Good-Bye to All That

by Robert Graves

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Robert Graves wrote his autobiography, Goodbye to All That, in 1929, when he was only in his mid-thirties. Born in 1895 into a middle-class English family with many literary and intellectual connections, Graves in this work ostensibly rejects his own personal experiences as well as the history of his time in order to pursue a new life. His mid-life crisis resulted from numerous private and public actions and events which the author was sloughing off, as he indicated in his title.

In general form, Graves’s work is a traditional autobiography. Perhaps parodying many nineteenth century literary biographies, the book begins with his earliest memories: watching Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in 1897 and being overwhelmed by the sight of a full edition of the works of William Shakespeare in the family nursery. His father, of Scots-Irish background, was a local supervisor of schools in London as well as a poet of orthodox verse. His mother, of German ancestry, was related to the famous historian Leopold von Ranke. Graves’s childhood was traditionally Victorian in upbringing: Protestant Christianity combined with intellectual endeavor. He was reared to be an English gentleman.

As was expected of one of his social class, Graves was educated at one of the exclusive public schools, Charterhouse. Like other twentieth century English writers, Graves stated that his school days were not particularly pleasant. His schoolmates often referred to his German antecedents, so Graves instead argued that he was Irish. He developed a crush on a younger schoolboy, typical in that all-male environment. Graves gained some respect and recognition after taking up boxing. In 1914 he was to enter the University of Oxford. Before that could occur, war broke out in Europe.

The assassination in the Balkans of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire soon evolved into the conflagration known as the Great War, or World War I. With many of his social class, Graves did what was expected. He enlisted as an officer in the British army and joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a highly decorated and much-honored regiment. Graves had had no intention of making the military his career; nevertheless, he became both a competent and a conscientious officer. He served in the trenches on the western front, fought in no-man’s-land, was wounded seriously twice—he was reported dead on one occasion—and spent time recovering back in Great Britain. Emotionally, Graves also suffered from severe battle fatigue. Unlike many, however, he survived the war.

Before the war had ended Graves married Nancy Nicholson; after it was over, he went up to Oxford, only four years late. There he studied, wrote poetry, and became acquainted with many literary figures of the day. Graves and his wife were constantly short of ready money, the difficulty compounded by four children, but Graves finally finished his thesis. Because of his financial circumstances, and at his family’s urging, he accepted an appointment as professor of English literature at Cairo University. It was the only salaried position he ever held, and he remained in it for only three months. He returned to England in 1926. During the following three years his marriage began to fail, and he and his wife were separated permanently in the spring of 1929. Much against his family’s wishes Graves decided to become a full-time writer and at the same time move to the Mediterranean island of Majorca. Goodbye to All That was written in 1929 as a farewell to his past.

A year later, from Majorca, in “Postscript to ‘Good-bye to All That,”’ Graves wrote that he had needed money in order to leave England and thus deliberately wrote...

(This entire section contains 978 words.)

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a work which would have wide popularity. He said he emphasized such readable topics as food, ghosts, kings and prime ministers, stories of writers and famous people, sports and travel, school life and love affairs, and battles. Although his autobiography covered the chronology of his life to his mid-thirties, the war is the dramatic centerpiece around which the other years revolve. Two-thirds of the volume concern the four years from 1914 through 1918 with the other third divided about equally between the years before and the years after the war. Nevertheless, many of Graves’s critics and biographers argue that whatever monetary motives the author had in writingGoodbye to All That, there were other causes and influences.

Graves had been badly injured in the war, and he continued to suffer from its physical and emotional effects during the 1920’s, as did many of his fellow combatants. As the sounds of war receded in the decade after the 1918 armistice, the results seemed to be much less substantial than many had hoped. The ten million dead were a disproportionate price to pay for a world which appeared to be less livable and humane than the prewar civilization. Even if there were other elements, some preceding the guns of 1914, which transformed the often-idealized nineteenth century world, for many it was the war itself which was the single revolutionary event. For the soldiers, no-man’s-land was both metaphorically and actually the crucible. The idealistic patriotism of the early years of the war, as exemplified in the war poetry of Rupert Brooke, gave way in the poems and prose of later writers to other, less exalted, feelings: fear and anger, stolid acceptance and resignation, fatalism, suicide and madness, and occasionally humor. The coincidence of a great many war memoirs appearing along with those of Graves in the latter years of the decade suggests something more than a mere common quest for money. Rather, it could be argued that individually and collectively both writers and readers were attempting to deal with the traumatic experience of the war. Graves was doubtless no exception. Additionally, for him there was his failed marriage, his dissatisfaction with his academic career, and his anger and antagonism toward English society and civilization generally. He wished to say, “good-bye to all that.”

