Robert Graves

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Robert Graves Biography

Robert Graves could write about anything. While many of his most successful works deal with eras long past, Graves also wrote about his contemporary experiences. His war memoir, Good-Bye to All That, is considered one of the seminal accounts of World War I. Yet his historical masterpiece I, Claudius gained him the greatest success and acclaim—though not without criticism. Some scholars have suggested that the book is, if not outright erroneous, highly selective in its accounts. Graves narrates from the perspective of Claudius himself, but some have accused Graves of omitting historical details that were inconvenient to his plotting. Nevertheless, in I, Claudius, as with his other works like The Golden Fleece, Graves distinguishes himself by his ability to transform history into genuine drama.

Facts and Trivia

  • Graves enlisted in the military during the First World War, and many of his early poems are reflections of his harrowing experiences in battle.
  • Graves was so badly injured at the Battle of the Somme that he was initially pronounced dead.
  • Graves became close friends with Siegfried Sasson, a poet whom he met during his military service. The intimacy of their friendship have led some to speculate whether or not there was a sexual component to the relationship.
  • Graves also wrote about writing. His critical work A Survey of Modernist Poetry is still studied today.
  • Graves wrote a sequel to I, Claudius called Claudius the God.


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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.

The more lasting damage that Graves suffered from trench warfare however, was psychological, and helped to determine the nature of his poetry for nearly ten years. He suffered from war neurasthenia; he was prone to nightmares, obsessed with military strategy even in peaceful surroundings, and had waking hallucinations about comrades who had died in the war. He became acquainted with W. H. R. Rivers, a Freudian psychologist who was an expert in war neurasthenia and also interested in the role of the subconscious in poetic creativity. Under his influence, Graves became fascinated with dreams and developed a theory about poetry as a way of expressing and resolving mental conflicts. His poetry of this period was haunted by images of guilt, despair, and entrapment. Though he seldom wrote specifically about war experiences, he translated the emotions aroused there into more Gothic visions. Only years later, after he had achieved some distance from combat, could he treat it in both poetry and prose with a certain gritty objectivity.

In 1918, Graves married Nancy Nicholson, a painter, socialist, and ardent feminist who kept her maiden name. The couple had four children. Although it had seemed positive, the marriage failed in a shattering domestic crisis in which the American poet, Laura Riding, who had been staying with the Graves family, made...

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a dramatic exit from a fourth-story window. She survived with a broken back and gradually recovered over a period of months. Graves and Riding were companions for the next thirteen years. They established the Seizin Press and later moved to Majorca, where Graves lived until his death in 1985 except when lecturing at universities or when political conditions forced the evacuation of British nationals. On one such occasion while Graves and Riding were living temporarily in the United States, Riding fell in love with and married the American poet Schuyler Jackson. Graves went back to England and eventually married Beryl Hodge, with whom he lived in Majorca until his death. He had four children from this marriage.

Riding had a considerable influence on Graves’s writing. She was more obsessed with “truth” than with emotional expression in poetry and was fascinated with word-meanings. She encouraged Graves to forgo the gothic effects he was using when he looked on poetry as emotional therapy. She insisted on more rigorous thinking and verbal precision. Perhaps she merely supported a development that was already under way in Graves’s writing; in any case, his poetry became more philosophic and ironic. After Riding severed her association with Graves, he developed his fascination with the mythological White Goddess, which provided a pattern of images for almost all his subsequent poetry.

Some critics suggest that the White Goddess mythology universalized Riding’s personality, though Graves claimed that he simply discovered, and did not invent, the great Triple Goddess of Moon, Earth, and underworld who dominated preclassical religion. He became interested in the concept while doing research for a novel about Jason and the Golden Fleece, and studied such anthropologists as James Frazer, J. J. Bachofen, Jane Harrison, and Margaret Murray as well as recent archaeological studies. He finally worked out his theory while examining thirteenth century Welsh minstrel poems. These investigations culminated in The White Goddess, a unique combination of esoteric lore and inspired speculation. He was convinced (or claimed to be, at least) not only that the goddess cult once dominated the Western world, but also that most of the social evils of civilization stemmed from her overthrow and the subsequent domination by the male. The mythology of the goddess inspired much of Graves’s subsequent writing.


Critical Essays