A World’s Beginning

Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic

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

Robert Graves
Robert Graves; drawing by David Levine

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…

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