Historical Context

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Britain's Entry into World War I
The start of World War I in 1914 was a result of tangled diplomatic efforts and treaties that bound some countries to aid others, drawing most of Europe into a war that was only remotely relevant to its citizens. The main aggressors in the war were situated in central Europe, east of France, but the sprawl of alliances quickly spread it far from its center. As in most cases of war, the roots of the conflict can be traced to historical causes decades before the event itself. One of the most significant of these was the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, in which Germany gained a large part of land from France, the Alsace-Lorraine. Always wary that France would try to take this border area back, Germany formed treaties with Austro-Hungary and Russia, to come to each other's defense in times of war. The Russians soon became uninterested, especially when Great Britain helped them through an economic crisis, and so Russia, France, and Britain ended up in a new alliance. In 1908 the Austro-Hungarian empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a situation of military occupation that many Bosnians resented.

The event that led to war was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a member of a radical underground group while he was visiting Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire held the Serbian government responsible for the assassination, and, when the strict demands that they made from Serbia were not met, they declared war. Russia moved its troops to the Austro-Hungarian border and to the German border; Germany declared war on Russia, and, to prevent French involvement, Germany attacked France, going through Belgium to come from a side that the French had not defended. Great Britain, in support of Belgium, declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.

Modern Warfare
The defense line along the French border spread, reaching from the North Sea to Switzerland, and was known as the Western Front (as opposed to the war along the Russian border, which was the Eastern Front). Both sides dug miles and miles of trenches so that their soldiers could move around underground, out of sight of the enemy. The area between the trenches, where a person walking could be easily seen and shot, was referred to as No-Man's Land. For the entire war, the trench network stayed in place, keeping combatants near each other but hidden.

Because both sides were literally rooted in the ground, the war did not show much prospect of nearing any sort of progression, much less a resolution. Both sides tried to find an advantage that would shift the tide of battle over to their side. On April 22, 1915, at the French town of Ypres, the German army ushered in a new, modern age that changed the face of combat, and of modern sensibilities in general, by introducing the use of poisonous chlorine gas into the theatre of battle. Past civilizations had considered gas, but the idea of spreading poison into the air where it would affect so many non-combatants was generally considered too barbaric, even in warfare. As recently as 1899, an International Declaration signed at The Hague addressed the issue specifically, recognizing that warring factions had considered gas since ancient times and had always found it to be too torturous to its victims and too uncontrollable to be considered a legitimate tool of war. The German gas attack at Ypres caught French and British troops by surprise, killing anywhere from a few hundred to fifty-nine thousand men. Over the whole war, chemical weapons are thought to have killed at least a million people. After Ypres, gas masks became standard issue for soldiers, although most masks, as Graves explains, offered minimal protection.

World War I also introduced new, portable, lightweight machine guns into the arsenal of war. Airplanes, which were a fairly new development since the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, were originally used for observation, but during the course of the war, pilots started to combine flight and machine gun technology to strafe enemy lines from above. Previous battle techniques of moving troops around in groups to shoot at one another gave way to destruction on a greater and greater scale.

When the war was over, artists who had participated in it returned home with a different perspective on life than they had when leaving home. Many, like Graves, had been enthusiastic schoolboys, trained in literary traditions that spanned back to ancient Greece by schools that only admitted members of privileged social classes. In the war they saw death and mutilation affect anyone, rich or poor, crude or well-mannered, educated or ignorant. They learned that traditional expectations could not be counted on, that the rules of social behavior that had been taught to them could be erased within a couple of years. Artists and writers who had been in the war applied this lesson to their views of artistic tradition. "Modernism" is the word that is used to describe the change that swept over the arts in the 1920s. It was not a movement in the sense that members thought of themselves as belonging to something, but it was a philosophical outlook that came to dominate all of the arts from the end of World War I to the 1960s.

