Good-Bye to All That

by Robert Graves

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Satire of Warfare

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1567

We all know that there is nothing funny about war and that death brings nothing but sorrow, especially when it comes to young men who are struggling to make the world a better place. On the other hand, even though we know this so well, there is no denying that the world has a rich tradition of war comedies. Robert Graves' autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, falls into this comedy tradition, although contemporary readers never seem to get the joke. Strong but clumsy as a boy, Graves learned to box during his school years. When World War I broke out, this skill helped him to overcome the bad impression made on his commanding officer by his heavy and untidy appearance.

Comedy works best when it has some serious-minded opposition trying to suppress it. Background circumstances dictate how much an act can make people chuckle: the coarsest group of oil-riggers would turn away embarrassed when one of their group tries making a vulgar sound for a laugh, but the same sound in the hushed sanctity of a cathedral can make a bishop burst out in a chuckle.

A satire, if it is going to work at all, has to look reasonably like the thing that it is satirizing in order to draw attention to the flaws of the original. Silliness itself is not satire; a satiric work needs to surround itself with a context that is to be its victim.

The strongest aspect of Good-Bye to All That is its ability to satirize the situations that Graves found himself in during the early parts of his life, before he could arrange his life as he wanted it. Unfortunately, that element is the last one that contemporary students grasp. Because they are seldom very aware of what was going on in Graves' time, readers are faced with understanding his world through the events depicted in the book. Many readers take the book as a history lesson about World War I, reading it for information rather than style. The problem with this is that satirists feel no responsibility for telling the truth, or even for adhering strictly to any standard of honesty, just as long as they can draw attention to the dishonesty of others. Graves' book is useful as a history lesson only to the extent that a comedy skit from television can tell us something about how people of its time felt about a subject, but it is unreliable about what they actually did.

For today's student, there is little way of discerning the satiric element of the work just from looking at the text. The somber elements of a serious war story are all there, from sudden bloody deaths to slow and pointless losses, from sadness to madness, all seeming to be ennobled by the author's urge to write poetry, which itself is, today, taken to mark one a serious thinker. The separate elements each sound serious enough, as does Graves' elevated, Edwardian-era diction. The book has all of the elements that readers are used to seeing from important, weighty writers, and that apparent severity is what makes it able to make fun of other war stories.

The book does have its farcical element, which is an aspect that few readers fail to notice. There is no shortage of self-important officials where wise father figures should be, or of bullies in place of comrades, or dumb educators, sneaky bureaucrats, cruel lovers, and even inarticulate poets. The least one can say is that it is a war story spiced with the satirical parts running through it. It is only when...

(This entire section contains 1567 words.)

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one buckles down to the task of appreciating the book's tone in every little place—a task that most students never get around to, as most of them are kept busy simply trying to figure out what is going on—that it becomes clear just how little this book is serious about anything. Graves delivers all of the details with a monotonous deadpan, as if all were equally important, from the snipers to schoolboys' uniforms. Without variance of tone to guide them, it is difficult for readers to know which is more important—the fact that trout come out of an underground stream near a German castle ‘‘quite white from the darkness, enormous of size and stone-blind" or that Siegfried Sassoon left the army after being shot through the head. The reason that old men often wink when they tell tall tales to children is to let them know that they are not serious; Graves' prose never winks.

There are dozens of episodes in the book that can be seen as setting the satiric tone, most of them taking place away from the war zone, in England. It almost goes without saying that the vague bumbling of everyday life will always seem meaningless when held up to the hideous rigors of the battlefield, which is why traumatized soldiers have such a hard time readjusting to peace. Graves establishes the pointlessness of home life so subtly that readers are, unfortunately, less likely to pick up on the satiric tone of his war descriptions than they would be if the book were about the trenches alone. The beginning ten chapters, taking the story up to the point at which war is declared, are generally forgotten in summaries of the book, considered to be just necessary background but not very important to the main focus, which is the war and its effects. They serve a much more important function, though, in adjusting readers' expectations. The placid social backgrounds of the English and German households of Graves' youth and the preparatory schools' obsession for making all things seem important all hope to lower readers' expectation, so that nothing said during the war, even in the midst of death, seems too surprising. The war stories that Graves tells lose their impact because the overall presentation is so droll.

The place where readers can check whether Graves' tone is actually satirical, and whether this book of horrors is actually being played as a comedy, is in the pieces from other writers that he includes. When other voices are brought in, there is some perspective, allowing an opportunity to tell whether the narrative is progressing straight, crooked, or in circles. For instance, he writes of the inanity of the school system with a well-chosen example from a textbook, in which the question, "Why were the Britons so called?’’ is answered with ‘‘Because they painted themselves blue.’’ Readers can clearly see the fun in pointing out the foolishness involved, if such an exchange ever did appear in any textbook. (Many critics, such as Paul Fussell, have cast severe doubts on Graves' factual accuracy.) Less easy for readers to spot if they are not on the lookout for irony is the juxtaposition of two concepts, just a few lines after the "Briton'' example, that do not belong together but that are given to the reader as simple natural facts. Graves tells of how poorly he fit in at King's College, Wimbledon: ‘‘I was just seven, the youngest boy there, and they went up to nineteen. I was taken away after a couple of terms because I was found to be using naughty words.’’ It is not unusual for a seven-year-old to be punished at school for obscene language, but implied in the way this is phrased is that he was considered a threat to the older boys, by a school system that considered the word, not the child.

