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 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 Goddess is a lovely, slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan-berries, startlingly blue eyes and long fair hair; she will suddenly transform herself into sow, mare, bitch, vixen, she-ass, weasel, serpent, owl, she-wolf, tigress, mermaid or loathsome hag.3

So the myth of the White Goddess is that of Cybele, self-created and eternal Mother of All Living, and her lover Attis, who is subject to the vagaries of nature. The goddess is white because she is the Moon. As the new moon or Spring she is girl, as the full moon or Summer she is woman, as the old moon or Winter she is hag. “The priestesses of the White Goddess in ancient times,” according to Graves, “are likely to have chalked their faces in imitation of the Moon’s white disk.”4

Graves got some of this story from Frazer’s The Golden Bough, from Jane Harrison’s Prologomena to the Greek Religion, and from the anthropologist and psychologist W.H.R. Rivers in early discussions with him. Rivers convinced Graves that ancient Europe was a matriarchy. Graves completed this notion by believing that at some time before the eighth century BC Apollo “took over Muse-worship” and transferred her cult to his own precincts. The Homeric bards were his servitors. The displaced goddesses had to go into exile. True poets, to this day, preserve the matriarchal cults in secrecy. Apollo and Ezekiel, rotten with patriarchal insistence, have nearly everywhere been triumphant: the modern name of their triumph is Enlightenment Rationalism. But Apollo did not appease every desire; he was “incapable of supplying the authentic trance, and discouraged ecstatic utterances except from his own highly tendentious oracles.” In My Head! My Head! Graves says that “the beginning of our present misery” dates from the time when “the mother lost her rule.”5 In the poem “The White Goddess” he writes:

All saints revile her, and all sober men
Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean—
In scorn of which we sailed to find her
In distant regions likeliest to hold her
Whom we desired above all things to know,
Sister of the mirage and echo.6

Most poets have been sober men, Apollonians, and Graves denounces them, rising to ferocity when the miserable names are heard: Virgil, Milton, Pope, “that old soul-ruptured tyrannical humourless Wordsworth,” Yeats, “sick, muddle-headed, sexmad D.H. Lawrence,” Pound, Eliot, Auden, Dylan Thomas. The only quality Graves admired in Eliot was the percipience with which, as a publisher, he accepted The White Goddess.

Among the dead English poets, only John Skelton and John Clare really affirmed the truth of the Muse. In “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” Keats glimpsed the White Goddess but “characteristically transferred the lily on her brow to the brows of her victims, and made the knight set her on his steed rather than himself mount on hers, as Oisin had mounted on the steed of Niamh of the Golden Hair.”7 In A Survey of Modernist Poetry Graves and Riding defended a poem of Hopkins’s, but otherwise “poor, tortured Gerard Manley Hopkins” didn’t survive. Graves didn’t read much contemporary poetry, but he read enough of it to to think well of Hardy, Frost, Cummings, Ransom, and Riding. I can’t see how any of these except Riding served the Goddess. Graves liked his friends, Siegfried Sassoon, W.H. Davies, Norman Cameron, and James Reeves, and spoke up for their poems. But he insisted that there were only fifteen English poets “—I am speaking precisely—in the history of listed literature who were real poets and not playing at it.”8

The victory of Apollo over the White Goddess was in Graves’s view a disaster from which the world still suffers. In The White Goddess he refers to “the unholy triumdivate of Pluto god of wealth, Apollo god of science, and Mercury god of thieves.”9 Poetry labors under this triple burden. The genuine poet is inspired, serves the Goddess, and is known by being always in love:

Love between men and women is a fundamental emotion, strong enough to transcend social contracts; and the love bestowed on a poet, however briefly, by a Muse-possessed woman, heightens his creative powers to an unparalleled degree…. The peculiar strength of the Muse lies in her need to bestow love freely and absolutely, without incurring the least contractual obligation: having chosen a poet, she dismisses him in favour of another, whenever she pleases and without warning. He must never count on her constancy, on her honour, or on her sympathy with his sufferings, but remain faithful beyond reason.10

As in the poem “Beware, Madam!”:

The Muse alone is licensed to do murder
And to betray: weeping with honest tears
She thrones each victim in her paradise.11