The modernist ethos, as summed up in an oft-quoted line by poet Ezra Pound, was to "Make it new.’’ In fact, modernist art went to any extremes to defy tradition, to flaunt artistic freedom, to offend the expectations of audiences who thought that they knew what art was supposed to be. Audiences had a difficult time knowing how to deal with such forms of modernism as cubism in painting and imagism in poetry, because the works created under these beliefs had no point of reference outside of themselves and certainly no tradition. Good-Bye to All That is a modern piece in its rejection of traditional war narrative and its willingness to examine the dark, gruesome realities of war.

Literary Style

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A chronicle is usually a record of events, in chronological order, without any commentary from the writer about them. For the most part, Good-Bye to All That takes the tone of a chronicle, with Graves presenting facts from his life dispassionately, as if he were a disinterested third party. The whole book is presented using the pronoun "I," so there is no pretense that the author is separate from the person whose life is recorded, but he does not give much sense of how he feels about the events recorded in the book. Even when he records events that obviously mean much to him, such as his relationships with Dick or his children or Laura Riding, he tells them as factually and unemotionally as possible, to let the details of the story speak for themselves. The fact that the information is presented chronologically, from his birth to the time of writing it, serves to assure readers that he does not want this story to be interesting because it is his story but that it is interesting in itself and does not have to be magnified with stylistic tricks.

Ironic language says one thing with words while conveying the opposite meaning with the way the words are arranged. In the case of Good-Bye to All That, irony is easy because the author's natural British English is elevated and formal, better designed for describing proper social behavior than for capturing the horrors of war. Graves makes use of the verbal skills of the English to point out the strangeness of mixing gentlemen of leisure with the crudeness of the battlefield. There is a politeness in referring to unintelligent students as "dull" in a sentence like "Many dull boys have brief brilliant military careers, particularly as air-fighters, becoming squadron and flight commanders,’’ and this politeness thinly masks the implied fear that the fate of the war is in the hands of unqualified people whose careers, if surprisingly brilliant, are bound to be brief. The greatest moments of elevated language seeming out of place in the war are reserved for the officers whom he quotes directly, such as the doctor who patronizingly tells Siegfried Sassoon, while giving him a shot, "Toughest skin of the lot, but you're a tough character, I know.'' Readers can tell that Graves loves such inflated language—that as a gentleman he feels most comfortable with language that serves to cushion people from unpleasantness—but they can also tell that he is aware of the irony of bringing genteel sensibilities into war.

One of the strangest things about Good-Bye to All That is the ‘‘Dedicatory Epilogue to Laura Riding,’’ which accompanied the 1929 edition but was removed from Graves' 1957 revision. The epilogue that was added in its place is not much to speak of, a quick list of what happened over time to some of the people and places described in the book. The 1929 epilogue, however, shows Graves exercising his poetic power to evoke the sort of life he wanted to build for himself, even as he was dismissing the military and academic lives that he had tried and found wanting. The fact that it is an epilogue at all is artistically innovative: normally, a dedication like the one he gives to Riding would have come at the beginning of the book, but Graves breaks convention because, as he explains to her, he wants to think of the book as a beginning of his life with her, looking ‘‘forward from where I was instead of backward from where you are.’’ The language that he uses in this epilogue is airy, mysterious, like a private language that he shares with her, as opposed to the thick, rich language that comprises the substance of the book. He repeats the phrase ‘‘After which’’ eight times, four of them as lonesome sentences in freestanding paragraphs, which gives the epilogue a thoughtful, almost inarticulate tone—the voice of a serious artist. Riding was Graves' collaborator and his mentor in poetry, but she was also his lover, and this dedication, with its brief mention of her jump from a fourth-story window and her subsequent spinal disfigurement, tells the story behind the story, giving readers of the 1929 edition a glimpse at his frame of mind while he was writing the book. The Laura Riding epilogue was deleted from the 1957 edition, as were all mentions of Riding, apparently because they stopped seeing each other in 1940, but that does not diminish the understanding that this epilogue can offer about what Good-Bye to All That meant to Graves as he wrote it.

Compare and Contrast

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1929: The horrors of the Great War are unprecedented in world history, leaving a generation disillusioned and cynical.

Today: After the vast international scope of World War II and the televised mayhem of Vietnam, politicians are only likely to commit to wars that can be waged with computers and long-distance missiles.

1929: The stock market crash of October 29 plunges the United States into the Great Depression, and other world economies soon follow.