Once readers have become accustomed to being told outrageous facts in this dry tone, Graves can get away with practically anything. Some of his war stories are just obvious tall tales. He explains, for instance, about a corpse with spread arms being kept in the trench, with soldiers squeezing past him or shaking his hand. The story is gruesomely funny, but it makes no sense: why would they keep a corpse in the trench? to protect it from snipers? Another example, which Fussell draws attention to, is the obvious canard of Burford and Bumford, age sixty-three and fifteen, respectively, who serve in the same battalion. Graves gives us explicit details about their backgrounds and situations, but he does so for the sheer love of storytelling. He cannot for a moment expect readers to believe that such a pair actually existed, with their perfectly polar situations and symmetrical names. Throughout the book, there are examples like this of outlandish fabrication, and once one begins unraveling the validity of the most broadly humorous stories, it becomes more and more evident that mockery is the book's main thrust.

Satire usually loses its punch as time passes; much depends upon readers' knowledge of the events being satirized and on the author's ability to play off prevailing attitudes. In the case of Good-Bye to All That, Graves worked mainly with a subject—war—that will always be somewhat of a self-contradiction as the most uncivil of civilization's pursuits. The problem modern readers have with the book is that they too often swallow his outrageous statements hook, line, and sinker, in a way that Graves surely never intended. The book is not meant to be misleading but enlightening, but its light can only shine if readers are willing to admit that horror can be attacked with humor.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on Good-Bye to All That, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

The Caricature Scenes of Robert Graves

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7443

Of all memoirs of the war, the ‘‘stagiest'' is Robert Graves's Good-bye to All That, published first in 1929 but extensively rewritten for its reissue in 1957. Like James Boswell, who wrote in his journal (October 12, 1780), ‘‘I told Erskine I was to write Dr. Johnson's life in scenes,’’ Graves might have said in 1929 that it was ‘‘in scenes’’ that he was going to write of the front-line war. And working up his memories into a mode of theater, Graves eschewed tragedy and melodrama in favor of farce and comedy, as if anticipating Friedrich Dürrenmatt's observation of 1954 that ‘‘comedy alone is suitable for us,’’ because ‘‘tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility,’’ none of which we have got:

In the Punch-and-Judy show of our century ... there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, ‘‘We couldn't help it’’ and ‘‘We didn't really want that to happen.’’ And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers ... That is our misfortune, but not our guilt... Comedy alone is suitable for us.

And in Graves's view, not just comedy: something close to Comedy of Humors, a mode to which he is invited by the palpable character conventions of the army, with its system of ranks, its externalization of personality, its impatience with ambiguity or subtlety, and its arcana of conventional "duties" with their invariable attendant gestures and "lines." "Graves,'' says Randall Jarrell, "is the true heir of Ben Jonson.’’ Luxuriating in character types, Graves has said few things more revealing about his art than this: "There is a fat boy in every school (even if he is not really very fat), and a funny-man in every barrack-room (even if he is not really very funny).

In considering Good-bye to All That, it is well to clear up immediately the question of its relation to "fact." J. M. Cohen is not the only critic to err badly by speaking of the book as ‘‘harshly actual’’ and by saying, "It is the work of a man who is not trying to create an effect.’’ Rather than calling it ‘‘a direct and factual autobiography,’’ Cohen would have done better to apply to it the term he attaches to Graves's Claudius novels. They are, he says, ‘‘comedies of evil.’’ Those who mistake Good-bye to All That for a documentary autobiography (Cohen praises its ‘‘accurate documentation’’) should find instructive Graves's essay ‘‘P.S. to Good-bye to All That,'' published two years after the book appeared. Confessing that he wrote the book to make "a lump of money’’ (which he did—he was able to set himself up in Majorca on the royalties), he enumerates the obligatory "ingredients" of a popular memoir:

I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost. I put in three or four ghosts that I remembered.

And kings ... People also like reading about other people's mothers ... And they like hearing about T. E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be a mystery man... And, of course, the Prince of Wales.

People like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets ... Then, of course, Prime Ministers ... A little foreign travel is usually needed; I hadn't done much of this, but I made the most of what I had. Sport is essential... Other subjects of interest that could not be neglected were school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, severe illnesses, suicides. But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones—the first conveniently enough a failure, though set off by extreme heroism, the second a success, though a little clouded by irresolution.

So it was easy to write a book that would interest everybody ... And it was already roughly organized in my mind in the form of a number of short stories, which is the way that people find it easiest to be interested in the things that interest them. They like what they call "situations."

Furthermore, "the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest.’’ Add ‘‘the best bet of all is battles'' to "the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest'' and divide by the idea of"situations'' and you have the formula for Graves's kind of farce. The more closely we attend to Graves's theory and practice, the more we can appreciate the generic terminology used by ‘‘Odo Stevens,’’ in Anthony Powell's Temporary Kings. Stevens was one who ‘‘hovered about on the outskirts of the literary world, writing an occasional article, reviewing an occasional book ... [He] had never repeated the success of Sad Majors, a work distinguished, in its way, among examples of what its author called 'that dicey art-form, the war reminiscence.'’’