In his later years, instructed in Sufism by Idries Shah, Graves developed the notion that the White Goddess has a sister, the Goddess of Wisdom—“call her the Black Goddess”—who represents “miraculous certitude in love” and ordains “that the poet who seeks her must pass uncomplaining through all the passionate ordeals to which the White Goddess may subject him.”12 According to Peter Redgrove in The Black Goddess and the Sixth Sense (1988), she is diversely the Sphinx rejected by Oedipus, the Dark Girl of the Eastern Love-Books, and the Queen of Sheba.13 In Graves’s version she is the goddess of those adepts who have remained true to her sister: broken-hearted but not broken-spirited. They are entitled to a rest.

None of this amounts to a mythology, so far as I can see. There may be “one story and one story only/That will prove worth your telling,” but Graves hasn’t developed it into an impersonal system. He has used literary and mythological lore for his own local purpose, mainly to give himself a critical position, based on occult stories and figures which can be brought to bear on pretty nearly anything he cares to talk about. By comparison with Blake’s mythology or Yeats’s, Graves’s seems built for his sole use. I agree that it prompted him to write a kind of poetry he wouldn’t have written without it. Not that he took his bits and pieces of mythology lightly. In 1956 Randall Jarrell asserted of The White Goddess that “Graves’s world picture is a projection upon the universe of his own unconscious, of the compulsively repeated situation in which, alone, it is able to find satisfaction.” This world picture, Jarrell said, “is one familiar, in structure and in much detail, in the fantasies of children and neurotics, in dreams, in fairy tales, and, of course, in the myths and symbols of savages and of earlier cultures.”14 A few months later Graves took up Jarrell’s charge, denied that he had invented the White Goddess, and claimed that he had brought together verifiable ancient beliefs and “the effects of such beliefs on worshippers.”15

Seymour-Smith has an unusual reading of The White Goddess. He thinks that Graves’s mother was the first of many cruel women in Graves’s life and that his cult of the White Goddess and the poetry of sacrifice began with her. “The infant looked up into his mother’s face,” he says, “and sensed that—without much ambiguity—she wanted to kill him, and not quickly.” I don’t know what evidence Seymour-Smith has for this. There is nothing of it in Goodbye to All That, where both of Grave’s parents are shown as kindly and his mther as “gemütlich by nature.”16 She wasn’t pleased when Graves made irregular domestic arrangements, but few respectable parents would have been. In Deyá Graves may have given Seymour-Smith a more lurid account of his childhood than the version in Goodbye to All That, but if not, Seymour-Smith is making a bold claim. I agree with his view of the relations between Graves and Riding. He writes that Graves “turned into a bigot who insisted that women were cruel in their essence—just because (or so it seemed) a notoriously self-regarding woman had been cruel to him.”

It is true that Graves’s worldly muses were not loyal to him and left him one after another. Riding consorted with Geoffrey Phibbs and Norman Cameron before turning to Jackson. The next Muse, Judith Bledsoe, distributed her favors among several men. Margot Callas left Graves for Alastair Reid and later for Mike Nichols. Cindy Lee left him for Howard Hart. Juli Simon preferred Robert Page to Graves. But Graves, for his part, treated Nancy badly and Beryl worse. Beryl survived by giving much of her attention to animals and plants. When Riding stopped sleeping with Graves—because, she said, “bodies have had their day”17—he got Elfriede Faust pregnant, and colluded with both women to have the pregnancy terminated, Laura standing at the foot of Elfriede’s bed the while to witness the operation.

At this distance W.H.R. Rivers seems more important than Frazer or Harrison in the development of Graves’s poetry and poetics. Graves was never his patient, but met him when Rivers was treating Sassoon, who was nearly insane from his experiences in the war. Graves read Rivers’s two most influential books, Instinct and the Unconscious (1920) and Conflict and Dream (1923). Rivers encouraged him to think that one’s dreams are “the expression of a conflict between a number of wishes…and an attempt to solve the conflict by such means as are available during sleep.”18 If you are a writer suffering from the psychoneurosis of war, your best plan, Rivers told him, is to welcome the conflict expressed in your dreams and analyze it by means of “secondary elaboration.” This is what Graves does in his early poems and expounds in On English Poetry (1922), The Common Asphodel (1949), and the poem “Dance of Words”:

To make them move, you should start from lightning
And not forecast the rhythm: rely on chance,
Or so-called chance for its bright emergence
Once lightning interpenetrates the dance.

