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A World’s Beginning

Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic

by Richard Perceval Graves
Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 387 pp., $24.95

One evening in 1922 Robert Graves, villager of Islip, Oxfordshire, unexpectedly entered the cottage of another villager, Dick Wilkinson, as the family were having their evening meal. “What’s for supper, Dick?” Graves asked, and on being told that there was bread, cheese, and pickles, pulled up a chair and joined in. Asked what he thought he was doing, the poet explained that the Wilkinsons’ cat had got into the Graves larder and eaten two kippers that he had bought for his supper. (The story doesn’t say what Nancy Nicholson, his wife, was going to have for her supper.) A meal for a cat against a meal for a man: it was a fair exchange.

The anecdote (on page 274 of his nephew’s biography) is illustrative in several ways. A meal for a meal spells out the hard necessities of poverty; bread and cheese and pickles, the very simple standard of living among the rural working class who at that time were almost the only inhabitants of Islip and villages like it. And the self-invitation, with an explanation vouchsafed only under direct questioning, is characteristic of that streak of ironic effrontery that Robert Graves enjoyed showing to the world. He would often, for instance, make some preposterous or at best unprovable statement and put behind it the weight of his authority as poet and seer, with an expression that said, “Get out of that one.” If you suggested, for example, that some historical character had not felt and acted in the way Graves had made him feel or act in one of the historical novels, Graves would reply simply, “Yes, he did.” “Why do you believe that?” “Because he told me.” Collapse, or at any rate cessation, of argument. One came away feeling as Doctor Johnson said he felt during his conversation with George III: “It was not for me to bandy words with my Sovereign.” Perhaps the Wilkinsons felt the same. Certainly “Captain Graves” was much respected in the village, both as a war hero and as the hard-playing skipper of the football team; not to speak of his activity as a Labour party organizer, though in the last he was perhaps reflecting less his own choice than the influence of his young firebrand of a wife.

At least, Nancy Nicholson (she didn’t believe in name changing) was a firebrand (feminist and socialist division) when she was not too busy, and too physically and nervously exhausted, having a string of children in rapid succession (four in four years) and coping with the family’s never-ending financial exigence. One of the effects of reading this sober and careful book was to make me, at any rate, feel considerable sympathy with Nancy. She is a somewhat shadowy figure in Goodbye to All That; understandably, since Graves was writing in the full meridian of his attachment to Laura Riding, who after all (whether or not we ever get to the bottom of why, and how, and with what final results) supplanted Nancy; that book does little enough to prepare us for the abrupt and bald statement toward its end that “Nancy and I suddenly parted company.”

She emerges here as a warmhearted, impulsive girl, very much one of the “new” women, spanning the suffragette and flapper eras, with her plate of responsibilities heaped full. A painter’s daughter, having grown up in what seems to have been an easygoing Bohemian environment where the emphasis was on personal freedom and creativity, she found herself at eighteen wedged into a large, inflexible family, bombinating with private jokes, corporate literary undertakings, and the usual family tensions and jealousies.

Alfred P. Graves was an Inspector of Schools as well as an agreeable minor poet with a gift for folk-flavored lyrics about Ireland; his second wife Amalie (Amy), mother of his second brood, was a Prussian from a distinguished intellectual family. Both valued achievement and looked for it in their children, but where Alfred looked for it in a genial Irish way, Amy did so in a decidedly Prussian way, putting her faith more in the stick than in the carrot, her favorite stick being emotional blackmail. Robert’s younger brother Charles, in his memoir The Bad Old Days, recalled the state of anxiety into which he was put over the business of sitting for a scholarship to Charterhouse—a school, incidentally, at which Robert had preceded him and had been made to suffer so much that he came near to a nervous breakdown, ending by shamming insanity to get his tormentors to leave him alone. Charles was told that “If I did not get a scholarship I would have to go to some dim, cheap minor school and that this was my first and last chance.” After taking the examination he went home to await the result; when it came, Amy got to the morning mail first, and met him on the stairs in her dressing gown with, “Darling, I’m so sorry for you.” His spirits crashed into dismay and despair before she explained that she was sympathizing with him for the humiliation, as she chose to see it, of having come fifth among those who had won scholarships.

