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Taking His Measure

In response to:

A World's Beginning from the June 25, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. John Wain makes an honorable effort, in his review-article [NYR, July 25] on Volume I of a projected three-volume study of Robert Graves by Richard Perceval Graves, son of Robert Graves’s brother John, to keep his powers of judgment free of such publicly circulated impressions, prejudices, and partialities as can assume the weight of fact in the scales of truth. Measure-taking of Robert Graves has been complicated nearly beyond eventual clarifying correction by his own continual evasion, from his beginnings, of definite countenance of person, style of behavior, stance of mind, direction of spirit, in all his occasions of contact, self-presentation, assumptions of a “position” intellectual, emotional, social. He used all the angles of a mobile complexity as a wheel of fortune, stopping it where the pointing seemed safe.

I am moved to inject some corrective data into portions of Mr. Wain’s article dealing mainly with Robert Graves’s treating of the subject “woman.” The early poem cited by Mr. Wain in which Graves spoke up for the “decent” attitude of men to women as beings “complementary to men” was merely a safe-playing advocacy of the decent that Nancy Nicholson had demonstrated to be respectably “original.” Every other manifestation by Graves of an “original” position on “woman” was appropriated from my thought, to which he had intimate access in the years of a working partnership between us. I was aware of his weaknesses; the trust I placed in him was reinforced by my trust in myself. When our association ended the quasi-automatic restraints that had operated on his acquisitive propensities were lifted. His “white goddess” concoction was of this later time; he delved into my thinking and my writings for this and much else, to fill out the lost dependencies, distorting the plunder with complicated decorative twists, for the touch of authorial authenticity. Graves’s book Man Does, Woman Is, mentioned by Mr. Wain, delved back into my book of many years before (for its “feminine principle,” as Mr. Wain calls it). Graves’s poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” steals its punch line from a key axiom of mine, figuring importantly in my talk, writing, papers to which Graves had access: There is only one story! (Mr. Wain speaks of its “power and mystery.”)

I could cite much else illustrative of Graves’s pilfering practices. Up to 1940, when his writings held many gifts of my help, he found satisfaction in prefatorial thanks-paying. His Collected Poems of 1939 contains emphatic reference to my generosity in help-giving to him, and other poets. This was never repeated; neither was the credit for its virtues of style given me in the first issue of the Claudius story. Mr. Wain seeks a literary prototype. “Politician” is the type. And every politician is a new man.

Laura (Riding) Jackson

Wabasso, Florida

John Wain replies:

Any statement by Laura Riding that concerns her own work, or her effect on the life and work of Robert Graves, or both, has of course the interest of a document both literary and biographical and will naturally be read with attention. When two artists have been close together at a very creative time for both of them, and later move apart, one often notices with a certain sadness the latent hostilities that come to the surface. I don’t suppose Rimbaud, in later life, was charitable about Verlaine; and it sends up one’s opinion of both Wordsworth and Coleridge to note that though they outgrew their usefulness to each other they never became uncharitable. Charitable or not, Ms. Riding’s statement reopens questions that have already, I should have thought, been adequately discussed.

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