Grant them their own traditional steps and postures
But see they dance it out again and again
Until only lightning is left to puzzle over—
The choreography plain, and the theme plain.

(The repetition of “plain” is a risk well taken.) The same poetics is implied in “The Cool Web,” where language is trusted to “spell away the soldiers and the fright”:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self- possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Graves’s confidence in the traditional steps and patterns of English poetry kept him closer to Hardy and A.E. Housman than to T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. He was exasperated by the alleged newfangledness of Modernism, much preferring his own themes and poetic diction.

In the end, Graves’s best work is his poetry. There are fine things in the Claudius novels, The White Goddess, The Golden Fleece, and The Greek Myths. Most of the literary criticism in The Common Asphodel and The Crowning Privilege seems to me sordid. But many of the poems are splendid. Unfortunately, Graves has made it hard to keep track of them. Collected Poems (1975) and New Collected Poems (1977) omit many admired poems for no convincing reason. The earlier collections of poetry are just as arbitrary. These difficulties will be removed when the Complete Poems appears, in three volumes with full textual apparatus, from Carcanet Press in England. The first volume, edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward, has just been published.

Graves kept changing his mind with a view to improving his story. There is even a book called The More Deserving Cases (1962) in which he collected eighteen long-discarded poems for a press at Marlborough College. “I realize from time to time,” he said, “that certain poems were written for the wrong reasons and feel obliged to remove them; they give me a sick feeling.”19 Presumably the wrong reason was Apollonian, secondary elaboration having the effect of diverting the stroke of lightning. With every new edition of the Collected Poems, Graves altered, by a nuance or a change of emphasis, the story he had already told, making himself over yet again. In the foreword to Collected Poems (1938) Graves said that he had suppressed “whatever I felt misrepresented my poetic seriousness at the time when it was written.” In Collected Poems (1959) he retained less than half his poems but claimed “that no silver spoons have been thrown out with the refuse, and that I have been fair to my younger, middle and elder selves.” But in the final Collected Poems (1975) he favored the elder self at the expense of the middle and the younger ones: more than two thirds of the chosen poems were from the previous fifteen years. Sometimes Graves retained the title of a poem but little else. “In Procession,” for example, a poem from Poems 1914–1926, bears little resemblance to the version included in The Poems of Robert Graves, Chosen by Himself (1958). The poem “Self-Praise” isn’t in the Collected Poems (1975) even though it’s in the Poems (1958), much changed from the text in Collected Poems (1938). Sometimes the textual changes are inspired. The text of “Alice” in Poems 1914–1926 has

Nor did Victoria’s golden rule extend
Beyond the glass: it came to the dead end
Where formal logic also comes.

The later version reads:

   it came to the dead end
Where empty hearses turn about.

None of the new biographers goes into these matters. They read the poems simply as evidence of the life.

The problem is to hold the poems in mind without being intimidated by Graves’s revisions of the story they tell. Bringing out the final Collected Poems in 1975, he divided the work into twenty-five numbered but untitled sections, followed by a group called “Occasionalia” and further untitled sections twenty-six through thirty. Normally he wrote about five poems a year, but when he had a muse to worship he wrote twenty or thirty, and he misjudged those as his best work merely because they were his most recent. But there is no merit in thinking of the poems as divisible into thirty sections, with the Muse poems starting in section XI. It would be enough, I think, to have seven sections to indicate the family likeness between groups of poems.

The first would be occasional love poems written without specific invocation to the Muse. Graves is a master of the love poem, comparable to Hardy, Neruda, and Yeats. I would want “She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep,” “Change,” “Lost Love,” “Full Moon,” “The Portrait,” “The Straw,” “Sick Love,” “Love in Barrenness,” “The Terraced Valley,” and “Counting the Beats,” this last with the achieved verity of feeling in its final stanza:

Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.

