Robert Graves
Robert Graves; drawing by David Levine

There are ten pieces or so in Graves’s latest volume which I think he will want to preserve in any future editions of Collected Poems. The rest, to greater or lesser degree, show a falling off, manner without manna, so to speak, as here, the unconsciously comic (the poet is addressing a woman): “Light as a bird now, you descend at dawn/ From the poplar bough or ivy bunch/ To peck my strawberries…,” or, “Befriend us, Time, Love’s gaunt executor!” These poems conclude a sequence Graves began a few years back and which—as he notes in that decorous old-fashioned lingo seemingly employed simply not to be in fashion—dramatize “the vicissitudes of poetic love,” love walking “on a knife-edge between two different fates”—love requited and unrequited, presumably. Of course, right now, and at long last, Graves is very much “in.” By poets of the Movement, for instance, he is frequently invoked when set against the gloomy bulwarks of modernism.

His poems are generally regarded as sunbursts of sanity. But they seem to me a good deal more complex—tricky, I should say. His friend T. E. Lawrence wrote: “You are a queer mixture. You scold the world like a slutty Joan Keel-the-pot, in one line and append a poem like ‘to the Galleys’ a minute later…You are a psychologist in one eye, and jaundiced in the other.” And in Shenandoah’s symposium salute (Winter 1962), G. S. Fraser recalls that “an expert on Giorgione, an admirer of Berenson, confessed to me he found both Graves’ poems, and the personality revealed in these poems, desperately unpleasant; he thought the poems might possibly have prevented Graves from going mad, but that was all that could be said for them.”

Unpleasantness of another sort has been evident elsewhere: Graves’s critical thunderbolts unleashed against Nietzsche and Freud, or Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, twinkle with panache, pedantry and, I think it may be said, spite. If it is true Graves won’t suffer fools gladly, it is even truer he suffers his betters not at all. His betters represent modernism, a bête noire; Graves can be bluntly idiosyncratic, but he is essentially still in what he himself calls the Anglo-Irish tradition. Compare him with Joyce: both suggest the cunning of an exile, both are myth-minded. Graves’s “the sea like a cat with fur rubbed the wrong way” is a bright muscular observation; Joyce’s “the snot-green, scrotum-tightening sea” exists in a different world altogether. Nor has Graves, however ghost-ridden, quite forsaken the castle-building of the Georgians. The Hodgson-like tremulos (“…Soft words of grace he spoke/Unto lost desert-folk/That listened wondering…”) reappear in later things, “Alexander and Queen Janet,” for instance, and more than once in the volume under review. Of course over the decades Graves’s diction has toughened remarkably at times to a kind of tight naturalness, yet that naturalness is not really contemporary even when essaying colloquialisms. From Man Does, Woman Is, here is “Not to sleep all the night long, for pure joy/Counting no sheep and careless of chimes/Welcoming the dawn…”; and “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind/I turned to share the transport—oh! with whom/But Thee…” An odd parallel, I think: Graves does not admire Wordsworth.

But like the butterfly of his poem, Graves has the “flying-crooked gift”; it is a life style, a zigzag strategy, accounting no doubt for his crosspatch professionalism (and who since Belloc has turned out so many wares?…novels, translations, polemics, touristic marginalia), as well as the dualism, that almost schizoid edginess at the heart of his work. It also marks, I imagine, his development, which all along has had elements of the fairy tale “heroic”: selection, departure, initiation, return, illumination. Graves is the son of a poet, and when a child, “some sort of blessing,” he says, was bestowed on him by “Mad Mr. Swinburne,” and “Swinburne as a young man had received the blessing of Walter Savage Landor, and Landor as a child, the blessing of Dr. Samuel Johnson.” The blessing “took,” Graves followed his father; during his teens he pledged never to compromise the craft. He was wounded in the First World War, and demobilized with septic pneumonia, written off as a goner. As he lay in bed, he had one problem: “how to make a sonnet read as though it were not a sonnet, while keeping the rules.” He wrote and rewrote “The Troll’s Nosegay,” and pulled through.

