In the introduction to this biography of Robert Graves, Miranda Seymour suggests that her subject is the greatest writer of amatory verse that the twentieth century has produced. Despite the sweeping generalization, she is absolutely correct—but only by default. Traditional love themes simply do not appear in the work of twentieth century poets. T. S. Eliot set the tone for loveless love poetry early in the century, and only the homoerotic poets of its latter decades have departed from the pattern. It is, therefore, not very surprising that Robert Frost, not Eliot, was Graves’s own favorite.
Both Graves and Frost created and lived their own mythos. They considered themselves poets of the country rather than the city, and both are identifiable with their places of residence, Graves with the island of Mallorca off the coast of Spain and Frost with his New Hampshire farm. Both privileged plain language, though they often used words suggestively and enigmatically. Less familiarly, Frost loved England and began his career there. His persona as farmer-poet was one that he adopted only in midlife. His retirement to rural New England corresponds to Graves’s withdrawal to what in the late 1920’s was little more than a primitive, isolated island. Both poets could be irascible and arrogant, and more to the theme of Seymour’s study, both lived amid domestic chaos.
Seymour argues cogently that the continually unstable associations Graves had with the women in his life were essential to his work. Almost all of her substantial study deals with these personal influences, and almost no critical interpretation of Graves’s works appears. Seymour discusses successively Graves’s strict upbringing in a large bourgeois family; his experience in World War I and his acquaintance with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen; and the long series of women in his life, from his mother, Amalie (Amy) von Ranke Graves, to his wives, Nancy Nicholson (who never used the Graves name) and Beryl Pritchard Graves, to his formidable mistress Laura Riding and the series of “muses” identifiable with his later years. All these women inspired him, and his wives and mistresses clearly led him to become an amatory rather than a war poet.
General readers likely have a very different conception of Graves; for these he remains a writer of prose, the author of the popular classics I, Claudius (1934), Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1934), and Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography (1929; rev. 1957), his memoir of the Edwardian Age and World War I. In his own estimation, however, Graves was first of all a poet. He saw his popular prose as a means of raising substantial amounts of money quickly. In the first half of his life, with two wives, two families, and Riding to support, not to mention the continuing costs of his Mallorcan properties, large infusions of cash remained an ongoing necessity. To his credit, Graves tried hard never to shirk these responsibilities. This does not mean that his first children received from him the love they expected; it was not until Riding had ceased to be an active influence upon his life and after he began his second family that he saw his first children regularly. Even so, Graves bore all the difficult periods in his life (most of which were of his own making) like a good soldier, his own simile for his personal code derived from his wartime experience.
Seymour does an admirable job of presenting her subject positively, a task that is especially difficult given his irregular way of life and his capacity for arrogant behavior. In part, Seymour’s positive slant follows from having had the complete cooperation of the Graves estate and access to nearly all of Graves’s personal papers. Graves’s second wife, Beryl, and their son William read Seymour’s manuscript in its final state. Still, other sources support Seymour’s positive assessment, and her coherent view of Graves’s life is quite plausible, even if her repeated characterization of Graves as having a Puritan’s personality seems paradoxical.
Graves’s puritanism, as Seymour interprets the word, is synonymous with his willingness to endure hardship and his generally nonmaterialistic outlook. These qualities and a desire to achieve excellence came from his family. His German-born mother Amy moved to England permanently only after her marriage to Alfred Perceval Graves, a widower with children and by profession a school inspector, like the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold. The elder Graves was a poet by avocation with a slight acquaintance of several major Victorian poets: Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Thomas Hardy, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Initially, it was his interest in Welsh poetry and love of Wales that prompted their move from Wimbledon, then a sleepy village outside London, to Erinfa, their isolated estate on the Welsh coast. The Graves family’s connection to Wales thus predates the beginning of World War I by only a few years. Their son grew intensely proud of this Welsh connection and elected to join the Royal Welsh Fusiliers at the outbreak of the war. Had Graves’s marriage to Nicholson succeeded, he might well have remained in Wales for the rest of his life.
(The entire section is 2140 words.)