‘‘Anything processed by memory is fiction;’’ as the novelist Wright Morris has perceived. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes puts it this way: "Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.’’ And in An Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney apprehends the "poetic"—that is, fictional—element not just in all "history" but specifically in history touching on wars and battles:

Even historiographers (although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads) have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of poets ... Herodotus... and all the rest that followed him either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battles, which no man could affirm, or ... long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.

We expect a memoir dealing with a great historical event to "dramatize" things. We have seen Sassoon's memoir doing just that. But with Graves we have to expect it more than with others, for he is ‘‘first and last,’’ as Jarrell sees, ‘‘a poet: in between he is a Graves.’’ A poet, we remember Aristotle saying, is one who has mastered the art of telling lies successfully, that is, dramatically, interestingly. And what is a Graves? A Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is "facts." Hear him on what happens to the wives of brilliant mathematicians:

Mathematic genius is ... notoriously short-lasting—it reaches a peak at the age of about twenty-three and then declines—and is as a rule colored by persistent emotional adolescence. Since advanced mathematicians are too easily enticed into the grey political underworld of nuclear physics, a remarkably high percentage of mental breakdowns among their wives is everywhere noted.

Asked by a television interviewer whether his view that homosexuality is caused by the excessive drinking of milk is "based on intuition or on what we would call scientific observation,’’ Graves replies: ‘‘On objective reasoning.’’ His ‘‘objective reasoning'' here is as gratuitously outrageous as the anthropological scholarship of The White Goddess, the literary scholarship of his translation (with Omar Ali Shah) of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, or the preposterous etymological arguments with which he peppers his essays.

But to put it so solemnly is to risk falling into Graves's trap. It is to ignore the delightful impetuosity, the mastery, the throw-away fun of it all. Graves is a joker, a manic illusionist, whether gaily constructing flamboyant fictional anthropology, rewriting ancient "history," flourishing erroneous or irrelevant etymology, overemphasizing the importance of "Welsh verse theory,'' or transforming The White Goddess from a psychological metaphor into a virtual anthropological "fact." And the more doubtful his assertions grow, the more likely he is to modify them with adverbs like clearly or obviously. Being "a Graves'' is a way of being scandalously "Celtish" (at school ‘‘I always claimed to be Irish,’’ he says in <Good-bye to All That’’). It is a way—perhaps the only way left—of rebelling against the positivistic pretensions of non-Celts and satirizing the preposterous scientism of the twentieth century. His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention.

Actually, any man with some experience and a bent toward the literal can easily catch Graves out in his fictions and exaggerations. The unsophisticated George Coppard explodes one of the melodramatic facilities in Good-bye to All That with simple common sense. Graves asserts—it is a popular cynical vignette—that machine-gun crews often fired off several belts without pause to heat the water in the cooling-jacket for making tea. Amusing but highly unlikely—Coppard quietly notes that no one wants tea laced with machine oil. Another of Graves's machine-gun anecdotes collapses as "fact" upon inquiry. At one point he says,

There was a daily exchange of courtesies between our machine-guns and the Germans' at stand-to; by removing cartridges from the ammunition belt one could rap out the rhythm of the familiar prostitutes' call: ‘‘MEET me DOWN in PICC-a-DILL-Y,’’ to which the Germans would reply, though in slower tempo, because our guns were faster than theirs: ‘‘YES, with-OUT my DRAWERS ON!’’

Very nice. But the fact is that if you remove cartridges from the belt the gun stops working when the empty space encounters the firing mechanism. (These stories are like the popular legend that in a firing squad one man is given a rifle secretly loaded with a blank so that no member of the squad can be certain that he has fired one of the fatal bullets. But attractive as this is as melodrama, there's something wrong with it: the rifle containing the blank is the only one that will not recoil when fired, with the result that every man on the squad will end by knowing anyway. The story won't do.) But we are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-bye to All That is no more ‘‘a direct and factual autobiography’’ than Sassoon's memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy. What Thomas Paine says of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France applies exactly: Burke, says Paine, makes ‘‘the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect.’’ No one has ever denied the brilliance of Good-bye to All That, and no one has ever been bored by it. Its brilliance and compelling energy reside in its structural invention and in its perpetual resourcefulness in imposing the patterns of farce and comedy onto the blank horrors or meaningless vacancies of experience. If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little, and would surely not be, as it is, infinitely rereadable. It is valuable just because it is not true in that way. Graves calls on paradox to suggest the way it is true:

The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High-explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all over-estimation of casualties, "unnecessary" dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumors and scenes actually witnessed.

In recovering "the old [theatrical] trench-mind'' for the purposes of writing the book, Graves has performed a triumph of personal show business.

He was in an especially rebellious mood when he dashed off the book in eight weeks during May, June, and July of 1929 and sent the manuscript to Jonathan Cape. His marriage with Nancy Nicolson had just come apart, he owed money, he had quarreled with most of his friends, his view of English society had become grossly contemptuous, and he was still ridden by his wartime neurasthenia, which manifested itself in frequent bursts of tears and bouts of twitching. His task as he wrote was to make money by interesting an audience he despised and proposed never to see again the minute he was finished. Relief at having done with them all is the emotion that finally works itself loose from the black humor which dominates most of the book.

