Robert Graves Graves, Robert (Vol. 2)

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Graves, Robert (Vol. 2)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Graves, Robert 1895–

Graves is an Anglo-Irish writer, living in Majorca, whose professionalism in poetry is directed by a Muse. He is also a novelist, critic, mythographer, and translator. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Robert Graves] has done admirable work as a critic of poetry, and very useful work as a defender of the liveliness, purity, and simplicity of the English language. He is unique as an historical novelist—he claims to have derived his historical method from his great-uncle, Leopold von Ranke—and around his Claudius novels there has formed a party of passionately loyal admirers….

In all he has done in prose there is a happy intelligence at work, and a wide and curious scholarship, and gracefulness and verve. There is even seriousness, manifested in the intensity of his devotion to one past or another, in the consistency of his dislike for modern culture. But the seriousness has always been modified and mollified by a kind of conscious carelessness, or modesty, or irony. Nothing is easier than to perceive that Mr. Graves has been working in his own way with the matter of, say, Yeats and D. H. Lawrence; it is equally apparent that he has decided that his own way was the way of talent and not of genius.

This makes, I think, a very engaging spectacle. Mr. Graves as a prose writer is a first-rate secondary figure in our literature. Such figures are a British phenomenon—we don't breed them in America, and we don't know how to respond to them….

[With] the publication of his Collected Poems we have to see Mr. Graves in a new way—we have to see him as a poet of the first rank. The nature of his poetry repels the adjective "great." He cannot have, and does not try to have, the large dramatic appeal of Eliot or Yeats. It is of the nature of his achievement that he should not, for the modesty and the irony, the conscious, rather boyish, swagger that mark his work in prose are to be seen in his verse, where they are, however, transmuted into a positive element of a remarkable style.

It may be that for some readers there will be a certain difficulty in coming to terms with this style, with its preference for lightness as against weightiness (or, if you will, levity as against gravity), its conscious intention of vivacity and elegance….

The kitchen and the nursery and the drawing-room are recurrent in Mr. Graves's poems not because he is a poet of domesticity, nor because of some lingering piety of Victorianism, but because they stand for a certain kind of actuality which modulates the fierce modern intellectual will. They have the same purpose and effect as the modulation of Mr. Graves's language toward the actuality of speech….

Mr. Graves has a passion for the old passions of the temperate zone—his impulse is all against being overwhelmed. He has a passion for pleasure, for love, for sexuality, for masculinity, for femininity, for activity, for rest; he has a passion for integrity of the self—and a passion for civilization…. He is in the tradition of the men who, by the terms upon which they accept their ordinary humanity, make it extraordinary.

Lionell Trilling, "A Ramble on Graves" (1955), in his A Gathering of Fugitives (from A Gathering of Fugitives by Lionell Trilling; copyright © 1955 by The Readers' Subscription, Inc.; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Beacon Press, 1956, pp. 20-30.

Graves is, first and last, a poet: in between he is a Graves. "There is a coldness in the Graveses which is anti-sentimental to the point of insolence," he writes. The Graveses have good minds "for examinations … and solving puzzles"; are loquacious, eccentric individualists "inclined to petulance"; are subject to "most disconcerting spells of complete amnesia … and rely on their intuition and bluff to get them through"; and, no matter how disreputable their clothes and friends, are always taken for gentlemen. This is a fine partial summary of one side of Robert von Ranke Graves: of that...

(The entire section is 4,001 words.)