Be­witched

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Jef­frey Mey­ers

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’.

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