Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to 'Good-bye to All That' (1895–1929)
By Jean Moorcroft Wilson
Bloomsbury 453pp £25
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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