Robert Graves Essay - Graves, Robert (Vol. 1)

Graves, Robert (Vol. 1)

Graves, Robert 1895–

An Anglo-Irish writer, now living in Majorca, Graves is a poet whose work is directed by the Muse and whose principal poetic theme is the impossibility of absolute love between man and woman. Graves is also a novelist, a critic, a mythographer, and a translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Anyone at all interested in poetry should buy Robert Graves' Poems 1938–45…, if only to get one poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice." It is one of the most beautiful poems of our century. Naturally, such a piece is far and away the best poem in the book; but the other poems are a pleasure to read even when they are inconsequential—their texture is so accomplished and personal, so terse, self-sufficient, and dryly or grotesquely or individually necessary, that the reader has the superstitious and wholly mistaken impression that the mediocre ones are mediocre only because Mr. Graves hasn't bothered to write anything so vulgar, modern, and alienated-from-himself as a successful poem. The technique of the poems is unusually objective and "classical"—a great deal of English and classical poetry is responsible for the way in which they are written—since metres and forms are things Mr. Graves can accept and transform as easily as he accepts and transforms the ghosts and gods and other historical beings that live on in the enchanting Hades of his novels; but what the poems say is sometimes wonderfully and sometimes rather disastrously the expression of his own peculiar being….

Mr. Graves is one of the few poets alive who can write a first-rate poem, and one of the very few who are getting better as they get older. If I were Clement Attlee I'd pension or imprison Mr. Graves to get him to write more poems: certainly either action would seem matter-of-course to Robert Graves.

Randall Jarrell, in his Poetry and the Age (© 1953 by Randall Jarrell; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf-Vintage, 1953, pp. 202-03.

The humorous, mythological, casual yet cosmic poems of Robert Graves, with their highly individual use of folk elements and original handling of traditional metrical forms, show a poetic sensibility almost belligerently at variance with all the contemporary poetic schools.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 53.

Periodically throughout his career Graves has gone through his poetic corpus, suppressed those poems which have seemed to him inferior, and drastically revised those which he has chosen to retain. Thus a poem originally published, say, in Over the Brazier (1916) might reappear, its structure and diction markedly altered, in Poems, 1914–1926, only to be dropped from the contents of Collected Poems, 1938—and then turn up again, its face once more lifted, in Collected Poems, 1955. Such thorough and ceaseless pruning has been almost invariably beneficial to the poems subjected to it…. Good as the poems in Graves's collection of 1961 are, they must not be taken as representative of anything more than the sort of poetry Graves chose to write in 1961. To see what he was like in 1916, one must read the volume that was published that year. (Introduction, xiii-xiv)

A careful reading of Graves's poems as originally published, however, will in fact show that there has been a very distinct pattern of progress in his career, and that there have been in reality four more or less sharply delineated periods into which his work may be divided.

In the first period, which runs from 1916 to 1923, we find Graves jolted out of his whimsical and banal Georgianism by the shock of the First World War…. By 1923 he has tired of such emotional intensity, and is sliding, almost imperceptibly, into the semi-detached, analytical poetry of his second major period. (Introduction, xv)

The poems of Graves's second period are marked by his determination not to become emotionally involved in his work…. The poems of this period are, in fact, less intense than their predecessors had been; but they give way too often to a somewhat flippant cynicism and display a frivolous lack of purpose which indicates that Graves is at this time trying to deal with matters for which he has little real sympathy. (Introduction, xv-xvi)

The third period of Graves's career opens in 1926, with the arrival in England of Laura Riding, the American poetess who came to visit the Graves family, but who remained to teach him a great deal about the toughness and discipline necessary to the composition of good poetry. The influence of Laura Riding is quite possibly the most important single element in his poetic career: she persuaded him to curb his digressiveness and his rambling philosophizing, and to concentrate instead on terse, ironic poems written on personal themes. She also imparted to him some of her own dry, cerebral quality, which has remained in much of his poetry up to the present…. The poetry of Graves's third period is difficult and frequently obscure, but there can be little doubt that some of his best work to date was done during the years of his literary partnership with Laura Riding. (Introduction, xvi-xvii)

