Robert Graves

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

What combination of genius, character, and training, what accidents of birth or historic situation bring forth and nurture poetic expression? This is a baffling question for which no answers can be generalized. That is one reason for the interest in the lives of poets. Moreover, the life of Robert Graves is especially fascinating, partly because he spanned the twentieth century and was actively engaged in some of the great dramas of that period, partly because Graves, from a most conventional Edwardian background, became such an astonishing maverick among contemporary writers.

This biography by Richard Perceval Graves, Robert’s nephew, deals primarily with that conventional upbringing and other early experiences, including Robert’s first marriage and his service with the Royal Welch Fusilieres in World War I. This same period is covered, in a very different way, in Graves’s famous autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1925). Graves encapsulated his own development at that point with the sweeping assertion:I had, by the age of twenty-three, been born, initiated into a formal religion, travelled, learned to lie, loved unhappily, been married, gone to the war, taken life, procreated my kind, rejected formal religion, won fame, and been killed.

Obviously, there was more to the story, whether told by Graves himself in Goodbye to All That, or by Martin Seymour-Smith in his pioneering biography Robert Graves: His Life and Work (1982), or by a member of the family in this volume. Richard Graves is an experienced biographer with books on Lawrence of Arabia, the Powys brothers, and A. E. Housman.

In one sense, Richard Graves had an advantage over Seymour-Smith and even perhaps Robert Graves himself in constructing an accurate family history. The author’s father, John Graves (Robert’s younger brother), died in 1980, leaving to Richard a treasured collection of letters, diaries, and other documents that had been saved by five generations of the family, dating back as far as the 1760’s. John had already started the laborious research necessary for an accurate biography of his brother Robert. He examined with a magnifying glass the “almost indecipherable” handwritten daily diaries of his father, copying out everything about Robert between the years 1911 and 1931. Thus, the author had a head start on the meticulous collection of factual details about family life that characterize this book. Even Robert, depending on memory alone, could hardly have remembered with such accuracy the events of his childhood. This account may, therefore, be more factual, though not necessarily more significant, than the poet’s own account of these years. Robert Graves sometimes took Emily Dickinson’s advice to tell the truth but tell it slant.

The author gives an almost journalistic attention to questions of what, who, when, where things happened. He seldom imposes his own interpretation upon the experience he describes, though he carefully records the impressions that his characters have expressed in letters or diaries or verbal accounts. Thus, one sees Robert’s return home from his unhappy first session at Charterhouse through the eyes of Clarissa, Robert’s sister: “He was greeted hurriedly by the family and seemed rather bewildered in their presence. He talked in broken and inconsequent sentences and called his Mother ’Miss Farley’ (his matron at Charterhouse . . .). Luckily this mistake passed unnoticed. . . .”

In this manner, the author can suggest the undercurrents of confusion and awkwardness in the unhappy schoolboy without pretending to any unwarranted wisdom or clairvoyance. This modesty and careful restraint are evident through the entire biography. The author is aware of the special dangers to historical accuracy of a person writing about a kinsman, especially one who rebelled so vehemently against the mores of his family and his social class.

Robert’s mother was perhaps the most significant influence on his childhood, especially for that peculiar blend of idealism, religious orthodoxy, and sexual embarrassment that made his first contact with life at Charterhouse such a shock. Amalie von Ranke, born in London of a Norwegian mother and a German father of an aristocratic family, had intended to become a missionary in India before she met and married Robert’s father. Alfred Perceval Graves, born in Dublin, was a widower with five children. His union with Amalie produced five more. In such a household, where nannies took charge of the children, who ordinarily stayed with their mother only one hour during the day, the mother might seem a rather remote figure.

Such was not the case, however, according to the first short chapter, where the author, in one of his few direct judgments about his uncle’s life, suggests that Robert’s early life was “dominated to a greater degree than I had expected by the figure of my grandmother, Amy Graves.” The author even offers an impressionistic vision of Amalie as he himself at age four or five saw her.Standing to welcome us beside the massive oak bookcase in Erinfa’s gloomy hall, she might easily have appeared terrifying to me, for besides being tall she was dressed from head to foot in black. However, she radiated such a warm and unselfish love that I felt instantly at...

