Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877
Goodbye to All That is an autobiography by English poet Robert Graves, written at the age of 34 and commemorating the occasion of his departure from England to live with his mistress, Laura Riding, in Mallorca. In bidding "goodbye to all that," Graves is expressing his refusal to live any...
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Goodbye to All That is an autobiography by English poet Robert Graves, written at the age of 34 and commemorating the occasion of his departure from England to live with his mistress, Laura Riding, in Mallorca. In bidding "goodbye to all that," Graves is expressing his refusal to live any longer in the land of his birth, which his life experience has led him to see as hypocritical and confining, and which has been utterly transformed by the horrors of the First World War.
Graves originally dictated this book to himself over the course of a few short weeks; he did not make notes as to structure or theme, and in 1957 he decided to revise the book entirely, finding it full of errors and sloppy writing. Despite this, it quickly became a classic, as the feelings Graves expressed resonated with many other young men of his age who had suffered through World War One and recognized the feelings of alienation and disillusionment he was describing.
Graves's life to date is divided in this book into three sections: his childhood and schooling; his time as a soldier; and his life as a young married man after the war. The central section, focusing on the war, takes up the greater part of the book, but there is also significant focus on Graves's school years, reflective of the fact that, at 34, this still represented a significant percentage of his life experience.
Born in 1895 in Wimbledon, Graves's first memories were of being held up to witness Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. This was, Graves wants his readers to understand, another world. Graves's father was an Irish poet, and his mother, too, moved in literary circles; as a child, Graves recalls the house being full of literary people. He first became aware that he was upper middle class, and that some people were not, when he developed a childhood illness and was sent to recover from it in a hospital; upon his return from the hospital, his accent was "ruined" through interaction with lower-class children. Shortly after this, Graves was sent to a perparatory school, which he found terrifying. He describes how one boy, whose parents had been killed, responded to the news of their death blankly: the point being that boys in the public school system were so removed from their parents as to feel no connection to them at all.
Graves took the Charterhouse Examination and proceeded to Charterhouse, a reputable English public school. Graves vividly describes the atmosphere of this school as being rife with both bullying and homoromanticism. Graves himself was bullied severely, but also found fast friends here, including George Mallory, who was one of his teachers and would later be his best man. He also fell in love for the first time with a boy he called Peter (although Graves stipulates that this is not a real name).
Graves won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford, but in the event, war intervened. Rather than proceeding to Oxford, Graves joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers and soon found himself a young officer in France, leading a regiment of Welshmen he describes with fondness and humor. The men he knew were very normal, but the circumstances were horrific. Graves describes how the hand of one long-dead corpse stuck out of the wall of the trench and would be shaken in passing by the soldiers. The absurd and the comical are a hallmark of Graves's writing.
While a soldier, Graves met Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow war poet. Moved by the horrors of war, Sassoon decided to become a conscientious objector. Graves's intervention meant that he was sent to a psychiatric institution rather than being court-martialled. Graves and Sassoon became extremely close, united by their love of poetry and distaste for an increasingly senseless war. They also bonded over their mutual fondness for a fellow soldier, David Thomas, and their grief at his death.
Graves's war career was ended ignominously when he was wounded severely and declared, falsely, "dead of wounds." This message was repeated in the papers at home even as Graves himself was being transported painfully back to England, his "resurrection."
After the war, Graves finally was able to progress to Oxford, where he took up his scholarship and lived alongside other soldiers at Boars Hill, in a complex populated by many students suffering from shell-shock. Late in the war, Graves had married a young woman, Nancy, whose boyish playfulness had appealed to him; he describes their early married life in Oxford as one wrought with difficulty. The Graveses had little money, and Graves found it difficult to readjust to a normal life. Evidently, Graves adored his children once they were born, but a "normal" existence no longer seemed possible in England after the horrors of war. The final section of the book details some of Graves's travels abroad, and becomes slightly meandering.
Ultimately, Goodbye to All That is not intended to be a conclusive autobiography. On the contrary, Graves is setting forth the first part of his life as if to say "good riddance" to it. In writing the book, he is providing himself with the closure to move on to pastures new, having expressed his displeasure with England and the conventions by which he can no longer live.