The first nine chapters detail his prewar life. He was, he says, a perceptive, satiric, skeptical infant, from the outset an accurate appraiser of knaves and fools, including Swinburne, ‘‘an inveterate pram-stopper and patter and kisser.’’ His Scotch-Irish father was a school inspector, but also a composer, collector, and anthologist of Anglo-Irish songs. In addition, he was a popular dramatist, one of whose plays ran for two hundred performances. His first wife, who was Irish, died after bearing five children, and he then married a German woman who bore him five more, including Robert, born in 1895. The family lived at Wimbledon in ample, literate middle-class style while Robert attended a succession of preparatory schools and spent summers roaming through the romantic castles near Munich belonging to relatives of his mother's. At fourteen he entered Charterhouse School, which he despised. He was humiliated and bullied, and saved himself only by taking up boxing. He mitigated his loneliness by falling in love with a younger boy, "exceptionally intelligent and fine-spirited. Call him Dick.’’ (The name Dick was becoming conventional for this sort of thing. Sassoon' s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, with its ‘‘Dick Tiltwood,’’ had appeared a year before Graves wrote this.) Graves's devotion to Dick and his friendship with one of the masters, the mountaineer George Mallory, were about all he enjoyed at Charterhouse. Before he could go on to Oxford, the war began, and he enlisted immediately. He was nineteen.

In this nine-chapter prologue Graves practices and perfects the form of the short theatrical anecdote or sketch which he will proceed to impose upon the forthcoming matter offered by the war. His wry anecdotes take the shape of virtual playlets, or, as he is fond of calling them, especially when he is one of the players, "caricature scenes.'' They are "theatrical’’ because they present character types entirely externally, the way an audience would see them. The audience is not vouchsafed what they are or what they think and feel or what they were last Thursday, but only visible or audible signs of what they do and say, how they dress and stand or sit or move or gesture. Their remarks are not paraphrased or rendered in indirect discourse: they are presented in dialogue. Many of these playlets have all the black-and-white immediacy of cartoons with captions, and, indeed, Graves's skill at writing pithy "lines" will suggest the dynamics of the standard two-line caption under a cartoon in Punch. It is a model that is always before him. In 1955, ridiculing Yeats' s shrewd irrationalism, he dramatizes Yeats' s reliance on his wife as a medium whose maunderings can be turned into salable poems:

UNDERGRADUATE: Have you written any poems, recently, Sir? YEATS: No, my wife has been feeling poorly and disinclined.

One can see it as on a stage and hear the burst of laughter at the end. Whatever material they embody, the effect of Graves's ‘‘caricature scenes’’ is farcical, and they rely on a number of techniques associated with comic writing for the theater. Some depend upon astonishing coincidences. Some deploy the device of climactic multiple endings—the audience thinks the joke is over and is then given an additional one or sometimes two even funnier lines. Some expose the disparity between the expected and the actual. Some offer bizarre characters borrowed from what would seem to be a freak show. Some, like sketches in music hall, present comic encounters between representatives of disparate social classes. Some involve the main character's not knowing some crucial fact. And some, more melodramatic, depict rescues or salvations in the nick of time. All operate by offering the audience a succession of little ironies and surprises. By the time we have reached the fifth paragraph of Good-bye to All That, we are convinced that we are in the hands of a master showman who is not going to let us down. "My best comic turn,’’ says the author, ‘‘is a double-jointed pelvis. I can sit on a table and rap like the Fox sisters with it.’’ Indeed, so extraordinary is this puppet master that, as he says proudly, "I do not carry a watch because I always magnetize the main-spring.’’

Graves had been in the Officers Training Corps at Charterhouse, and when he presented himself at the regimental depot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Wrexham, he was commissioned after a few weeks' training. His account of his early days in the Army is full of caricature scenes. One of the funniest, the grave judicial inquiry into the "nuisance'' deposited by Private Davies on the barrack square, Graves introduced into the book only in 1957. In 1929 he said, "I have an accurate record of the trial, but my publishers advise me not to give it here.’’ It is a perfect Jonsonian comic scene, each man in his humor, and it is ready to be staged by a cast of six:

SERGEANT-MAJOR (offstage): Now, then, you 99 Davies, "F" Company, cap off, as you were, cap off, as you were, cap off! That's better. Escort and prisoner, right turn! Quick march! Right wheel! (Onstage) Left wheel! Mark time! Escort and prisoner, halt! Left turn!

COLONEL: Read the charge, Sergeant-Major.

SERGEANT-MAJOR: No. 99 Pte. W. Davies, "F" Company, at Wrexham on 20th August: improper conduct. Committing a nuisance on the barrack square. Witness: Sergeant Timmins, Corporal Jones.

COLONEL: Sergeant Timmins, your evidence.

SERGEANT TIMMINS: Sir, on the said date about two p.m., I was hacting Horderly Sar'nt. Corporal Jones reported the nuisance to me. I hinspected it. It was the prisoner's, Sir.

COLONEL: Corporal Jones! Your evidence.

CORPORAL JONES: Sir, on the said date I was crossing the barrack square, when I saw prisoner in a sitting posture. He was committing excreta, Sir. I took his name and reported to the orderly-sergeant, Sir.

COLONEL: Well, Private Davies, what have you to say for yourself?

99 DAVIES (in a nervous sing-song): Sir, I came over queer all of a sudden, Sir. I haad the diarrhoeas terrible baad. I haad to do it, Sir.

COLONEL: But, my good man, the latrine was only a few yards away.

99 DAVIES: Colonel, Sir, you caan't stop nature!

SERGEANT-MAJOR: Don't answer an officer like that! (Pause)


COLONEL: Yes, Sergeant Timmins?