(The entire section is 2160 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940 is the second volume of a meticulously detailed biography by his nephew Richard Perceval Graves. When John Graves (Robert’s younger brother) died in 1980, Richard inherited the substantial family archives, consisting of “thousands of items dating from the 1790’s onwards: chiefly letters, but also diaries, personal memoirs, family trees, portraits, and photographs.” In addition to reviewing this voluminous material, Richard Graves studied collections of papers in Spain, England, and the United States and corresponded with still-living members of the Graves-Riding drama, including Laura.

This wealth of written and eyewitness account gives this biography a journalistic flavor. It almost seems that at any given moment in the lives of Robert and Laura someone was looking in the window. In addition to the diaries and letters of the extensive Graves clan—all of whom commented on the unorthodoxy of Robert’s life—the many friends who made up the “inner circle” had much to say about the personalities of Robert Graves and Laura Riding.

One of the great strengths of this biography is that the author prefers to allow the participants to comment on the who and why of the events rather than rely on his own interpretation. This approach gives the work immediacy, impact, and credibility.

What emerges is a portrait of Robert Graves as a man who sought and needed approval and direction from intense personal relationships. The wife of George Mallory (a friend of Robert who was later killed climbing Mount Everest) observed that even in his student years at Charterhouse (1909-1919) Robert seemed happiest when he found someone he admired who could give him direction. Robert seems especially to have craved the support and direction of women.

As was observed in the first volume, Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926, the principal influence on Robert’s early life was his mother, Amalie (Amy) von Ranke Graves, who brought up her son in a blend of idealism, sexual embarrassment, and religious orthodoxy—which Graves later rejected.

Robert had married the independent-minded feminist Nancy Nicholson in 1918. Nancy insisted on wearing corduroys, retaining her own name, and passing it on to her two daughters, Jenny and Catherine, as well as attempting to achieve “judicial equality of the sexes.” Although they were happy at first, living in the peaceful village of Islip, Robert had to abandon his academic work because of recurring bouts of shell shock, and his continuing failure to support the family by writing was beginning to alienate him from Nancy—whose word was law. Robert’s relationship with Nancy provides a model of dominance by the woman and submission on Robert’s part; he was ready to accept Nancy’s ideas simply because they were Nancy’s. For example, in 1919, Robert commented, “Nancy’s crude summary of the Christian religion: ’God is man, so it must be all rot,’ took a load off my shoulders.” Already Robert had begun to reject the religious and sexual orthodoxy of his upbringing. The pattern would repeat itself with a vengeance with Laura Riding.

Laura Riding, born Laura Reichenthal in 1901 in New York of Jewish parents, was reared in an idealistic and impoverished house. Because of an older sister’s generosity, Laura was able to spend all four years at the Girls’ High School in Brooklyn, where her “formidable intelligence” asserted itself; after she was graduated, having been offered three scholarships, she enrolled at Cornell University. At Cornell, she fell in love with Louis Gottschalk, a graduate student; they were married in 1920. By 1923 the marriage was failing, and Laura dedicated herself to writing poetry and fiction. Judging that “Laura Reichenthal Gottschalk” was too weighty for editors and readers, she changed the Reichenthal to Riding. Later, she would drop the Gottschalk as well.

One of her poems, “Dimensions,” appeared in the August/September, 1923, issue of The Fugitive, the house magazine of a group of poets at Vanderbilt University that included John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Donald Davidson. They were impressed with her work, and in November, 1924, they awarded her the Nashville Prize for Poetry. Yet Laura soon tried to dominate the group with her ideas, and some “bitterly resented the arrogant manner in which she expected everyone else to fall in with her own views. This need for domination would later characterize her relationship with Robert and members of their circle. Laura gradually became disillusioned with her American fellow-poets, so when the invitation came at the end of 1925 to go to Europe to collaborate on a book with Robert Graves, she accepted.

By the end of 1925, Nancy had become ill, and the doctor advised that she should spend the winter in a warm, dry climate. Robert was recommended by many influential friends for a professorship of English Literature at Cairo University—a conventional and official way of life he knew he would detest, but he took it anyway. Earlier, Robert had been attracted to Laura Riding’s poetry and had corresponded briefly with her. He and...

(The entire section is 2119 words.)