He tells us the War permanently changed his outlook on life. A volunteer officer, he was attracted to the Great Adventure; then at the front, all values, or all institutional values, fell apart like a handful of mud. The trauma of the trenches “took”; he wrote war poems, all of which he later scrapped. Interestingly enough, it was during another war, the Second World War, after returning from Spain to England, that on “a sudden overwhelming obsession” he discovered the literature of an ancient cult, and wrote The White Goddess, his famous “grammar of poetic myth,” around which all later efforts revolve, and towards which everything before (apparently unconsciously or of necessity) had been tending. For Graves, the Goddess represents the female principle, or Lunarinspiration, as opposed to the male one, the Apollonian, or Solar-intellection. It’s not quite the muddle it it sounds. Things of the heart, the arts of peace and of the home, these are the Goddess’s properties; the arts of war and of technology, things of the mind, comprise Apollo’s. Moreover, the Goddess, symbolizing primitive longings, is the Muse, the mysterious being all poets must obey. Obviously poetry for Graves has meant something magical, and something therapeutic; his poems, both very private and impersonal, suggest amulets, or, in a sense, heirlooms he has fashioned for himself or his household. Creatively the Goddess has served him well, as if through her he possessed what Eliot said the Metaphysicals possessed, “a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any kind of experience.”


That said, however, it seems to me, the kind of experiences Graves presents on the whole are strikingly limited—like darts always hitting one target. Certainly, a sameness, technically and thematically, pulses like tired blood through most of Man Does, Woman Is, especially when read concurrently with Collected Poems. And how disconcerting are the new volume’s acts of self-spoliation: The old (“To watch how she enacts her transformations—/Bitch, vixen, sow—the laughing, naked queen/Who has now dethroned you”), the new (“However artfully you transformed yourself/ Into bitch, vixen, tigress/I knew the woman behind”); the old (“We never would have loved had love not struck/ Swifter than reason, and despite reason”), the new (“Love has its own sure recompense;/To love beyond all reason”). Now Love—its frettings and ambiguities—is the nerve-center of Graves’s work; one can plot its course as on a graph. The original wound: “This man is quickened so with grief/He wanders god-like or like thief/Inside and out, below, above/Without relief seeking lost love”; then the passage through middle-age, the peevish anguish of “Why never a warning, either by speech or look/That the love you cruelly gave me could not last?,” which was followed, a few years later, with a kind of post-crisis remorselessness: “Yet love survives, the word carved on a sill/Under antique dread of the headsman’s axe.” Finally, in Man Does, Woman Is, in those poems where love is affirmed, we get a sort of squirely stiffness: “Let pigeons couple/Brazenly on the bough/But royal stag and hind/Are of our own mind.”

The reverses of Love, the reverse-theme of all of Graves’s poetry, which I find related to his reactions to War and to Religion, shows up in various characteristic words, even phrases, nearly all, incidentally, in use in the current volume. Favorite adjectives: “fierce,” “lank,” “bitter,” “withered,” (“withered hopes,” “love withered,” “withered breasts”). Favorite antonyms: “honest” and “glory,” “promise” and “pledge,” as against “liar” and “rotten,” “perversity” and “careless.” Favorite phrases: “in scorn of,” “in need of.” And how often “monuments” and “weather,” “signals” and “seals,” “lineaments” and “lines,” “lines of head, life, fate and heart,” crop up, or “principalities,” “frontiers,” “lairs,” or “awkward of approach.” These clashes suggest a no-man’s land or a state of siege in which the romanticist, moralist, and fatalist fight it out. Now add “nightmare” and “mad,” “patient” or “patience!,” “exorcise,” “threaten,” “warning,” “rend,” What is one to make of so insistent a vocabulary, like a recurring fever? Graves seems to be judging someone or something, and under judgment himself. Listen to him on the White Goddess, rather different now from “the female principle.” The Goddess “has never shown pity for the bad, the ineffective, the sterile, the pervorted, the violent, or the diseased: though loving and just, she is ruthless.” How patrician and how at the same time puritanical. There is certainly a genteel ruthlessness in “Thus the hazards of their lovebed/Were none of our damned business—/Till as jurymen we sat on/Two deaths by suicide.” “Hazards” and “suicide”—two other favorites.

