The Myths of Robert Graves

Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985

by Richard Perceval Graves
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 618 pp., £25.00

Robert Graves: Life on the Edge

by Miranda Seymour
Henry Holt, 524 pp., $37.50

Robert Graves: His Life and Work

revised and extended edition. and Martin Seymour-Smith
Bloomsbury, London, 600 pp., £25.00

Robert Graves
Robert Graves; drawing by David Levine

“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…

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