SERGEANT TIMMINS: Sir, I had occasion to hexamine the nuisance, Sir, and it was done with a heffort, Sir!

COLONEL: Do you take my punishment, Private Davies?

99 DAVIES: Yes, Colonel, Sir.

COLONEL: You have done a very dirty act, and disgraced the regiment and your comrades. I shall make an example of you. Ten days' detention.

SERGEANT-MAJOR: Escort and prisoner, left turn! Quick march! Left wheel! (Offstage): Escort and prisoner, halt! Cap on! March him off to the Guard Room. Get ready the next case!

Despite such moments, Graves was proud to be in so self-respecting a regiment as the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a mark of whose distinction was the "flash" a fanlike cluster of five black ribbons attached to the back of the tunic collar. The Army Council had some doubts about permitting the regiment this irregular privilege, but the Royal Welch resisted all attempts to take it away. Graves's pride in it is enacted in this little bit of theater, warmly sentimental this time, set in Buckingham Palace:

Once, in 1917, when an officer of my company went to be decorated with the Military Cross at Buckingham Palace, King George, as Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment, showed a personal interest in the flash ... The King gave him the order "About turn!,’’ for a look at the flash, and the ‘‘About turn!’’ again. "Good," he said, ‘‘You're still wearing it, I see,’’ and then, in a stage whisper: ‘‘Don't ever let anyone take it from you!’’

That is typical of Graves's theatrical method: the scene is a conventional, almost ritual confrontation between character types representative of widely disparate classes who are presented externally by their physical presence and their dialogue. We feel that the King would not be playing the scene properly if his whisper were anything but a stage-whisper: after all, the audience wants to hear what he's saying.

Posted to France as a replacement officer in the spring of 1915, Graves disgustedly finds himself assigned to the sad and battered Welsh Regiment, consisting largely of poorly trained scourings and leavings. His platoon includes a man named Burford who is sixty-three years old, and another, Bumford, aged fifteen. These two draw together with a theatrical symmetry which might be predicted from the similarity of their names: ‘‘Old Burford, who is so old that he refuses to sleep with the other men of the platoon, has found a private doss in an out-building among some farm tools ... Young Bumford is the only man he'll talk to.’’ We are expected to credit this entirely traditional symmetrical arrangement with the same willing suspension of disbelief which enables us to enjoy the following traditional turn. Two men appear before the adjutant and report that they've just shot their company sergeant major.

The Adjutant said: ‘‘Good heavens, how did that happen?’’

‘‘It was an accident, Sir.’’

‘‘What do you mean, you damn fools? Did you mistake him for a spy?’’

‘‘No, Sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant.’’ Punch again.

After some months in and out of the line near Béthune, Graves finally joins the Second Battalion of his own regiment near Laventie, and his pride in it suffers a sad blow. He is horrified to find the senior regular officers bullies who forbid the temporary subalterns, or "warts," whiskey in the mess and ignore them socially for a period of six months except to rag and insult them whenever possible. He is humiliated by the colonel, the second-in-command, and the adjutant just as he had been humiliated by the "Bloods'' at Charterhouse. But he finds one man to respect, Captain Thomas, his company commander. It is he who must direct the company's part in a preposterous attack, which begins as farce and ends as Grand Guignol.

The operation order Thomas brings from battalion headquarters is ridiculously optimistic, and as he reads it off, Graves and his fellow officers—including a subaltern called ‘‘The Actor’’—can't help laughing.

‘‘What's up?’’ asked Thomas irritably.

The Actor giggled: "Who in God's name is responsible for this little effort?’’

‘‘Don't know,’’ Thomas said. ‘‘Probably Paul the Pimp, or someone like that.’’ (Paul the Pimp was a captain on the Divisional Staff, young, inexperienced, and much disliked. He ‘‘wore red tabs upon his chest, And even on his undervest.’’)

Thomas reveals that their attack is to be only a diversion to distract the enemy while the real attack takes place well to the right.

‘‘Personally, I don't give a damn either way. We'll get killed whatever happens.’’

We all laughed.

The attack is to be preceded by a forty-minute discharge of gas from cylinders in the trenches. For security reasons the gas is euphemized as ‘‘the accessory.’’ When it is discovered that the management of the gas is in the hands of a gas company officered by chemistry dons from London University, morale hits a comic rock-bottom. "Of course they'll bungle it,’’ says Thomas. ‘‘How could they do anything else?’’ Not only is the gas bungled: everything goes wrong. The storeman stumbles and spills all the rum in the trench just before the company goes over; the new type of grenade won't work in the dampness; the colonel departs for the rear with a slight cut on his hand; a crucial German machine gun is left undestroyed; the German artillery has the whole exercise taped. The gas is supposed to be blown across by favorable winds. When the great moment proves entirely calm, the gas company sends back the message ‘‘Dead calm. Impossible discharge accessory,’’ only to be ordered by the staff, who like characters in farce are entirely obsessed, mechanical, and unbending: "Accessory to be discharged at all costs.’’ The gas, finally discharged after the discovery that most of the wrenches for releasing it won't fit, drifts out and then settles back into the British trenches. Men are going over and rapidly coming back, and we hear comically contradictory crowd noises: '‘‘Come on! 'Get back, you bastards!"Gas turning on us!"Keep your heads, you men!"Back like hell, boys!"Whose orders?"What's happening?"Gas!"Back!"Come on!"Gas!'Back!'’’ A ‘‘bloody balls-up’’ is what the troops called it. Historians call it the Battle of Loos.

