Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 19401985
Robert Graves: Life on the Edge
Robert Graves: His Life and Work
“To bring the dead to life,” according to one of Robert Graves’s poems, “is no great magic”:
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.1
Scholars have been blowing on Graves’s embers since he died in 1985. They are trying to recover his “forgotten griefs” and “withered hopes” by the sympathetic method he recommended, limping “as he limped,” swearing “by the oaths he swore.” But the main difficulty biographers of Graves meet is that he has prescribed his own story and every variant of it. He has lived his life and ordained the telling. In Goodbye to All That (1929) he told the first part of it, up to May 6, 1929, the day on which he left his wife, Nancy Nicholson, and their children and set up house—mostly in Deyá, Majorca—with the American poet and sage Laura Riding (born Laura Reichenthal in New York). Graves cleared out of England a month before Goodbye to All That was published; saying goodbye, evidently, at once to Nancy, his children, England, the War, the whole shebang. His book appeared in the same year as its German counterpart, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and gained comparable note as witness to an era.
Born on July 24, 1895, at Wimbledon, London, to a mother of German descent and an Anglo-Irish father, Robert von Ranke Graves attended the better if not the best schools, culminating in Charterhouse. On leaving school he immediately enlisted as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He fought in France—the Somme, Souchez, Béthune, Loos, Cambrin, and Cuinchy—and was seriously wounded and reported dead in 1919, but survived in neurasthenic fright and lived near Oxford after the War. On January 8, 1926, Graves, Nancy, their four children, their children’s nurse, and Laura Riding set out for Egypt, where Graves was to take up an appointment as professor of English in Cairo. In Goodbye to All That he wrote:
I had, by the age of twenty-three, been born, initiated into a formal religion, travelled, learned to lie, loved unhappily, been married, gone to the war, taken life, procreated my kind, rejected formal religion, won fame, and been killed.2
He did not describe the ostensibly Holy Trinity he maintained with Nancy and Laura from January 2, 1926, until he parted from Nancy in 1929. Soon after, Nancy took up with an Irish writer, Geoffrey Phibbs. But Graves gave the Trinity a neo-Biblical memorial in the “Dedicatory Epistle to Laura Riding” at the end of Goodbye to All That:
And how there was thereupon a unity to which you and I pledged our faith and she her pleasure. How we went together to the land where the dead parade the streets and there met with demons and returned with the demons still treading behind. And how they drove us up and down the land.
Graves stayed with Riding until late in 1939. Evidently he was entranced by her certitude: she could not imagine being wrong or insecure. Graves on the other hand was drastically indecisive. Alert to his ambivalences and equivocations, he tried to sharpen them into clarity, “Box and Cox, Roe against Doe.” In the early volume Mock Beggar Hall (1924) the poem “Antinomies” ends:
Blow hot to warm your hands, cold for your porridge.
Then though the simple Satyr stands aghast
Warning his brethren to beware your mouth,
Not even a Satyr could deny this much
That hands need warming, porridge demands cooling,
Rather than frost-bite or the scalded tongue.
But when Riding came into his life, he found that she was born to clarity and the promulgation of decrees. He became a child again, resolute only in her service.
Riding struck him as a force of nature, like lightning. But in 1939 the Trinity fell apart. Riding decided that the man she must live with was Schuyler Jackson, a gentleman farmer who had distinguished himself to her by publishing extravagant praise of her poems. Within a few months she removed Jackson from his wife, at the cost of driving her mad. The break between Graves and Riding became definitive on February 17, 1940. Graves went off with Beryl Hodge, his friend Alan Hodge’s wife: they stayed together for the rest of his life. She learned to put up with his flurries of “nymphological disquiet” and his habit of falling in love with young women who turned up in Deyá. When he chose a woman as his Muse, he insisted on her appearing to choose him as her predestined poet. Beryl accepted that he could not be content with a wife.
Graves’s life presents itself in three phases which might be called “All That,” “The Years with Laura Riding,” and “My Service to the Muse, otherwise known as the White Goddess.” Hence the three volumes of Richard Perceval Graves’s biography, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895–1926 (1986), Robert Graves: The Years with Laura Riding, 1926–1940 (1990), and Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985 (1995). R.P. Graves, Robert Graves’s nephew, knew him intermittently for a long time. His biography is a work of familial piety, generous about many of his hero’s faults. The biographer sees in his uncle mostly a man of remarkable presence and grandeur, even where witnesses outside the circle saw a volubly charming personage nearly always ready to be vindictive. In three large volumes Richard Perceval Graves has space for more detail than we get from Martin Seymour-Smith and Miranda Seymour, large as their books are. But his book shows signs of haste. T.S. Eliot’s friend John Hayward is called “John Howard.” In some episodes, differences between one witness’s report and another’s are left without adjudication.
