What combination of genius, character, and training, what accidents of birth or historic situation bring forth and nurture poetic expression? This is a baffling question for which no answers can be generalized. That is one reason for the interest in the lives of poets. Moreover, the life of Robert Graves is especially fascinating, partly because he spanned the twentieth century and was actively engaged in some of the great dramas of that period, partly because Graves, from a most conventional Edwardian background, became such an astonishing maverick among contemporary writers.
This biography by Richard Perceval Graves, Robert’s nephew, deals primarily with that conventional upbringing and other early experiences, including Robert’s first marriage and his service with the Royal Welch Fusilieres in World War I. This same period is covered, in a very different way, in Graves’s famous autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1925). Graves encapsulated his own development at that point with the sweeping assertion: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.
Obviously, there was more to the story, whether told by Graves himself in Goodbye to All That, or by Martin Seymour-Smith in his pioneering biography Robert Graves: His Life and Work (1982), or by a member of the family in this volume. Richard Graves is an experienced biographer with books on Lawrence of Arabia, the Powys brothers, and A. E. Housman.
In one sense, Richard Graves had an advantage over Seymour-Smith and even perhaps Robert Graves himself in constructing an accurate family history. The author’s father, John Graves (Robert’s younger brother), died in 1980, leaving to Richard a treasured collection of letters, diaries, and other documents that had been saved by five generations of the family, dating back as far as the 1760’s. John had already started the laborious research necessary for an accurate biography of his brother Robert. He examined with a magnifying glass the “almost indecipherable” handwritten daily diaries of his father, copying out everything about Robert between the years 1911 and 1931. Thus, the author had a head start on the meticulous collection of factual details about family life that characterize this book. Even Robert, depending on memory alone, could hardly have remembered with such accuracy the events of his childhood. This account may, therefore, be more factual, though not necessarily more significant, than the poet’s own account of these years. Robert Graves sometimes took Emily Dickinson’s advice to tell the truth but tell it slant.
The author gives an almost journalistic attention to questions of what, who, when, where things happened. He seldom imposes his own interpretation upon the experience he describes, though he carefully records the impressions that his characters have expressed in letters or diaries or verbal accounts. Thus, one sees Robert’s return home from his unhappy first session at Charterhouse through the eyes of Clarissa, Robert’s sister: “He was greeted hurriedly by the family and seemed rather bewildered in their presence. He talked in broken and inconsequent sentences and called his Mother ’Miss Farley’ (his matron at Charterhouse . . .). Luckily this mistake passed unnoticed. . . .”
In this manner, the author can suggest the undercurrents of confusion and awkwardness in the unhappy schoolboy without pretending to any unwarranted wisdom or clairvoyance. This modesty and careful restraint are evident through the entire biography. The author is aware of the special dangers to historical accuracy of a person writing about a kinsman, especially one who rebelled so vehemently against the mores of his family and his social class.
Robert’s mother was perhaps the most significant influence on his childhood, especially for that peculiar blend of idealism, religious orthodoxy, and sexual embarrassment that made his first contact with life at Charterhouse such a shock. Amalie von Ranke, born in London of a Norwegian mother and a German father of an aristocratic family, had intended to become a missionary in India before she met and married Robert’s father. Alfred Perceval Graves, born in Dublin, was a widower with five children. His union with Amalie produced five more. In such a household, where nannies took charge of the children, who ordinarily stayed with their mother only one hour during the day, the mother might seem a rather remote figure.
Such was not the case, however, according to the first short chapter, where the author, in one of his few direct judgments about his uncle’s life, suggests that Robert’s early life was “dominated to a greater degree than I had expected by the figure of my grandmother, Amy Graves.” The author even offers an impressionistic vision of Amalie as he himself at age four or five saw her.Standing to welcome us beside the massive oak bookcase in Erinfa’s gloomy hall, she might easily have appeared terrifying to me, for besides being tall she was dressed from head to foot in black. However, she radiated such a warm and unselfish love that I felt instantly at...
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