(A word about the rhetoric of ‘‘Impossible discharge accessory.’’ That message falls into the category of Cablegram Humor, a staple of Victorian and Georgian comedy. Graves loves it. Compare his 1957 version of Wordsworth's ‘‘The Solitary Reaper’’ in Cable-ese: ‘‘SOLITARY HIGHLAND LASS REAPING BINDING GRAIN STOP MELANCHOLY SONG OVERFLOWS PROFOUND VALE.'')

As the attack proceeds, farce gradually modulates to something more serious but no less theatrical. One platoon officer, attacking the untouched German machine gun in short rushes, ‘‘jumped up from his shell-hole, waved and signalled 'Forward!'’’

Nobody stirred.

He shouted: ‘‘You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?''

His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped: ‘‘Not cowards, Sir. Willing enough. But they're all f—ing dead.’’ The ... machine-gun, traversing, had caught them as they rose to the whistle.

At the end of the attack Graves and the Actor were the only officers left in the company.

After this, ‘‘a black depression held me,’’ Graves says. And his worsening condition finds its correlative in the collapse of his ideal image of Dick, at home. The news reaches him that sixteen-year-old Dick has made ‘‘a certain proposal’’ to a Canadian corporal stationed near Charterhouse and has been arrested and bound over for psychiatric treatment. ‘‘This news,’’ says Graves, ‘‘nearly finished me. I decided that Dick had been driven out of his mind by the War ... with so much slaughter about, it would be easy to think of him as dead.’’ (The real Dick, by the way, was finally "cured" by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, Sassoon's and Owen's alienist at Craiglockhart.) This whole matter of Dick and his metamorphosis from what Graves calls a "pseudo-homosexual’’ into a real one lies at the heart of Good-bye to All That. Its importance was clearer in the first edition, where Graves says,

In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homo-sexual. The opposite sex is despised and hated, treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. I only recovered by a shock at the age of twenty-one. For every one born homo-sexual there are at least ten permanent pseudo-homo-sexuals made by the public school system. And nine of these ten are as honorably chaste and sentimental as I was.

In 1957 Graves deleted one sentence: ‘‘I only recovered by a shock at the age of twenty-one.'' The shock was his discovery that he had been deceived by pleasant appearances: a relation he had thought beneficially sentimental now revealed itself to have been instinct with disaster. It was like the summer of 1914. It makes a telling parallel with Graves's discovery—‘‘Never such innocence again’’—that the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a few company-grade officers and men excepted, is a collection of bullies, knaves, cowards, and fools.

He is delighted to find himself transferred to the more humane First Battalion in November 1915. There he meets Sassoon, as well as Sassoon's "Dick," Lieutenant David Thomas. The three become inseparable friends while the battalion begins its long rehearsals for the breakout and open warfare it assumes will follow the Somme attack in the spring. Life in billets offers opportunities for numerous caricature scenes. One takes place in the theaterlike setting of a disused French schoolroom, where the officers of the battalion are addressed by their furious colonel. He has noticed slackness, he says, and as he designates an instance of it, he falls naturally into the Graves mode of theatrical anecdote, complete with a consciousness of social distinctions and the "lines" appropriate to different social players:

I have here principally to tell you of a very disagreeable occurrence. As I left my Orderly Room this morning, I came upon a group of soldiers ... One of these soldiers was in conversation with a lance corporal. You may not believe me, but it is a fact that he addressed the corporal by his Christian name: he called him Jack! And the corporal made no protest... Naturally, I put the corporal under arrest... I reduced him to the ranks, and awarded the man Field Punishment for using insubordinate language to an N.C.O.

Listening to this as a member of the ‘‘audience,’’ Graves is aware of the "part" he himself is playing in this absurd costume drama:

Myself in faultless khaki with highly polished buttons and belt, revolver at hip, whistle on cord, delicate moustache on upper lip, and stern endeavor a-glint in either eye, pretending to be a Regular Army captain.

But"in real life'' he is something quite different, ‘‘crushed into that inky desk-bench like an overgrown school-boy.’’

Back in the line again in March 1916, the battalion has three officers killed in one night, including David Thomas. "My breaking-point was near now,'' Graves recognizes, and he speculates on the way his nervous collapse, when it comes, will look to spectators. His view of it is typically externalized, the telltale gestures visualized as if beheld by someone watching a character on stage: ‘‘It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that.’’ His transfer back to the hated Second Battalion is hardly a happy omen, and in early July 1916, he finds himself in incredible circumstances near High Wood on the Somme. On July 20, his luck runs out: a German shell goes off close behind him, and a shell fragment hits him in the back, going right through his lung. He is in such bad shape at the dressing-station that his colonel, assuming he's dying, kindly writes his parents, informing them that he has gone. As a result his name appears in the official casualty list: he has ‘‘Died of Wounds.’’

A few days later Graves manages to write home and assure his parents that he is going to recover. There is some discrepancy about dates here: for symbolic and artistic reasons, Graves wants the report of his death to coincide with his twenty-first birthday (July 24), although his father remembers the date as earlier. ‘‘One can sympathize with Graves,’’ says George Stade, ‘‘who as a poet and scholar has always preferred poetic resonance to the dull monotone of facts; and to die on a twenty-first birbirthday is to illustrate a kind of poetic justice.

