Goodbye to All That

by Robert Graves

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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1022

At the very beginning of this autobiography, Robert Graves sets out his reasons for writing it with a candor and tongue-in-cheek quality that serve to explicate much of the rest of the book. His reasons for writing this book are, he says,

an opportunity for a goodbye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again; money.

Indeed, Graves set himself to writing this book as quickly as he possibly could in order to finance his escape from England to Mallorca with his mistress, Laura Riding. In the first edition of this book, Riding is a clear and present figure, but in the revised 1957 edition—the "classic" edition, and almost certainly the edition you have, as the other is hard to find—she has been stripped out entirely. Still, Graves is clear that he wishes to leave England and needs the money to do so, and this quotation gives some indication as to why.

Graves has, in his short life, watched his country be transformed entirely, from the England of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, where the baby Graves was kissed by the poet Swinburne as an elderly man in the parks of Wimbledon, to an unrecognizable post-War society whose young men have been slaughtered in the thousands. Graves himself is suffering seriously from shell shock from his time at the Front, and in writing this book, he has some hope that these demons might be "settled" in his mind so that he need never revisit them. Graves is seeking a sort of closure in writing: he is breaking ties with many of his old friends in leaving his marriage and the country, and this book is partly a defense of himself, partly an explanation, and, paradoxically, at the same time a refusal to explain himself. Graves, notoriously difficult, is both extremely candid and manipulative with the truth in this book, which presents situations as he wishes them to be seen, while almost daring the reader to comment on such "shocking" elements as his open description of homosexuality in the English public school system and the suggestion that British soldiers routinely killed German prisoners. Graves wants to shock. He is writing a deliberately sensationalist book for the purposes of making money; but on the other hand, this book is also a private response to a once-dear friend, Sassoon, whose own memoir of the war (Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man) Graves has taken some issue with. At various points, Graves revisits scenes described by Sassoon and challenges Sassoon's perception. Goodbye to All That is very much shaped by Graves's friendship with Sassoon and reaction to Sassoon's writings.

On that note, we might look at another significant quotation, Graves's description of his first meeting with Sassoon:

As we were talking I noticed a book lying on the table. It was the first book (except my Keats and Blake) that I had seen since I came to France that was not either a military text-book or a rubbish novel. It was The Essays of Lionel Johnson. When I had a chance I stole a look at the fly-leaf, and the name was Siegfried Sassoon. I looked round to see who could possibly be called Siegfried Sassoon and bring Lionel Johnson with him to the First Battalion. He was obvious, so I got into conversation with him, and a few minutes later we were walking to Bethune, being off duty until that night, and talking about poetry.

The framing of this moment by Graves is extremely interesting. He makes very clear that his relationship with Sassoon was based largely upon their shared interest in poetry, but this also highlights the commonality they found in being outsiders (poets) among "ordinary" men. Graves felt othered all his life: he describes how relentlessly he was bullied at Charterhouse, where he was perceived as "difficult" and in response only strove to be more so. His middle name, "von Ranke," betrayed his German heritage and made him yet more unpopular in the Army. Siegfried Sassoon, defined by his German first name and Jewish surname and standing out as the "obvious" bookish type, represents a haven to Graves, a person with whom he can feel an affinity. Much of Goodbye to All That is focused on the issues Graves has had with finding kindred spirits; they are few and far between in his life, and Sassoon is a very significant one.

Having suffered from this sense of otherness from childhood, then, it only stretches Graves's frayed nerves further when that otherness is increased by the growing distance placed by war between England's soldiers and the country of their birth.

England looked strange to us returned soldiers. We could not understand the war-madness that ran wild everywhere, looking for a psuedo-military outlet. The civilians talked a foreign language; and it was newspaper language. I found serious conversation with my parents all but impossible.

This quotation comes from the section following Graves's "resurrection," when he has returned to England after being falsely declared dead. This seems to mark a turning point for Graves. Sassoon, who "wrote of his joy" at hearing that Graves was alive, is all the more his only companion; only Sassoon (and, by extension, perhaps, others who have experienced the war) could hope to understand how Graves is feeling. This is all the more true now that he feels singled out further by having been reported dead and then becoming "alive again," coming home to a place which now feels like a foreign country. This quotation is important because, while the bulk of the narrative in this book focuses on stories from the trenches, the central anxiety of it is the sense of disillusionment and isolation felt by Graves and many of his fellow soldiers when the war is ended and the world they once knew is gone. For Graves, who had never properly fit in anyway, the only solution is to stop trying entirely and leave England behind once and for all.

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