With beaux-parents like these, and with a neurasthenic husband still shell-shocked from the war and receiving a disability pension, Nancy would have found the going sufficiently tough without money worries, incessant parturition, and (predictably) failing health. She seems to have been determined not to be the kind of wife who closes doors and blocks off horizons for her husband. When Robert became interested in Laura Riding’s work as a poet and critic, initially through reading her contributions to the Southern magazine The Fugitive, he and Nancy had unformulated thoughts of going to America, finding work there, and making Laura’s acquaintance in person. When he chose instead to take the Chair of English at Cairo University (it was a definite offer, as opposed to vague hopes, and they both needed a warm, dry climate), they decided that Laura should join them briefly in England and then accompany them on the voyage and live with them in Cairo.

In retrospect this seems like asking for marital trouble, and must have seemed so to some onlookers at the time; but for Nancy there was a principle at stake. A staunch believer in personal freedom, she did not want to hold on to her husband by beating off the competition with a club. In the end she paid the price for this principle; and no doubt she could have held on to Robert for a few more years, in spite of the strains that were growing between them, by being determinedly possessive; but she chose not to be so, and one respects her for it.

There is always a special problem for a biographer in writing on a subject who has written a classic account of his or her own life, and no account of Robert Graves’s life from outside will ever take the place of Goodbye to All That, written at passionate speed three years after the end of the period covered by this volume. Not that the poet’s own account is wholly reliable about objective truth, and Alfred Perceval Graves had plenty to write about in To Return to All That, which he rushed out a year later to correct what he saw as his son’s unjust version of family matters. But it is that all-important thing, a view from behind Robert Graves’s eyes; and, moreover, it won immediate fame as a classic, perhaps the classic, account of World War I as seen by a combatant. Appearing in the same year as Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, it provided the rising generation of adults who did not remember the war with the sense that they now had the complete dossier, a view from either side of No Man’s Land.

I got to know Graves in 1956 and from then on saw him now and again, in Majorca and in Oxford, and had many conversations with him, but one subject we never touched on was his war service. I regret this now. It would be especially interesting to know whether, looking back on that dreadful conflict in lengthening perspective, he felt that it had been about anything. England and France had bled themselves almost to death in order to defeat Germany, and probably would not have managed it even then without the intervention in the later stages of America, not to speak of valuable aid from Italy in confronting the Austrians. And yet, in England (the situation was, I believe, not quite the same in France, where “the Boche” was always identified as an enemy), the nation as a whole was left with no sense that a great sacrifice had been made for a correspondingly great cause. The rejoicing in 1945, as I well remember, was illumined by a genuine sense that a great evil had been stamped out; Hitler’s regime was no more, Belsen and Auschwitz had their gates swinging open, the captive peoples of Europe were freed, the ordinary German citizen could begin to live a decent life, times were going to be better for everyone (except the luckless populations who, in the course of plotting that victory, had had to be bargained away to Stalin).

But from all one can learn of it, the rejoicing in 1918 was pure mindless relief, the kind one gets when one ceases to hit oneself on the head with a hammer. Robert Graves, at the time of the Armistice, had been classified B2, “Fit for garrison service at home,” and was under canvas in North Wales. When the news of the cease-fire arrived, he had just heard of the deaths of two of his friends, one of them being Wilfred Owen.

Armistice-night hysteria did not touch our camp much, though some of the Canadians stationed there went down to Rhyl to celebrate in true overseas style. The news sent me walking alone along the dyke above the marshes of Rhyddlan (an ancient battlefield, the Flodden of Wales), cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.

Cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead…this, and with every human justification, described aptly enough the reaction of the articulate (and many of the inarticulate) people of England to the First World War. Most of my generation, born in the 1920s, and almost all of our juniors, grew up with the assumption that “the War” had simply been a tragic and obscene futility, its causes lost somewhere in a jumble of international intrigue with a top-dressing of financial speculation, a bloody mess that had happened through a mixture of cynicism and shortsightedness.