Back in hospital in London, Graves is delighted by the combined comedy and melodrama of a clipping from the Court Circular of the Times: ‘‘Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers, officially reported died of wounds, wishes to inform his friends that he is recovering from his wounds at Queen Alexandra’s Hospital, Highgate, N.’’ Almost immediately, he quotes another funny document, the infamous propaganda pamphlet containing a letter by ‘‘a Little Mother’’ reprehending any thought of a negotiated peace and celebrating the sacrifice of British mothers who have ‘‘given’’ their sons. It is sentimental, blood-thirsty, complacent, cruel, fatuous, and self-congratulatory, all at once, and (‘‘of course,’’ Graves would say) it is accompanied by a train of earnest illiterate testimonials from third-rate newspapers, noncombatant soldiers, and bereaved mothers, one of whom says: ‘‘I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the ‘Little Mother’s’ beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over.’’

It is at this point in Good-bye to All That that we may become aware of how rich the book is in fatuous, erroneous, or preposterous written ‘‘texts’’ and documents, the normal materials of serious ‘‘history’’ but here exposed in all their farcical ineptitude and error. Almost all of them—even Sassoon’s ‘‘A Soldier’s Declaration’’—have in common some dissociation from actuality or some fatal error in assumption or conclusion. Their variety is striking, and there are so many that Graves felt he could cut one entirely from the 1957 edition, the priceless letter at the end of chapter 2 from an amateur gentlewoman poet, instinctively praising Graves’s very worst poem and at the same time slyly begging a loan with a long, rambling, selfcelebrating paranoid tale of having been cheated of an inheritance. There is the ‘‘question and answer history book’’ of his boyhood, which begins

QUESTION: Why were the Britons so called? ANSWER: Because they painted themselves blue.

There are the propaganda news clippings about the priests of Antwerp, hung upside down as human clappers in their own church bells. There is the laughable Loos attack order, and the optimistic orders, all based on false premises, written on field message forms. There is the colonel’s letter deposing not merely that Graves is dead but that he was ‘‘very gallant.’’ There is the erroneous casualty list and the Letter of the Little Mother. There is the farcical mistransmission in Morse code that sends a battalion destined for York to Cork instead. There is an autograph collector’s disoriented letter to Thomas Hardy, beginning

Dear Mr. Hardy, I am interested to know why the devil you don’t reply to my request.

There are the lunatic examination-papers written by three of Graves’s students of ‘‘English Literature’’ at the University of Cairo. And in the new epilogue, written in 1957, there is the news that one reason Graves was suspected of being a German spy while harboring in South Devon during the Second War is that someone made a silly, lying document out of a vegetable marrow in his garden by surreptitiously scratching ‘‘HEIL HITLER!’’ on it. The point of all these is not just humankind’s immense liability to error, folly, and psychosis. It is also the dubiousness of a rational—or at least a clearsighted— historiography. The documents on which a work of ‘‘history’’ might be based are so wrong or so loathsome or so silly or so downright mad that no one could immerse himself in them for long, Graves implies, without coming badly unhinged.

The Letter from the Little Mother is the classic case in point and crucial to the whole unraveling, satiric effect of Good-bye to All That. One of Graves’s readers, ‘‘A Soldier Who Has Served All Over the World,’’ perceived as much and wrote Graves:

You are a discredit to the Service, disloyal to your comrades and typical of that miserable breed which tries to gain notoriety by belittling others. Your language is just ‘‘water-closet,’’ and evidently your regiment resented such an undesirable member. The only good page is that quoting the beautiful letter of The Little Mother, but even there you betray the degenerate mind by interleaving it between obscenities.

A pity that letter wasn’t available to be included in Good-bye to All That. It is the kind of letter we can imagine Ben Jonson receiving many of.

By November 1916, Graves is well enough to put on his uniform again—the entry and exit holes in the tunic neatly mended—and rejoin the Depot Battalion for reposting. He is soon back with the Second Battalion on the Somme, where he is secretly delighted to find that all his enemies, the regular officers, have been killed or wounded: it makes the battalion a nicer place and fulfills the angry prophecy Graves had uttered when he first joined and had been bullied in the Officers’ Mess at Laventie: ‘‘You damned snobs! I’ll survive you all. There’ll come a time when there won’t be one of you left in the Battalion to remember this Mess at Laventie.’’ But the weakness in Graves’s lung is beginning to tell, and he is returned to England with ‘‘bronchitis.’’ He finds himself first in the hospital at Somerville College, Oxford, and then recuperating anomalously and comically at Queen Victoria’s Osborne, on the Isle of Wight.

It is while at Osborne that he sees Sassoon’s Declaration. He is appalled at the risk of court martial Sassoon is taking and distressed by Sassoon’s political and rhetorical naïveté: ‘‘Nobody would follow his example, either in England or in Germany.’’ The public temper had already found its spokesman in the Little Mother: ‘‘The War would inevitably go on until one side or the other cracked.’’ Graves gets out of Osborne, rigs Sassoon’s medical board, and testifies before it. He bursts into tears ‘‘three times’’ and is told, ‘‘Young man, you ought to be before this board yourself.’’ His dramaturgy is successful, and Sassoon is sent to Craiglockhart for ‘‘cure.’’ Graves tells us that there Sassoon first met Wilfred Owen, ‘‘an idealistic homosexual with a religious background.’’ At least that is what he wanted to tell us in the American edition (the Anchor Books paperback) of the 1957 reissue. The phrase was omitted from the British edition at the request of Harold Owen, and it was subsequently canceled in the American edition. It does not now appear in any edition of Good-bye to All That. Just as Graves always knew they would, respectability and disingenuousness have won. Just as Graves learned during the war, written documents remain a delusive guide to reality.