A second section might be called Dwellings, poems about what it’s like to be alive, poems alert to moods and textures this side of eternity: such as “Love without Hope,” “On Dwelling,” “A Slice of Wedding Cake,” “Richard Roe and John Doe,” “Down, Wanton, Down!” and “The Face in the Mirror,” with the gallantry of its final line:

I pause with razor poised, scowling derision
At the mirrored man whose beard needs my attention,
And once more ask him why
He still stands ready, with a boy’s presumption,
To court the queen in her high silk pavilion.

Then I would have a section called Obliquities, poems of curious thinking, conceits, notions that no one but Graves would dream of entertaining: including “The Blue-Fly,” “The Persian Version,” “The Shot,” “Lollocks,” “Warning to Children,” “Alice,” “It was All Very Tidy,” and “Outlaws”:

Old gods almost dead, malign,
   Starving for unpaid dues:
Incense and fire, salt, blood and wine And a drumming muse,

Banished to woods and a sickly moon,
   Shrunk to mere bogey things,
Who spoke with thunder once at noon
To prostrate kings.

Then a section of Grotesques, including “The Castle,” “The Pier-Glass,” “The Suicide in the copse,” and “Grotesques VI”:

All horses on the racecourse of Tralee Have four more legs in gallop than in trot—Two pairs fully extended, two pairs not;
And yet no thoroughbred with either three
   Or five legs but is mercilessly shot.
I watched a filly gnaw her fifth leg free,
Warned by a speaking mare since turned silentiary.

There are a number of poems I would call Formalities, where Graves shows his remarkable sense of control and finish, his ear for the propriety of cadence; the best of these are “The Cool Web” and “Dance of Words.” Then there are the poems of homage to the White Goddess: well enough represented by “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” “Darien,” and “The White Goddess.” I don’t warm to the Goddess poems as much as some other readers do, but the last stanza of “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” is masterly:

Dwell on her graciousness, dwell on her smiling,
Do not forget what flowers
The great boar trampled down in ivy time.
Her brow was creamy as the crested wave,
Her sea-grey eyes were wild
But nothing promised that is not performed.

The last section would be Satires of Circumstance, complaints of pity: represented by “The Jealous Man,” “The Eremites,” “The Bards,” “The Cuirassiers of the Frontier,” “Hedges Freaked with Snow,” “Vanity,” “The Foreboding,” and “Ulysses”:

One, two and many: flesh had made him blind,
   Flesh had one pleasure only in the act,
Flesh set one purpose only in the mind—
Triumph of flesh and afterwards to find Still those same terrors where with flesh was racked.

For a few years after the publication of Collected Poems (1948) it looked as if English poets were finding in Graves’s poetry a workable alternative to the diversely regnant styles of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams. He is audibly an inflection in the poems of Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, Donald Davie, and Philip Hobsbaum. Graves’s poems indicated a tone that might be emulated to say the little best that could be said in the aftermath of War and Holocaust. Empson’s poems did, too, and Ransom’s. I think of these three poets as sharing a certain fellowship of style, necessarily and eloquently grim.

Graves could not leave this issue well alone. When he and Empson were named, in the Times Literary Supplement for September 10, 1954, as likely models for younger English poets, he claimed that “Pound-Eliot modernism of the twenties is already as dated as a stream-lined pogo-stick with decorative motifs from Tutankhamen’s tomb.” “The true masters of experiment in our days,” he maintained, were “such poets as Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost and William Davies.” In the TLS for October 29 and November 19, 1954, he mocked The Waste Land, Four Quartets, and Pound’s Cantos. There is no evidence that he spent much time reading those poems. In his middle years, living as a high-toned English officer-and-gentleman in Deyá, he wrote more than he read.

In his later years Graves’s physical and mental health failed. He made an effort to rise to social occasions, but he often felt wretched. Always inclined to mix sense with nonsense, matter with impertinency, he told Edwin Newman in an interview not otherwise foolish that male homosexuality was “partly due to heredity, partly to environment, but largely because men now drink too much milk.”20 In 1972 he started losing his short-term memory and lapsing intermittently into distraction and bewilderment. On a few public occasions he was able to rouse himself and concentrate his mind. But by 1980 he was for the most part beyond reach. He continued to live in Deyá, cared for by Beryl, but at the end he sank into silence and sleep. He died just ten years ago, on December 7, 1985.

This Issue

April 4, 1996