncements and colossal egoism compensated for her lack of poetic talent, and she forced Graves to break with most of his disapproving family and friends. Riding surpasses Bert Brecht, Jean Genet and Brendan Behan as the most unpleasant modern writer.
But Nancy welcomed Riding into their ménage to relieve her burdensome sexual duties. Though Riding had impaired the virility of several wounded lovers, she stimulated and delighted Graves. Wilson explains his perverse attraction: ‘the unsatisfactory state of his marriage in 1926, his need for a Muse, and Laura’s magnetic personality and physicality. Laura did what she
could to excite Robert sexually, sharing with him, in the name of complete honesty between them, “all the obscenities of my utterly vile mind.”’ Graves took his mistress, wife and children to Cairo. The elementary-school standard of the Royal Egyptian University, which paid well and demanded little, he likened to a French farce that could not be taken seriously. The students were either high on hashish or, when awakened from their habitual stupor, on strike. Graves found it hard to maintain his integrity.
Things got even more sticky in London in April 1929 when the minor Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs joined them and Riding fell madly in love with her potential disciple. When Phibbs rejected her and managed to escape, she threatened suicide. Wilson writes, ‘to everyone’s horror and disbelief, she finally said “Good-bye, chaps” and jumped from her fourth-storey window onto the stone area forty or fifty feet below’. Not to be outdone, Graves, father of four children, rushed down the stairs and, with reckless loyalty and bravado, jumped out of a third-storey window and landed near Riding on the stones. Still sustained by the miraculous luck that had seen him through the war, he escaped, bruised but unhurt. Riding cracked her skull, pelvis and spine, but somehow survived after some operations and a long convalescence. Instead of saying ‘Good-bye’ to his nemesis, he remained bound to Riding for another decade, until she abandoned him for the American poet and editor Schuyler Jackson.
Graves and Riding spent the next six years in the paradise of Majorca, where he lived, except for the Spanish and European war years from 1936 to 1945, until his death in 1985. He described the island as ‘the Classical Hesperides where it never freezes and never gets too hot and where it costs nothing to live if one is content to go native, and where the population is the most hospitable, quiet, sensible and native, and [affords the greatest] well-being that you can imagine’.