He is now classified B-1, ‘‘fit for garrison service abroad,’’ but despite his hope to be sent to Egypt or Palestine, he spends the rest of the war training troops in England and Ireland. In January 1918, he married the feminist Nancy Nicolson: ‘‘Nancy had read the marriage-service [another funny document] for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding’’:

Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.

The news of the Armistice, he says, brought him no pleasure; rather, it ‘‘sent me out walking alone . . . , cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead.’’

Demobilized, he instantly catches Spanish in- fluenza and almost dies of it. He recovers in Wales, where for almost a year he tries to shake off the war:

I was still mentally and nervously organized for War. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. When strong enough to climb the hill behind Harlech . . . , I could not help seeing it as a prospective battlefield. I would find myself working out tactical problems, planning . . . where to place a Lewis gun if I were trying to rush Dolwreiddiog Farm from the brow of the hill, and what would be the best cover for my rifle-grenade section.

Some legacies of the war ran even deeper, and one, perhaps, has had literary consequences: ‘‘I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth.’’ His experience of the Army had ratified his fierce insistence on his independence, and he swore ‘‘on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone’s orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.’’ In October 1919, he entered Oxford to study English Literature, living five miles out, at Boar’s Hill, where he knew Blunden, Masefield, and Robert Nichols. There he and Nancy briefly ran a small general store while he wrote poems as well as his academic thesis, brilliantly titled—the war had certainly handed him the first three words—The Illogical Element in English Poetry.

‘‘The Illogical Element in the Experience of Robert Graves’’ might be the title of the episode that closes Good-bye to All That. He takes up the position of Professor of English Literature at the ridiculous Royal Egyptian University, Cairo. The student essays are so funny and hopeless that as an honest man he can’t go on. After saying that ‘‘Egypt gave me plenty of caricature scenes to look back on,’’ he approaches the end of the book in a final flurry of anecdotes and vignettes, most of them farcical, and concludes with a brief paragraph summarizing his life from 1926 to 1929, which he says has been ‘‘dramatic,’’ with ‘‘new characters [appearing] on the stage.’’ All that is left is disgust and exile.

Compared with both Blunden and Sassoon, Graves is very little interested in ‘‘nature’’ or scenery: human creatures are his focus, and his book is built, as theirs are not, very largely out of dialogue. And compared with Sassoon, who is remarkably gentle with his characters and extraordinarily ‘‘nice’’ to them, Graves, who had, as Sassoon once told him, ‘‘a first-rate nose for anything nasty,’’ sees his as largely a collection of knaves and fools. Almost literally: one can go through Good-bye to All That making two lists, one of knaves, one of fools, and the two lists will comprise ninety percent of the characters. As a memoirist, Graves seems most interested not in accurate recall but in recovering moments when he most clearly perceives the knavery of knaves and the foolishness of fools. For him as for D. H. Lawrence, knavery and folly are the style of the war, and one of the very worst things about it is that it creates a theater perfectly appropriate for knavery and folly. It brings out all the terrible people.

If Graves, the scourge of knaves and fools, is the heir of Ben Jonson, it can be seen that Joseph Heller is the heir of Graves. And, the very theatricality of Catch-22 is a part of what Heller has learned from Good-bye to All That. Catch-22 resembles less a ‘‘novel’’ than a series of blackout skits, to such a degree that it was an easy matter for Heller to transform the work into a ‘‘dramatization’’ in 1971. Another legatee of Graves is Evelyn Waugh, whose Sword of Honor trilogy does to the Second War what Graves did to the First. Waugh’s book is made up of the same farcical high-jinks, the same kind of ironic reversals, all taking place in the Graves atmosphere of balls-up and confusion. Indeed, both Graves and Waugh include characters who deliver the line, ‘‘Thank God we’ve got a Navy.’’ If Loos is the characteristic absurd disaster to Graves, Crete is Waugh’s version. Waugh’s sense of theater is as conspicuous as Graves’s, although it tends to invoke more pretentious genres than farce. During the rout on Crete, a small sports car drives up: ‘‘Sprawled in the back, upheld by a kneeling orderly, as though in gruesome parody of a death scene from grand opera, lay a dusty and bloody New Zealand offi- cer.’’ Both Graves and Waugh have written fictionmemoirs, although Graves’s is a fiction disguised as a memoir while Waugh’s is a memoir disguised as a fiction. To derive Waugh’s trilogy, one would superadd the farce in Good-bye to All That to the moral predicament of Ford’s Tietjens in Parade’s End: this would posit Guy Crouchback, Waugh’s victim-hero, as well as establish a world where the broad joke of Apthorpe’s thunder-box coexists harmoniously with messy and meaningless violent death. And both Waugh and Heller would be as ready as Graves to agree with the proposition that comedy alone is suitable for us.

Source: Paul Fussell, ‘‘The Caricature Scenes of Robert Graves,’’ in Robert Graves, Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 111–127.


Critical Overview