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 professional, matter-of-fact-to-the-point-of-insolence, complacent, prosaic competence of style and imagination that weighs down most of his fiction, gives a terse, crusty, Defoe-esque plausibility to even his most imaginative nonfiction, and is present in most of his poetry only as a shell or skeleton, a hard lifeless something supporting or enclosing the poem's different life. Graves has spoken of the "conflict of rival sub-personalities," of warring halves or thirds or quarters, as what makes a man a poet. He differentiates the two sides of his own nature so sharply that he speaks of the first poem "I" wrote and the first poem "I wrote as a Graves"; he calls his prose "potboiling"—much of it is—and puts into his autobiography a number of his mother's sayings primarily to show how much more, as a poet, he owes to the von Rankes than to the Graveses….
Graves's poems seem to divide naturally into six or seven types. These are: mythical-archaic poems, poems of the White Goddess; poems about extreme situations; expressive or magical landscapes; grotesques; observations—matter-of-fact, tightly organized, tersely penetrating observations of types of behavior, attitude, situation, of the processes and categories of existence; love poems; ballads or nursery rhymes….
Graves's richest, most moving, and most consistently beautiful poems—poems that almost deserve the literal magical—are his mythical-archaic pieces, all those the reader thinks of as "White Goddess poems": "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," "Theseus and Ariadne," "Lament for Pasiphaë," "The Sirens' Welcome to Cronos," "A Love Story," "The Return of the Goddess," "Darien," and eight or ten others. The best of these are different from anything else in English; their whole meaning and texture and motion are different from anything we could have expected from Graves or from anybody else. "The Sirens' Welcome to Cronos," for instance, has a color or taste that is new because it has been lost for thousands of years….
Graves is a poet of varied and consistent excellence. He has written scores, almost hundreds, of poems that are completely realized, different either from one another or from the poems of any other poet. His poems have to an extraordinary degree the feeling of one man's world, one man's life: what he loves and loathes; what he thinks and feels and doesn't know that he feels; the rhythms of his voice, his walk, his gestures. To meet Robert Graves is unnecessary: all his life has transformed itself into his poetry. The limitations of his poetic world come more from limitations of temperament than from limitations of gift or ability—anything Graves is really interested in he can do. He writes, always, with economical strength, with efficient distinction. Both the wording and the rhythm of his verse are full of personal force and impersonal skill: the poems have been made by a craftsman, but a craftsman whose heart was in his fingers. His wit; terseness; matter-of-factness; overmastering organizational and logical skill; penetrating observation; radical two-sidedness; gifts of skewness, wryness, cater-corneredness, sweet-sourness, of "English eccentricity," of grotesque humor, of brotherly acceptance of the perverse random contingency of the world; feeling for landscapes and for Things; gifts of ecstasy, misery, and confident command; idiosyncratic encyclopedic knowledge of our world and the worlds that came before it; the fact that love—everyday, specific, good-and-bad, miraculous-and-disastrous love, not the Love most writers write about—is the element he is a native of; his—to put it in almost childish terms—invariable interestingness, are a few of the many qualities that make Graves extraordinary….
Graves [, as the prophet of the White Goddess,] can think of himself as representing the norm, as being the one surviving citizen of that original matriarchal, normal state from which the abnormal, eccentric world has departed. The Mother whom he once clung to in personal shame … turns out to be, as he can show with impersonal historical objectivity, the "real" Father of the Regiment: the Father-Principle, if you trace it back far enough, is really the Mother-Principle, and has inherited from the Primal Mother what legitimacy it has. Graves wants all ends to be Woman, and Man no more than the means to them. Everything has an original matriarchal core; all Life (and all "good" Death) comes from Woman. Authority is extremely important to Graves: by means of his myth he is able to get rid of the dry, lifeless, external authority of the father, the public school, the regiment, and to replace it with the wet, live, internal authority of the mother. All that is finally important to Graves is condensed in the one figure of the Mother-Mistress-Muse, she who creates, nourishes, seduces, destroys; she who saves us—or, as good as saving, destroys us—as long as we love her, write poems to her, submit to her without question, use all our professional, Regimental, masculine qualities in her service. Death is swallowed up in victory, said St. Paul; for Graves Life, Death, everything that exists is swallowed up in the White Goddess.
Randall Jarrell, "Graves and the White Goddess" (1955–56), in his The Third Book of Criticism (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1941, 1945, 1955, 1956, 1962, 1963, 1965 by Mrs. Randall Jarrell; © 1963, 1965 by Randall Jarrell), Farrar, Straus, 1969.
[In] the history of Graves's reputation you can trace the rise of modernism and its present decline. Graves's rise coincides with its decline. He was always outside movements; and now that—despite the various contrivings of reviewers, critics and other interested persons—there are no real movements to get into, the contemporary poet turns to Graves for encouragement and advice….
