Robert Ranke Graves was born July 24, 1895, at Wimbledon, near London, England. His father, Alfred Percival Graves, a minor poet and Gaelic scholar, had remarried late in life to Amalie von Ranke; through his mother, Robert Graves was related to the distinguished German historian Leopold von Ranke. There were eventually nine children in the Graves family, including Robert, and the household was a fairly typical, late-Victorian establishment, dedicated to maintaining the conventions of society, especially those of religion. Until his teenage years, Robert, in particular, was a devoutly religious boy with a particular fastidiousness about sexual matters and an aversion to any rituals or beliefs that deviated from the strictest tenets of reformed Protestantism.
From 1910 until 1914, Graves attended Charterhouse, one of the famous English public schools. His stay at Charterhouse was generally unpleasant for several reasons. He was repulsed by the general air of homosexual affections that permeated the place but, at the same time, inadvertently encouraged such interests, as Graves himself later recognized and admitted in his autobiography, Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography (1929).
Graves was also a scholarship student, which exposed him to the cruel and snobbish mockery of his classmates. As the relationship between Great Britain and Germany steadily deteriorated during this time, Graves was further tormented because of his German middle name. Finally, he was ridiculed because of his desire to write poetry. It was practicing this talent, however, that helped make Charterhouse bearable for Graves and attracted the notice of Edward Marsh, a patron of the prevailing Georgian School of English poetry. Marsh encouraged Graves in his efforts and introduced him to other writers, helping to prepare the way for Graves’s first book of poems, Over the Brazier (1916).
Before this appeared, however, Graves had embarked on the most traumatic experience of his life, service in the trenches during World War I. Intensely patriotic, Graves had enlisted in 1914 at the outbreak of the war, joining the Royal Welch Fusiliers, one of the most notable units in the British army. Sent to France as an officer when only nineteen years old, Graves experienced the horrors, frustrations, and insanity of modern warfare. In 1916, he was severely wounded and listed as dead. His unexpected return to his family was, at least for Graves, a literal resurrection that forever marked his thinking and poetry. The war wounded Graves psychologically as well as physically. He found himself unable to face strangers, incapable of holding a regular job, and a victim of nightmares and unexplainable fears. His poetry, which had been light and lyrical, took on deeper and more brooding tones; throughout his career, he would...
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