There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.

Yet surely, in the cold light of history, the First World War was about something. Its declared intention, the defeat of German expansionist militarism, was neither a lie nor a serious illusion. At the beginning of this century the Germans were the most heavily armed nation in the world, their armaments were backed by a pulsating economy, and their eyes were on world power. Only a month after the fighting began, they issued their war aims in “the September Program,” which gives as immediate objectives the weakening of France to the point where it can never rise again as a major power (very convenient in getting to channel and Atlantic ports), and the pushing back of Russia “as far from the German frontier as possible.” There are plentiful signs that once these objectives were reached, others would follow, certainly including the breaking of British power, and that the European authority thus gained would be a launching pad for a world empire.

It seems likely enough, then, that when Graves and his generation went out to fight nothing less was at stake than the decision whether or not to allow Europe to be dominated by the German army. Responsible, and impartial, historical opinion seems to have settled down by now into the position that such a domination would have been, to put it at its mildest, a misfortune for the rest of Europe. And Europe belongs to the world. What happens there, in the end, happens everywhere.

Graves and his generation could, to be sure, still denounce the war as a mistake in the sense that it was stupidly and wastefully directed. There is always something peculiarly horrible, as we see today in the war between Iraq and Iran, in a war of attrition, which turns sooner or later into a slaughtering match, to be won by the side that has the more bodies to throw in. Since military history is one of the many subjects I know little about, I must leave to others the question of whether, at that date, the German advance could have been resisted by any other means than digging trenches and filling them with soldiers. One would have thought so; and yet the American Civil War, fifty years earlier, was almost as bloody, given its smaller scale, as World War I. It is probably a question of firepower.

Another belief in which my generation, in Britain at least, was brought up was that the war came out of a completely blue sky. All Western Europe (the story ran) slumbered in a long dream of peace and social progress; the last major conflict, the Napoleonic, was so far back that the memory had faded; no one dreamed that war could happen. In fact many attentive observers, including Robert Graves’s own half-brother Philip, had seen for years that war was all too possible. Philip Graves, journalist and diplomat, wrote in a letter home from Switzerland in 1901, “From what I’ve seen here I’m convinced that the Germans are the most dangerous enemies to Great Britain in the future. They all admit their hostility.”

Be all that as it may, to the ordinary reader at the end of the Twenties, Robert Graves was the ex-soldier who had written the best account of the war, just as to the ordinary reader in the 1930s he was the novelist who had brought the scandals and sensations of Imperial Rome alive on the page. (His reputation as a poet was, meanwhile, growing “vaster than empires, and more slow.”) The account of Graves’s war experiences takes up two thirds of Goodbye to All That, and such readers probably passed more lightly over the other one third, being understandably more interested in the shattering events of twentieth-century history than in Graves’s personal struggle. But for anyone contemplating the poet’s life at this distance of time, I suggest that the Islip years are crucial. They lasted as long as the war and, in their very different way, marked as long a stride.

At the time of his demobilization in 1919, Graves had never yet known what it was to have control over his own life. His family background had tended to foster anxious effort and competitiveness, and public school education—by definition and by proudly proclaimed tradition—was a matter of ceaseless striving for competitive achievement along rigidly marked-out lines, under the constant threat of physical punishment (at the beginning) or the heavy disapproval of one’s peers (from about halfway point to the end). Then came the army, more than four years of both submitting to and enforcing discipline with the stench of death never out of his nostrils. At last, when he entered The World’s End, Islip, the cottage his mother had bought and was renting to them, he could shut the door behind him and concentrate on his own life.

