It’s easy to forget how innovative Robert Graves was both as a poet and as a critic. He’s best known now for two of his historical novels, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, and for Goodbye to All That, the memoir that made his name in the 1920s, although there is also The White Goddess, his study of poetic inspiration, as well as The Greek Myths (possibly more bought than read). As a poet, he’s probably better known from anthologies than collections.
The fact that his reputation as a war poet rests more on the prose of Goodbye to All That than on the poetry itself is unsurprising, given that he suppressed the poems — not destroyed them, as he claimed — during the 1920s. They were revived by his son, William, in Poems about War (1988) and one of the great strengths of Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s recent biography, Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895-1929), is that she makes full use of them.
It is well known that it was Siegfried Sassoon who helped Wilfred Owen to escape his Victorian and Georgian influences and write more directly about the War (“the poetry is in the pity”), but Sassoon developed his own plain style under the influence of Graves, in particular his poem, “A Dead Boche”. Graves himself seems to have attributed Owen’s success to shell-shock. In the extract from an article that prefaces Poems about War, Graves says: “The mental rhythm of the typical war neurosis was one of jagged ups and downs: the up-curves represented a despairing nervous energy, which, when converted to poetic use, resulted in poems terrifyingly beyond the patient’s normal capacity; the troughs meant listless, inept melancholia.” This may be true, but unfortunately we’ll never know what Owen might have written had he survived the War.
Graves’ criticism was no less influential. As Moorcroft Wilson points out, it was his emphasis on close reading that stimulated William Empson to write Seven Types of Ambiguity and Graves can therefore claim to be the precursor the New Criticism. The inspiration for his own ideas came from W. H. R. Rivers, the psychiatrist who treated Sassoon and Owen for shell-shock at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh and who also became a friend of Graves. Graves’ first critical book, On English Poetry (1922), developed Rivers’ theory about suppressed emotions and memories from the War emerging in dreams by laying importance on the “underlying association of words, rather than their surface meaning” when analysing poetry. Mark Thompson also touched on the connection in an article about Empson in PN Review (May-June 2017), saying that: “The first links in the chain from Sassoon and Rivers through Graves to Empson seem overlooked by scholars, perhaps because Empson never acknowledged them,” although — as Moorcroft Wilson makes clear — he did acknowledge his debt to Graves himself. The two books in which Graves set out these ideas, On English Poetry and Poetic Unreason (submitted as his Oxford BLitt thesis), were written before his association with Laura Riding, despite her claim to be an originator of New Criticism.
One of the discoveries Moorcroft Wilson has made is of Sassoon’s own annotated copy of Goodbye to All That. But while it’s interesting to read his furious comments, I didn’t find them as revealing as I’d imagined from reading reviews of the book. For me, one of the most illuminating aspects of her book is the extent to which Graves remained part of a family. As far as I recall, his relations were rather written out of his own memoir — in particular, the help his poet father gave him in getting his early work into print, despite Graves’ insistence that his father never gave him any assistance with the poems themselves. It reminded me of Gareth Reeves’ poem, “Bob Tombs”:
‘Difficult being in the poetry biz
with your dad,’ he said to me once
(I didn’t know till then that I was),
‘I had that problem too.’
His father, the poet James Reeves, had been a friend of Graves:
What irked Father was not so much
stooging while the great man
went off with the latest goddess
as that he began to believe his own bunkum.
Speaking of which, I don’t think I’d realised, until reading Moorcroft Wilson’s book, quite how completely bonkers Laura Riding, Graves’s mistress, muse and literary collaborator, actually was. Graves wrote Goodbye to All That partly because he needed money to cover hospital bills incurred as a result of Riding’s having thrown herself out of the window of their third-floor flat in London, when the Irish poet, Geoffrey Phibbs, left the ménage-à-trois she had conducted briefly with him and Graves. “It is rarely that one sees the spinal-cord exposed to view especially at right-angles to itself,” was the comment of the surgeon, Mr Lake, who nevertheless managed not only to save her life, but get her walking again. “How do you know I didn’t invent Mr Lake?” Riding said, when Graves’ sister, Rosaleen — a doctor herself, who had pulled strings to have Lake operate — praised his work. An egomaniac of Trumpian proportions, Riding’s main project had been to try and find a way of stopping time.
Although I was familiar with the story of her attempted suicide (exiting with the words, “Goodbye, chaps”) and of Graves landing unscathed beside her, having followed through a second-floor window, I didn’t know that, not long before, Riding had tried to get Graves’ seven-year-old daughter, Catherine, to jump, sitting with her on the sill and telling her that she could reach delicious sweets, hidden behind the leaves of the tree outside, if she stepped out of the window and let a magic staircase rise to catch her. In the end, Catherine resisted, but kept the story secret until 1993, Riding having warned her that the police would punish her if she told anyone. Moorcroft Wilson says that Riding was fond of Catherine and must therefore have believed her own story. It’s something to ponder, if you’re ever tempted to think there is anything romantic about poetry and madness.
Finally, on a purely personal level, I discovered that the flat where all this took place — 35A St Peter’s Square, in Hammersmith — is just across the road from the place where I take my daughter for her monthly chiropractic appointments. A small world indeed!
Moorcroft Wilson is working on Graves’ life beyond 1927, so there’s more to look forward to.