The dark gods still rule in those places where art, minor as well as major, is born. (No doubt it is from them that culture's yellow tinge comes.) I prefer the dark gods to Graves's 'White Goddess': she sounds like a cross between a shrewish wife and a military dictator, they at least govern by majority rule—or misrule.
White Goddesses or dark gods—Graves knows that it is from them that real poetry comes, whether one calls that poetry 'romantic' or 'classical', 'modernist' or 'traditionalist'…. Graves is not genteel, tame, castrated….
One valid criticism of Graves, I think, is that he is too much the poet. That is, he tends to set himself to clear up confusions which don't really exist. He applies that technique of his, so ready to hand, to situations not warranting its employment. More simply, some of his poems have no subject: he writes without needing to write. He can even operate as a poet of the Commonplace Book, a Keepsake versifier….
At any rate, Graves's unnecessary poems are unpretentious; they will harm no one; and time will soon dispose of them if the poet himself does not.
While on this aspect of his work, I should say something about his prose, part of which I suspect is also unnecessary. I am not referring to his novels (which seem to me intelligent, enjoyable and a remarkably clean way of making a living out of words), but to his poetic mythology of the White Goddess and to much of his Clark Lectures.
D. J. Enright, "Robert Graves and the Decline of Modernism," in his Conspirators and Poets: Reviews and Essays, Dufour, 1966, pp. 48-67.
A handful of [Robert] Graves' poems, as everyone who cares about poetry knows, are the real, hairy thing. They are like the weekly verses, only so much better as to be of a different kind; instead of footnoting an experience, the provide one. His genuine poetry is tough, sometimes humorous …, sometimes malicious …, always very conscious—Apollonian in tone, whatever it might be in content….
I should like to mention two curiosities connected with Graves' poetry. One is his insistence on his service to the White Goddess. It is true that he talks about experience of the Goddess in a lot of his poems, especially as she manifests herself in a woman he loves; but apparently he has persuaded himself that poetry which talks about love and the Goddess is therefore itself Dionysian. It isn't….
The second curiosity is this. Reading the poems in this book without knowing anything about the author, you would gather from some waspish stings along the way that he thinks quite ill of the age. But it is hard not to know a great deal about Robert Graves. Where in the poetry is the terribleness in himself which has kept him for most of his life in voluntary exile from both his country and his century?
Maybe these two curiosities are connected. I am not sure how. But there they are.
George P. Elliott, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1967, pp. 147-49.
The poetry of Robert Graves in a very significant sense reflects the poet's lifelong search for the meaning of existence. Read as a body, the earlier poems present a picture of an intense personal agony—a torment perhaps originating in the nightmarish experiences which Graves underwent during World War I. But the picture is only framentary and seems more a series of compulsive eruptions of feeling than the sustained and conscious expression of an idea. The poems are a kind of therapy—an escape hatch for the poet's suppressed and sometimes violent emotions….
It is in "The Pier-Glass" that Graves first states his problem explicitly. The anguished plea which concludes that poem defines the melancholy and disillusionment which the poet feels and the bleakness of the world he perceives….
In "Warning to Children" the poet examines his dilemma more directly. The device of the riddle underscores the uncertainty of life and man's inability to probe its mystery with his reason…. There is an appeal for Graves in the innocence of childhood—and a regret, somehow implicit even here, that the innocence cannot endure…. Throughout his career, Graves returns nostalgically to this early theme, but always, one feels, with an understanding of its limitations….
Modified perhaps by the hope that love might be found in the barrenness of the world, and perhaps tempered by the poet's sensitivity to the possibility of a "paranoiac fury," this violence of disgust, rejection, and anger evolves gradually into an attitude of cynicism, which is best expressed in the poem "Certain Mercies."…
An important aspect of Graves' cynicism is a new willingness to delight in the "momentariness" of love…. Though cynical and still couched in resentful terms, the view allows Graves ultimately to consider new dimensions in the relationship of woman and man. The early, gnawing sense of inferiority and futile rage gives way somewhat reluctantly to the ability to accept jealousy and to the recognition finally that love is a consolation to man….
Though still conscious of an unlovely world and sensitive to the pain which involvement with that world may demand, Graves commits himself unreservedly to living, indulging only in a brief withdrawal to contemplate the truth he has found.
Peter L. Sanders, "Robert Graves—A Poet's Quest for Meaning," in English Journal, January, 1970, pp. 23-6.
Suffice it to say that [Graves's] achievement is absolute mastery of English syntax: he is clearer than crystal. Graves reminds me of one of the gods Lucretius said lived on an island far off in the skies, happy and eternal. But his wisdom, his charming wit are not remote from our concerns, albeit they are only eventual concerns for most of us, and then only if we live to be as strong in the head and as clear about love's mysteries as Graves is. The fact is, what he speaks of so very clearly is simply never that clear, which is, I guess, in the nature of the thing. Graves is the poet par excellence because, while he is a poet's poet, he has kept his books open to all. This sort of poet, like Herrick, evades all comment, evades everything but praise….