Today; Because of advances in travel and communications, the economies of separate nations are more dependent on each other than ever before.

1920s: Modernism, the artistic movement that turns away from traditional forms, brings thrilling new possibilities to painting, literature, and music.

Today: After post-modernism, which reflected art's awareness of its own techniques, artistic theories have become divided so that no particular school dominates artistic thought today.

1929: ‘‘Feminism’’ is seen as a rare, exotic political stance taken by women who are considered troublemakers.

Today: After tremendous gains for women's rights in the past few decades, the word "feminism’’ is still used often in the negative sense to brand its adherents as complainers and troublemakers.

1929: Cairo is seen by Europeans as mysterious and frightening, prompting T. E. Lawrence to comfort Graves by explaining that "Egypt, being so near Europe, is not a savage country.’’

Today: Television satellite feeds from all over the world have reduced stereotyped images about other cultures.

Media Adaptations

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In 1985, Books on Tape, Inc., released an unabridged audio version of Good-Bye to All That in eight cassettes.

A 1990 audiotape version of Good-Bye to All That is available from Isis Audio Books of Oxford, England.

Fans of Robert Graves can find out more about him at the Robert Graves Trust, Society, Journal and Archive home page at (March 2001), with links that will lead students to related sites.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Fussell, Paul, ‘‘Theatre of War,’’ in The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.

Jarrell, Randall, ‘‘Graves and the White Goddess,’’ in Third Book of Criticism, Faraar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.

O'Prey, Paul, "Captain Graves' Postwar Strategies,’’ in New Perspectives on Robert Graves, edited by Patrick J. Quinn, Susquehanna University Press, 1999, pp. 36-44.

Peason, Richard, ‘‘Scholar, Author, and Poet Robert Graves Dies,’’ in Washington Post, December 8, 1985, p. C10.

Saxon, Wolfgang, "Robert Graves, Poet and Scholar, Dies at 90,’’ in New York Times, December 8, 1985, pp. 1, 19.

Skow, Jack, ‘‘If It Looks Like Zeus, and Sounds Like Zeus, It Must Be Robert Graves,’’ in Esquire, September 1970, pp. 144, 180-185.

Trout, Steven, "Telling the Truth—Nearly: Robert Graves, Daniel Defoe, and Good-Bye to All That,’’ in New Perspectives on Robert Graves, edited by Patrick J. Quinn, Susquehanna University Press, 1999, pp. 175-184.

Further Reading
Bell, Clive, The English Poets of the First World War, Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1981.
This book puts Graves in context with his peers, some of whom are mentioned in his autobiography (Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg) and many of whom are not (Gurney, Sorley, West, etc.).

Cohen, J. M., Robert Graves, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967.
This small book, written with Graves' approval, gives more background about his publishing history during the war years than is covered in the autobiography.

Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
This historian's perspective of life in the trenches lacks the authenticity of Graves' autobiography but makes up for it with a wider range of stories to tell.

Hoffman, Daniel, ‘‘Significant Wounds,’’ in Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves and Muir, Oxford University Press, 1967.
This chapter shows the links between war, mythology, and art in Graves' poems.

Snipes, Katherine, Robert Graves, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979.
Good-Bye to All That only figures into a brief early chapter on "biography,’’ but this book is useful for a quick overview of Graves' entire career.

Winter, Denis, Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War, Penguin USA, 1993.
Winter recreates the experience of British soldiers on the front from sources like those that Graves used, getting deeper into the common soldier's perspective.


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Bergonzi, Bernard. Heroes’ Twilight, 1965.

Cohen, J.M. Robert Graves, 1960.

DeBell, Diane. “Strategies of Survival: Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That, and David Jones, In Parenthesis,” in The First World War in Fiction, 1976. Edited by Holger Klein.

Fussell, Paul. The Great War and Modern Memory, 1975.

Hildebidle, John. “Neither Worthy nor Capable: The War Memoirs of Graves, Blunden, and Sassoon,” in Modernism Reconsidered, 1983. Edited by Robert Kiely.

Keegan, John. The Face of Battle, 1976.

Kernowski, Frank L. The Early Poetry of Robert Graves: The Goddess Beckons. 2002.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves: His Life and Work, 1982.

Snipes, Katherine. Robert Graves, 1979.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide