Robert Graves was born July 24, 1895, in Wimbledon, near London, to Alfred Percival Graves and Amalie von Ranke Graves. His father was an inspector of schools, a Gaelic scholar, and a writer of poetry of a conventional sort. His German mother was related to the historian Leopold von Ranke. Robert was one of ten children, five of them from his father’s first marriage. The Graves household was conventionally religious, a tradition that Graves dispensed with in his maturity, but that left him, according to his autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1929), with “a great capacity for fear . . . a superstitious conscience and a sexual embarrassment.” To the age of twelve, Robert and the other Graves children sometimes visited their German relatives, including their aunt, Baronin von Aufsess, who lived in a medieval castle in the Bavarian Alps. These romantic environs undoubtedly colored his early poetry.
When Graves attended Charterhouse, where he was listed as R. von R. Graves, his German connections were an embarrassment because of the anti-German sentiment developing in England. Graves did not find his schoolmates particularly congenial until he won their respect by becoming a competent boxer. He did find one prominent friend in George Mallory, a famous mountaineer who later died climbing Mount Everest. Mallory introduced Edward Marsh, then secretary to Winston Churchill, to Graves’s poetry. Marsh, a patron of the contemporary Georgian school of poetry, encouraged Graves in his writing; but, he said, Graves should modernize his diction, which was “forty years behind the time.”
Graves joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers when World War I began and went to France as a nineteen-year-old officer. He became a close friend of the well-known war poet Siegfried Sassoon. Graves’s autobiography, Goodbye to All That, written when he was thirty-five, includes one of the best accounts of trench warfare to come out of the war. Both Graves and Sassoon survived the war, though they suffered physical and mental wounds in the process. Graves received multiple wounds from an exploding shell and was, in fact, listed among the casualties, but eventually someone noted that the “corpse” in the hospital tent had moved and Graves lived to fight again. One lung was seriously damaged, however, and he was soon brought back to England to serve in a training role....
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