[The] fourth period begins with the publication of Poems, 1938–1945, and has continued to the present…. By the end of the Second World War, Graves had become a poet able to write with technical perfection over a somewhat narrow range of subject-matter. He still lacked the one quality that all poets must possess if they are to be more than competent craftsmen: a vision of the universe which informs and unifies all their work, a way of going beyond themselves into something larger, more universally meaningful—in short, a religious attitude…. This unifying vision came to Graves in 1944, when he began his study of the Triple Goddess, the ancient Mediterranean deity who, attacked by worshippers of new patriarchal religions, had gone underground one thousand years before the birth of Christ…. [This] Goddess caught and held Graves's imagination as nothing else had been able to do; and he immediately became, poetically at least, her ardent devotee. For eighteen years she has, in all her manifestations, been his poetic inspiration. (Introduction, xvii)

Although Graves continues to believe that a sort of magical inspiration lies at the roots of the creative process, and that a poem—in its initial stages, at least—must be worked out while the poet is in a trance, he seems now to stress more than ever the necessity for a careful and painstaking "secondary elaboration." Excellence in poetry, it appears, entails a certain amount of hard labor, especially with problems of prosody. (p. 196)

Usually,… although always quick to state that his poems are far from perfect, Graves appears to be reasonably satisfied with the course his career has taken; and it is obvious from [his] essays, that, when he speaks of the "true poet" and the sort of poetry such a man must write, he has himself in mind. (p. 200)

An examination of [the] collections [published between 1953 and 1961] will show that, qualitatively speaking, there has been no very great change in Graves's poetry since Poems and Satires, 1951: everything he writes bespeaks the same tart individuality, the same polished simplicity, the same directness, of his best work. From his serious poems (that is, those concerned with the White Goddess, or with the nature of love), most of which are grouped in Poems, 1953, and More Poems, 1961, one learns that Graves still holds true to the Single Theme; and from his satires and grotesques, which predominate among the new pieces of the 1955, 1958, and 1959 collections, it appears that he still retains his scorn for those who have not been so fortunate in their avoidance of sham, pretence, and subservience to unworthy causes.

The picture that Graves, the man, makes is certainly no less impressive than the picture in the poetry. He is very tall, still quite well-built and vigorous, with a strong sense of hauteur about him: very imposing, and very aware of being imposing. It would be impossible for a man of Grave's appearance to be anything but what he is: a poet of great skill, discipline, and strength of character—but, with all of these qualities, a determined and conscious streak of eccentricity (the Celtic streak in him, the literary ethnologists would say). Graves is the sort of man who can, even when silent, dominate a crowded room completely. One would not like to be his enemy. (pp. 216-17)

Douglas Day, in his Swifter Than Reason: The Poetry and Criticism of Robert Graves, University of North Carolina Press, 1963.

Using a documentary convention and avoiding "literary" airs and graces, Robert Graves produced in [the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the King] two of the most original books of his generation. Claudius, physically hideous, is made to tell his own story, with very subtle effect, against the background of splendour and horror, of majesty and misery and murder, in Imperial Rome. The sustained greyness of much of I Claudius (1934) increases the vividness of the lurid passages, which are charged with a mounting terror, up to the last fantastic scene where Claudius, after the murder of Caligula, is thrust into the imperial seat by the soldiery. (p. 58)

Robert Graves was one of the few 'Georgians' [as the English poets of 1912–25 were nicknamed by Edward Marsh] who escaped from the back-garden tradition. He found himself in a large and bewildering (but somehow satisfying) wilderness, where familiar things are strange and new…. The paths of Graves's mind were as bafflingly full of promise as the paths of an English wood, where the wayfarer is in a state of continuous expectation: anything may appear round the next corner…. To read Robert Graves's poetry … was to feel that one was assisting him to wrestle with Chaos. (pp. 184-85)

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964.

To poets, Robert Graves is mainly known as a poet. This, of course, is what he wishes. To the intelligent general reading public … he is also known as one of the most versatile English prose writers of our time. He has done distinguished work in prose as an historical and modern novelist, as a humorous and polemical pamphleteer, as a close critic of poetry and a general poetic theorist, as a mythographer, as a translator, as a student of the Old and New Testaments, as a playwright (though his plays have never been performed), as an essayist, and as a biographer and autobiographer. The value of his work in prose is uneven; but he has never written a paragraph or a sentence that is not crisp and workmanlike, and he has seldom put forward an idea that does not at least merit serious discussion.

