Poet, historical novelist, critic, translator, essayist, biblical scholar, and mythographer, Robert Graves presents a formidable challenge to any biographer. His productivity has been astonishing (137 books carry his name), his personality quirky, arrogant, and complex. Martin Seymour-Smith, a friend of forty years and a poet himself, has met the challenge in a long, affectionate study, much of it based on previously unpublished papers and correspondence. Carefully, it examines many of Graves’s well-crafted poems by placing their development in the context of his life. Graves has often complained that numerous books about his work get him “all wrong.” With his subject’s cooperation, Seymour-Smith purportedly gets him right. The suspicion lurks, however, that occasionally the biographer relies too much on Graves’s judgment of people and interpretation of events.
Robert Graves was born in Wimbledon, England, in 1895, the son of an inspector of schools who published many volumes of Irish songs and ballads. Graves, however, has always denied that his poetic talents were inherited. Seymour-Smith notes that the key to both Graves’s poetry and personality is a “continual state of terror,” which later was relieved by a sophisticated Romanticism. One reads that this state of terror began at a British public school, Charterhouse, where young Graves was abnormally prudish. There he became infatuated with a boy who later was revealed to have made a homosexual solicitation to a Canadian soldier. The news devastated Graves, who was frightened that perhaps he too was a homosexual. He was not, but Seymour-Smith finds in this incident the beginnings of Graves’s sexual timidity with women. While he was at Charterhouse, poetry became important to him, and he was encouraged by George Mallory, who later perished on Mount Everest, and Edward Marsh, befriender of the young Georgian poets.
The Graves family had a holiday house in Harlech, Wales, a region Graves loved. Enlisting in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers after the outbreak of World War I, he went directly from school to the trenches, where he met the poet Siegfried Sassoon. A shell fragment penetrated Graves’s lung, and he was reported dead. Not waiting for full recovery in the hospital, he returned to the front but was immobilized by bronchitis and saw no more active fighting.
For the next ten years, Graves suffered from acute neurasthenia, accompanied by nightmares and hallucinations. This was an illness understood by the adventurous T. E. Lawrence, who became his intimate friend. When Sassoon, after being wounded in the throat, published a denunciation of the war, Graves helped persuade a medical board to prescribe psychiatric care for his friend and thus avoid a court-martial.
Graves’s nerves took a further beating from his relationship with two women. First there was his unhappy marriage to Nancy Nicholson, a socialist and feminist and sister of the painter Ben Nicholson. Nancy refused to take her husband’s name after their wedding in 1918. (Their two daughters were known as Nicholson, their two sons as Graves.) Seymour-Smith, who is unsympathetic toward Nancy, makes clear that although she carried on about male domination and advantages, she was not much interested in political feminism.
While Graves studied leisurely at Saint John’s College, Oxford, from 1919 to 1926, he and Nancy lived on John Masefield’s estate, then later at Islip. The couple failed as shopkeepers, but Graves successfully wrote poetry. His first book of poems, Over the Brazier, had come out in 1916.
In liberated fashion, Nancy accepted the domestic triangle that resulted in 1926, when a young American poet, Laura Riding, came to live in the Graves-Nicholson household and accompanied the family to Egypt, where Graves served as professor of English literature at Cairo University. The next year, however, he resigned and returned to England, where he and Laura set up housekeeping in Hammersmith while Nancy and the children lived on a nearby houseboat. In 1927, the lovers founded the Seizin Press and published a collaborative effort, A Survey of Modernist Poetry.
Riding, “very nearly ugly,” imperious, fierce, and domineering besides, was at the center of the most melodramatic episode in Robert Graves’s life. Seymour-Smith gives many details previously withheld. After Nancy returned to Graves’s flat, Riding fell in love with an Anglo-Irish journalist and poetaster named Geoffrey Phibbs. As it turned out, he preferred Nancy. A heartbroken Riding jumped out of a fourth-floor window, and more prudently, Graves jumped from the third floor. Riding broke her spine, but he escaped injury.
After Riding’s recovery and the complete breakup of Graves’s...
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