I suppose an interesting case could be made for Graves as a poète maudit, expatriated-English-gentry style, insular and defensive, or perhaps as a lapsed devotional poet. Both might be true. Graves’s variously shaped soliloquies on disillusionment and innocence have a kind of boxed-in courage. Formal intricacies of half-rhymes and concentrated strophes mix with moods of self-debasement and self-love, though both are viewed with a certain distaste, and guardedly. There is a marvelous double-edged distancing in Graves’s poems, both from himself and the reader. He appears to have suffered a deep humiliation, but he is also a bit of a bluff, lacerating himself and then licking the wound like a lion. He is a “love” poet, but are his poems sensual? A good number dwell on the physically repellant. He is a landscape fantast, yet it is as if, as Swedenborg says, “there are hells under every mountain, hill and rock and under every plain and valley.” His weapons are the ironic coda, the fanciful grimace, the epigram, the putting up of a “good show.” One part of Graves seems to have dissociated itself desperately from the other, yet unsuccessfully, like the black sheep never spoken of among strangers, but behind locked doors morbidly discussed. This is what gives his verse its shots of strength, as well as its trimness and grace. “A Last Poem,” one of the loveliest, most telling offerings from Man Does, Woman Is:


A last poem, and a very last, and yet another—
O, when can I give over?
Must I drive the pen until blood bursts from my nails
And my breath fails and I shake with fever,
Or sit well wrapped in a many- colored cloak
Where the moon shines new through Castle Crystal?
Shall I never hear her whisper softly:
“But this is truth written by you only,
And for me only; therefore, love, have done”?

As a poet, MacNeice resembled, figuratively speaking, the ancient Persians who debated everything twice, once when drunk, once when sober. An example of his outdoorsy secular style: “Refusing to fall in love with God, he gave/Himself to the love of created things/Accepting only what he could see, a river/Full of the shadows of swallows’ wings…”; here the rarer confessional binge: “I am not yet born; O hear me/ Let not the bloodsucking bat or the rat or the stoat or the/clubfooted ghoul come near me…Let them not make me a stone and let them not spill me/ Otherwise kill me.” The radio plays, his bread-and-butter work, fall somewhere between, as with The Dark Tower, or a little outside, as with these posthumously published ones, aired over the BBC in 1961 and 1962, respectively. Both are variations on the theme of self-discovery or self-definition, both are written in prose teased now and then with verse. The first, an extended caprice, a reworking of a Celtic legend, presents Muldoon (or Maelduin) on an island-hopping vendetta; determined to slay his father’s killer, he finds in the end his assorted struggle go for nought: the killer is his father, his real one. The islands are propositions in themselves: Happy Island, Island of Laughter, Island of Progress; the characters, half out of allegory, half from the music hall, swap inspired non-sequiturs, folk wisdom, and non-stop transformations (two sisters, spinsterish whores, turn lovers into tom cats, the Queen of Twilight becomes Queen of the Morn, the heroine returns to the sea: a seal). Faux-naif dottiness, the expressionist foolery of the Auden-Isherwood plays, but warmer, commoner, the sound of bagpipes not far away. The second, set in contemporary London, concerns a middle-aged scientist who can’t make up his mind whether to be an administrator or stay a “creative type” in the lab. His problem shuttles through his dreams and those of his wife with occasional overlappings. The couple’s Noel Coward patter (“Now we’re both awake I’d like to talk to you.” “I said I’d sleep on it, didn’t I?” “You didn’t say you’d shout on it.”) is offset by droll conceits, as when the dozing hero, commanding an iceberg, shouts, “Stand by for the crash,” and his subordinate answers, “I can see her name. The Titanic!” These plays are nimble, accommodating, but a trifle wan, professionalism not out to win medals. MacNeice, the least flighty of the Oxford Group, cheerfully weary-wise when young, tartly declining later, a “Liberal Progressive,” was never particularly adventurous in thought or technique. “Enough of science and of art;/Close up those barren leaves;/ Come forth, and bring with you a heart/That watches and receives.” That stanza, over a century-and-a-half old, sums up, I think, the rumpled humanism of his poems and plays.

This Issue

March 11, 1965