Though it is his prose that displays Graves's versatility, and some of the more agreeable oddities and eccentricities of his interests and his character, it is his poetry that is likely to prove lastingly important. (p. 7)

Graves is one of the most successful of modern historical novelists; yet of the type of imagination whose ability is to follow out action for its own sake, to make an imaginary train of consequences from a postulated situation and character—of the inventive type of imagination, in short—he has little or none…. Graves is not interested in ordinary human behaviour for its own sake, but only in human behaviour when it conforms to, or illustrates, some mythological or pre-determined pattern. Thus in his historical novels, where the reader's attention is held—and sustained by a series of shocks—by Graves's interpretation, and sometimes manipulation, of happenings which he has not had to invent, he always chooses as his heroes men who have had the inner force to mould events, to set patterns of behaviour, to make history. (pp. 11-12)

Graves's single most important work of prose, in relation to his poetry, is certainly the famous The White Goddess…. Graves has several times complained that his White Goddess is not 'Mr. Graves's White Goddess', as many critics have described her, but that familiar and traditional figure, the Muse, the religious invocation of whom is the true function of all poetry…. Roughly, what Graves believes is that true poetry sprang from a matriarchal society…. The Muse is the female principle as something more fundamental than the male principle; as the Mother who bears man, the Lover who awakens him to manhood, the Old Hag who puts pennies on his dead eyes. She is a threefold process of Birth, Copulation, and Death, or of Creation, Fulfilment, and Destruction. She is at once the Goddess of Life and Joy, and of Pain and Death, and it is impious to reject her in any of her manifestations. When a matriarchal society becomes a man-dominated society, Apollo (originally a contemptible little mouse-god) usurps the place of the Muse; poetry gives way to rhetoric…. Graves's two Penguin volumes on The Greek Myths can be read as a sort of extended series of footnotes to The White Goddess, and the same idea of the dominance of the Goddess lies behind his rehandling of the book of Genesis and King Jesus. (pp. 16-18)

One of the most difficult things to accept in Grave's work is the apparent contradiction between a religious and a rational attitude. One of the statements which he never makes about the White Goddess is that she exists in the sense in which theologians discuss the question, An Deus sit? As a mythographer, he is a euhemerist: he likes to reduce myths to misinterpretations of ancient icons, recording rituals or ceremonies, which priests of a later generation—either through ignorance, or to make old traditions fit into the pattern of a new heretical Father God religion—more or less plausibly misread…. The friction between his religious and rational attitudes has provided Graves with some of his most successful poems, yet it has proved to be the point at which he has failed to resolve and clarify his thought, although his most recent poems … deal with this question much more overtly. (pp. 19-20)

All speculative or abstract thought, all thought not focused on a central personal concern is for Graves … a turning away from reality, an evasion of the issue. And yet at the same time, to lose oneself in speculation is not to dull one's anxieties but to risk plunging into the chaotic terror of an early poem like 'Down'. All this comes out very clearly in one of Graves's finest poems of this period, 'The Cool Web', a poem close to the heart of the meaning of all Graves's work, so typical of him in rhythm, diction, multiple layers of meaning, and the personal flavour of its symbolism. (p. 27)

Martin Seymour-Smith, in his Robert Graves, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, revised edition, 1965.

Robert Graves is a minor poet of major proportions…. [Though] he is a prolific, an imitated, and since 1926 a consistently good poet, he is not a major one, by choice, and according to his own definition of "major."… A major poet is himself a tradition, a system of coordinates by means of which we locate other poetry in literary space. Graves claims that he is a traditional poet, as he is, but he is not himself a tradition, as, say, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, and Eliot are, nor does he want to be. (pp. 3-4)

Robert Graves, according to [many] critics, is now the most important poet writing in English and the best model for young poets seeking either to establish a new tradition or to recover the native one that "Franco-American modernism," as he calls it, is supposed to have set aside…. What Graves has against major poetry is its immensity, of length, theme, conception, or ambition…. True poetry is Muse poetry, the product of a trance, and trances are of short duration—spontaneous overflows do not flow for long…. Graves has always insisted both that poetry is private, the expression of a unique personality's unique experiences, and that the source of true poetry is above, beyond, or below the poet's ego…. The relation of integrity and sincerity to all this is that the poet can only discover what is not himself if he is exactly and nothing but himself. (pp. 4-5)

Graves stresses sincerity, rather than impersonality; emotion and suggestiveness, rather than the exact rendering of perceptions; the automatic and unconscious element in composition, rather than skill and craftsmanship; the concatenation of images and themes by association, rather than by juxtaposition; euphony, rather than words charged with meaning through sound; harmony, rather than dissonance; personal variations on existing metrical schemes, rather than the use of "absolute rhythm," which is based on the notion that "a new cadence means a new idea"; common-sense reality, rather than distortion; illustrative imagery, rather than the numinous symbol or the opaque image; what words "mean," rather than what they are; the common word, rather than the exact one, no matter how uncommon; "country sentiment," rather than metaphysical wit or urban funk; the perspectives of children, primitives, madmen, and dreamers, as tidied up by the superego, rather than either the chill of the mature critical intelligence or the libidinous rage of adult and civilized depravity; the idea that poetry gratifies, heals, pleases, rather than the idea that in one sense poetry forces us through pain to re-create ourselves, but that in another, "poetry makes nothing happen"; intuition, rather than erudition; the problem of reconciling tastes created by the tradition of English poetry with personal obsessions, rather than the obsessive need to create new tastes in the process of destroying old ones; love over sex, rather than the triumphs and defeats of an inexorably subversive sexuality; the reality and value of a unique and persisting self that survives sequences of mood and experience, rather than the reality of the fluid or fragmented self, or the value of getting around oneself to either the fields of light or the heart of darkness; and so on. (p. 7)

The sameness of the themes, forms, and figures among the poems in any one of Graves's collections wears one down as quickly as the aggressive demands of the modernists. And because his poems are only personal, because he refuses to work out the public relevance of his private obsessions (which are, in any case, of a rather old-fashioned sort), because he never addresses his audience, but only allows it to overhear him, his readers are less likely to mull his poems over, memorize them, make the poems permanent agencies of their un-, semi-, and full consciousnesses. If his poems never make anyone uncomfortable, it is because they never nudge anyone out of whatever complacencies he lives by. And so far they have only appealed to the old, the middle-aged, and the prematurely aged. With regard to the traditional doctrine that poetry is supposed to move, delight, and instruct, we can say that Graves is willing to sacrifice movement and instruction for delight. (p. 9)

George Stade, in his Robert Graves ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," No. 25), Columbia University Press, 1967.

Graves has become known as a poet of love, and, to my mind, his genius always has been best shown in his ability to capture the psychology of love. Graves might agree with Lawrence Durrell that love is not so much a physical as a psychic experience, and it is Graves' skill in rendering the psychology of women and the men who love them that has made his work memorable….

Graves has created a mythology of love, blending the cruelty and kindness of woman into a "White Goddess." She has been with him since the forties, and is still much in evidence. Cerridwen, the White Goddess, is the apotheosis of woman at her most primitive. Graves finds the women he has loved an embodiment of her. If Cerridwen is to be adored, she is also to be feared, for her passing can rival the passing of very life, and the pendulum of ecstasy and anguish which marks human love reaches its full sweep in her. Graves makes clear in "The Dangerous Gift" that Cerridwen's very beauty is her knife of sacrifice, and cuts out hearts beneath her oaken groves. For the slain poet-lover, there is no remedy, but, as Byron once said, "to love again, and be again undone." Thus the death-and-resurrection theme of Graves' mythology becomes descriptive of the poetlover's bittersweet odyssey through life: a series of vivifications and martyrdoms as numerous as have been the women he has loved….

Appearing only in Graves' more recent poetry is a "Black Goddess" whose function is best explained by Graves himself in a recent essay: "This Black Goddess, who represents a miraculous certitude in love, ordained that the poet who seeks her must pass uncomplaining through all the passionate ordeals to which the White Goddess may subject him."

Perhaps love beyond desire is the quintessence of the Black Goddess's wisdom, and perhaps because Graves has come to an enlightenment, he finds need to create a fane for her as a complement to the fane of the insatiable White Goddess, his sister…. Love as "perfect now" is Graves' final triumphal vision, a miracle of enduring that crowns his old head with laurel. It is, for Graves' Ulyssean heart, the final victory that crowns a lifetime of defeats. The old man is now in his mid-seventies, but he has found new themes, and his artistry and heart have lost nothing by age. To what yet unvisited harbors might he now set sail?

Patrick J. Callahan, "Toward Yet Unvisited Harbors" (© 1970 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), in Prairie Schooner, Summer, 1970, pp. 173-77.

Because he is a superb polemicist who can intimidate would-be critics of his work, Graves is seldom discussed. When he is, he commands respect but seldom arouses enthusiasm. Graves is an anachronism: an astrologer in an age of astronomy, puzzling the meaning of the Zodiac and indifferent to the scientific penetration of space; a writer who seeks refuge in myth at a time when the elimination of metaphysics has been the aim of philosophy; a poet who has stuck to a tradition most find irrelevant to the twentieth century. He is erudite about the things that matter to him, technically impeccable, and completely admirable in his single-minded fortitude. As a poet, however, he is seldom memorable.

Alan Bold, "The Poems of Robert Graves," in The Southern Review, Vol. VI, No. 3, Summer, 1970, pp. 849-52.