Graves and Goddesses

Robert Graves: His Life and Work

by Martin Seymour-Smith
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 609 pp., $22.50

In Broken Images: Selected Letters of Robert Graves, 1914-1946

edited by Paul O'Prey
Hutchinson (London), 371 pp., £12.95

Robert Graves
Robert Graves; drawing by David Levine

Robert Graves is in many ways the most British of poets, but Britain has never fully warmed to him. In spite of his stoutly traditional meters and his gruff military demeanor, Graves has always been thought of as a bit unsound. It is not just that he chooses to live on a Spanish island, or that he has been thoroughly beastly about Auden. Nor is it simply a hangover from the 1930s when he and Laura Riding used to mount almost weekly guerrilla strikes against the bosses of the British poetry scene. No, the real suspicion is that throughout a rather well-constructed literary career, Graves has carried with him a faint whiff of the bogus. His famous intransigence and aloofness have often seemed to have their roots in an eager-to-be-wounded vanity. His White Goddess theories (although hugely popular with hard-line feminists) are mad enough to be seen as a pious concealment of pensionable lusts. And his dictums on the subject of inspiration (he believes that poets can only write decently if they are in a state of trance) have sometimes looked like the wish fulfillment of a poet whose most “passionate” work is essentially cold-hearted and literary.

In Britain, Graves’s reputation reached its peak in the early to mid-1960s. This was a period when there was much head-scratching about the destiny of modernism. It was quite common in those days for poets to be told that they must trace their bloodlines back to Eliot and Pound or risk being written off as insular, reactionary, tame. In response to this (and to the Anglo-Americanism that went with it), a number of British poets began looking for an alternative ancestry, for an unbroken native line that—brushing aside modernism on the way—connected the “traditional” virtues of the stronger Georgians with the metrical common sense of recent figures like Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis. Graves, as probably the only bona fide Georgian still practicing, was thought by such patriots to exemplify a sturdy British self-reliance. (It was forgotten that he would once have seen himself as a key if lonely modernist, and that he had done much to push the work of e.e. cummings and Gertrude Stein.)

A disciple of Graves, James Reeves, put together a Penguin Book of Georgian Verse, which aimed to show that it was not all tea and muffins on those sunlit lawns, and a resurgence of interest in the poets of the First World War (1964-1968 being the fiftieth anniversary) made much of Wilfred Owen’s very “modern” use of assonance. Captain Graves, the old soldier and author of Goodbye to All That, was for a time promoted to the rank of a Major Poet.

Since the 1960s, Graves seems to have slowly drifted back to the marginal/eccentric niche that he had occupied since the days of Laura Riding, although he still does have his ardent champions. (Graves’s champions, it must…

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