As a schoolboy, Martin Seymour-Smith read Graves’s poems and got in touch with him. Later he came to know him well in England. In 1949 he spent the summer at Deyá and two years later returned there for nearly three years as tutor to Graves’s son William. In November 1976 he started work on a biography of Graves, but I gather from the book that he was already tired of its subject. The circle at Deyá was socially and personally vivid, but the poet, the center of it, was often tedious. Published in 1982, Seymour-Smith’s book is rather joyless. He has now revised and extended it, perhaps to add some geniality to a narrative for the most part frigid. But he seems to have found the further writing a burden. He grumbles about Graves’s later life, the years of fame, memorably egotistical lectures, and love affairs. He has steered clear “of matters in connection with Graves’s second and third ‘muses,’ Margot and ‘Cindy,’ ” because he doesn’t think “that these women brought out the best” in him. The last and most agreeable muse, Juli Simon, is not mentioned, presumably because Seymour-Smith couldn’t bear any more talk of muses and the Goddess.
The fact that Miranda Seymour never met Graves could have worked in her favor as a biographer. Graves’s son William invited her to write the book, perhaps because he wanted a third opinion or a biography from outside the circle. Unfortunately, Seymour has not made enough of these advantages. In Robert Graves: Life on the Edge she moves quickly from one episode to the next and hovers only where an imbroglio is especially absurd or appalling. She has examined the house at 35A St. Peter’s Square, Hammersmith, to discover whether the arguments among Graves, Nancy, Laura, Geoffrey, and his wife Norah on April 27, 1929, culminated in Laura Riding’s leaping from a third-story or a fourth-story window. From the third, she has decided, but the window was high enough to result in Riding’s breaking her pelvis in three places, and suffering a bent spinal cord and four broken vertebrae. Graves on that occasion jumped from a lower window and injured himself, but not as badly. He did not, as Riding later alleged, merely run down a fire escape. There was no fire escape. Seymour clears up many such details but she doesn’t direct much light on Graves’s imagination, his fiction, or his poems. She does little to clarify how the tensions in Graves’s circle built up to the point where Riding and Graves both jumped out of windows. Generally she narrates his life as if it were a parade: there are no shadows or twilights, each occasion is a flare of publicity.
The second phase of Graves’s life is disputed ground, mainly because Riding denounced everyone who wrote about it and sent off bizarre letters to the editor of every magazine in which she was mentioned in association with Graves. For the most part, Graves stayed quiet about his years with her. He denied that she had any influence on his poetry. I’m not sure that she hadn’t. The poem “To Evoke Posterity” is uncharacteristically terse, as if he were miming Riding’s certainty:
To evoke posterity
Is to weep on your own grave,
Ventriloquizing for the unborn:
“Would you were present in flesh, here!
What wreaths and junketings!”
After the separation, Graves continued to revere Riding as a woman not entirely of this world, but he did not take up the challenge of biographical differences. In his later years he knew she hated him. Deborah Baker’s In Extremis: The Life of Laura Riding (1993) has clarified some of these issues, but left many still obscure. Riding died on September 2, 1991, so it is now possible to examine the relation between her and Graves without fear of receiving a blast from the affronted virago.
Graves exerted more control over the third phase of his story, mainly because he developed a theory of poetry and myth in The White Goddess (1948) and construed his life in accordance with it. He achieved fame if not a fortune with the publication of I, Claudius (1934), Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1934), two collaborations with Alan Hodge, The Long Weekend (1940) and The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943), Wife to Mr Milton: The Story of Marie Powell (1943), King Jesus (1946), The Nazarene Gospel Restored (a collaboration with Joshua Podro in 1953), The Greek Myths (1955), and—with Raphael Patai—The Hebrew Myths (1964). In 1957, 1958, and 1960 he earned a lot of money giving lectures and readings in the United States. He also wrote articles and essays, many of them collected in 5 Pens in Hand (1958) and Difficult Questions, Easy Answers (1972). When he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford in 1961 he turned himself into a personage, a star, assumed the peacock’s part, and proclaimed the authorized version of his life as servant of the White Goddess.
The first doctrine was that he was a poet. He wrote prose to make a living, but his true life was in poetry. To keep that life going, he needed a theory of poetry, a poetics, “a historical grammar of poetic myth,” as he called it in the subtitle of The White Goddess. He took a good deal of his evidence from medieval Welsh and Irish poems and poetic traditions. According to the grammar, there is one story and one story only, “the antique story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of the God of the Waxing Year.” The central chapters tell of “the God’s losing battle with the God of the Waning Year for love of the capricious and all-powerful Threefold Goddess, their mother, bride and layer-out.” The poet “identifies himself with the God of the Waxing Year and his Muse with the Goddess; the rival is his blood-brother, his other self, his weird.” Every authentic poem celebrates some incident in this story:
The Poems of Robert Graves: Chosen by Himself (Doubleday, 1958), p. 126.↩
Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1929), p. 426.↩