Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Most obviously Graves’s Goodbye to All That belongs with that distinguished body of writing, both poetry and prose, which emerged from the maelstrom of the Great War. Siegfried Sassoon published his thinly disguised fictional account of his wartime experiences, Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, in 1928 and 1930, followed by Sherston’s Progress in 1936; the three volumes were later collected and entitled The Memoirs of George Sherston (1937). Edmund Charles Blunden published Undertones of War in 1928 and on the German side, Erich Maria Remarque’s Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front, 1929) appeared in 1929. Graves also wrote poetry on his war experiences, although it was perhaps not as memorable as that of his fellow English writers, Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen, and Isaac Rosenberg. All, with the exception of Brooke, left to posterity a horrific picture of twentieth century war.

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Goodbye to All That can also be seen as a continuation of other literary themes and movements. Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage: An Episode of the American Civil War (1895), a naturalistic account, is in some ways a predecessor of Graves’s work, and the subject of war as literature can be traced at least as far back as the work of the Greek historian Herodotus. Some critics have argued that Graves is also in the romantic tradition of the nineteenth century in his portrayal of the solitary individual estranged from the civilized community. Both during the war and afterward Graves wrote of himself as the outsider. On the other hand, in his attempt to distance himself through the use of irony from his own personal feelings and in his literary transformation of his experiences into art Graves can be seen as a modernist writer, though it has been noted that he and the other war memoirists never were able to escape that overwhelming experience completely. T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Ezra Pound never faced no-man’s-land. Finally, Graves’s autobiography can also be placed in the twentieth century literary tradition of portraying war with black humor. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) is perhaps the most obvious comparison, although it could be claimed that Heller’s novel is much more a work of fiction than is Graves’s work.

Robert Graves was a unique literary figure in the twentieth century. His interest in religion and myth, as exemplified particularly in The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948); his estrangement from his native land in particular and urban-industrial civilization in general; his escape to Majorca, where he finally died in 1985; his successful historical novels, especially I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1934); and much of his poetry all suggest a writer often not in sympathy with the modern world and temper. Along with some of his poems, Graves’s account—satiric, ironic, and black—of his first thirty-five years in Goodbye to All That assured his lasting literary reputation.

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Critical Overview