What was more, his new life, as well as being free from organized constraints, was no longer celibate. In view of the central importance of Woman, with or without a capital “W,” in Graves’s life and work, this was a crucial change. What chiefly differentiates Robert Graves among English poets, causes him to be thought of as making a unique contribution, is his gallant (though, in the eyes of some, extravagant) attempt, continued through many years, to penetrate to the heart of the sexual mystery. The White Goddess occupies the same position in his work as A Vision in Yeats’s; that is, whether or not we find it “convincing” hardly matters, since it is written not so much to convince us as to set out a statement of the beliefs and attitudes that animate his poems. This statement is symbiotic with the poetry, drawing strength from it—A Vision would be nothing if Yeats were not also the author of “Byzantium” and “Among School Children”—but also reflecting back strength in return.

After about 1926 Graves became increasingly guided by his intuition that the underlying strength of the cosmic order was feminine rather than masculine, and that women exemplify within themselves most of the attributes needful for life simply by virtue of embodying the feminine principle (“Man Does, Woman Is,” as he put it in the title of one of his books). His quasi-historical theories about the matriarchal origins of society are put forward partly as genuine historical speculations but also as examples of creative intuition. (This is where Gravesian effrontery comes in, for, again like Doctor Johnson, if his pistol misses fire he knocks you down with the butt end of it.) A poem like “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” Graves’s equivalent of “All Souls’ Night,” gains its power from the depth and mystery of the hinterland on which it draws rather than from what it specifically contains within itself.

Take away this individual insight—or, if you will, this fixation—and Graves becomes a much more ordinary poet, though still of considerable interest. The previous poet he most resembles is Ben Jonson, another large, burly man who wrote delicate verses with a fine sense of poise and cadence, and who, when he was not doing that, employed a fund of miscellaneous learning to lay about him with gleeful cantankerousness. Graves, across great stretches of his writing, in many respects is the Ben Jonson of the twentieth century. Jonson, we recall, remarked of his wife that she was “a shrew, but honest”; and perhaps, as he looked back in later years, that might have been Robert’s estimate of Nancy. What, at any rate, emerges from an attentive study is that Nancy provided the environment, at Islip, in which he began like a plant to grow toward the sun. The full development of his response to the feminine principle may have lain many years into the future, but already in the Islip years we can see a developing perception that woman, in man’s life, is neither ancillary nor predatory, but complementary, an essential opposite role. One of the poems he wrote there, “Ovid in Defeat,” sweeps away in turn both the old Mediterranean view of woman as created for man’s pleasure and convenience, and more recent views of woman as devouring harpy:

One sort of error Being no worse than other,
O, hug this news awhile My amorous brother,

That the wheel of Fortune
   May be turned complete,
Conflict, domination Due defeat.

Afterwards, when you weary Of false analogy
Offending both philosophy And physiology,

You shall see in woman Neither more nor less
Than you yourself demand As your soul’s dress.

Thought, though not man’s thought, Deeds, but her own,
Art, by no comparisons Shaken or thrown….

It isn’t very impressive as poetry, but it is a clear clue to the direction Graves was taking; and what, in the end, are all the elaborated theories of The White Goddess but a development of the position stated in that last stanza but one? So much has been written about Laura Riding’s influence on Graves’s mind that it seems worth pointing out that Nancy, at least, did nothing to impede that mind in its main line of development.

Mr. R.P. Graves’s book is very much a family job, and none the worse for a certain old-fashioned sense of family loyalty that peeps through its pages. He inherited a vast amount of manuscript material, and, since he has learned the skills of a biographer in three previous books, it would have been a waste for him not to use it. There is no statement, unless it is lying about in tiny print somewhere, of how many volumes the work will eventually run to, and obviously the second will be dominated by Laura Riding, the impact of whose mind, art, and person turned Graves into a more important poet in the space of four years. The first evidence of real power as a poet is in Poems 1926–1930, just as the first evidence of real power as a prose writer is in Goodbye to All That (1929). But the seeds were sown at The World’s End, that cottage standing near the bank of the little River Ray, as it hurries past the quiet village of Islip on its way to join the waiting Cherwell and flow down into Oxford.

Letters

Taking His Measure September 24, 1987

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