Jascha Kessler, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1970 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, May 2, 1970; used with permission), May 2, 1970, p. 36.
[Robert Graves] is famous as a poet and as a literary buccaneer. Moreover, he is a great, burly, bent-nosed man who at seventy-four writes stinging love poems and looks like Zeus. It is not hard for his admirers to imagine him transforming himself into a bull and carrying a barmaid off on his back. A great army of friends and readers think he is a marvelous man. They have had Graves for years in a pigeon-hole labeled "marvelous," and nothing could induce them to reclassify him.
On the other hand, there is a sizable opposition army of irate scholiasts who dismissed Graves decades ago as an unsound and irresponsible theory-monger. They are unbudgeable in their contempt. For years almost all opinion on Graves has belonged to one of these fortified camps, from which, occasionally, patrols are sent out that never meet and do no damage….
Graves is a poet of rare ability, and nothing about him is so important. Poetry is his profession and his condition. He began The White Goddess, a wild, mystical volume in which he announced the true nature of poetry, with the statement, "Since the age of fifteen, poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally under-taken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles." True, and true….
He brings to novel writing his great learning, his argumentative passion, his craftsmanship and an honorable need for money (he is the father of eight children, the youngest of whom is still in school). The novels that result are agreeable, witty companions, but they are quite obviously the work of a poet forced by circumstance to practice what he considers a lesser craft. A poem may soar; prose should be prosy, and take no mortal risks. Graves's best prose book by far is not a novel: Goodbye to All That, the autobiography he wrote at thirty-three and has resolved not to continue….
He has told me "the best rule for a poet is always to be in love," and it is not an old man's fondness he means. The best of his verses are love poems, and even the latest transmit the shock of skin touching skin. He writes in adoration of his muse, the white moon goddess whose influence, he believes, threads back through the consciousness of the race, but the goddess is always embodied in the flesh of a specific woman. Graves has followed and still follows his own best rule….
Graves writes poems of remarkable clarity and intensity in traditional forms, mostly rhymed, and has little love for what is usually thought of as modern poetry.
Jack Skow, "If It Looks Like Zeus, and Sounds Like Zeus, It Must Be Robert Graves" (reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc.; first published in Esquire Magazine; copyright © 1970 by Esquire, Inc.), in Esquire, September, 1970, pp. 144, 180-85.
Graves is a romantic and a stoic who believes that one way or another love ends badly. While no single image or object can encompass the trajectory of Graves' thoughts on love, there is a Spanish drink that comes close to it. It is called the sol y sombra (sun and shadow). It comes in two layers. The top half is brandy—masculine, dry, bracing; the bottom half is anisette—sweet, insinuative, treacherous.
With Graves, love, like an army day, begins with reveille and ends with taps. Only wisdom and patience relieve the passion and the pain. Yet, this poet would insist, love is the disease most worth having, for its opposite is the doleful serenity of death-in-life.
T. E. Kalem, "Long E in Greek," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1971 by Time Inc.), December 13, 1971, pp. 84-E5.
A diction that accommodates words like "profligacy" or "cardiac lesion"; the creation of puzzles and object lessons you couldn't have predicted the outcome of; masterly rhyming throughout; these are three virtues for which Graves should be read more than he is … and why much of his work in this volume [Poems 1968–1970] is first-rate.
William H. Pritchard, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1972, p. 129.
Lately, Graves has been writing poems devoted to a new Muse, the Black Goddess of Wisdom. With this book [Poems 1970–1972] he finally achieves mastery of his new subject—the action behind the lyricizing is clear; the rhythms powerful; the music lovely; the diction appropriately colloquial, free of the abstractions strewn through Poems 1968–1970…. At least 25 poems here are among the best he's ever written. The Black Goddess is embodied in a girl younger than the poet's grandchildren; but the poet aware of the peculiarity of their relationship is proud of it, is jaunty. He, in effect, makes us take potentially comic material seriously by turning the butt into the romantic hero. Knowledge of the dramatic context of the hero's songs adds dimension to them.
Frederick Feirstein, in Library Journal, January 15, 1973 (Part 1), pp. 169-70.
Of all poets of this time, Robert Graves is the one who, without solemnity but with total dedication, has kept the idea of poetry sacred and the idea of the poet true. He has always disliked the idea of poets using poetry ambitiously in order to assert claims of greatness and universality, whether these were made by Virgil or Milton, or (as he considered) by poets of his own day like Yeats or Eliot. His ideal of poetry is, I suppose, that of Catullus, in whose work the holy rage or passionate love in each poem seems exactly to equate the entranced but still measurably personal feeling—the situation of loving a girl or hating a rival out of which the poem arises….
He has expressed with learning and wit ideas that often seem wildly eccentric—yet he is not in the least a man above the clouds or ignorant of the world. There are elements of egoism, rationalization and even absurdity in his writings, but in the end they do not matter. Reading these late poems [Poems 1970–72], mostly written between his 75th and 77th years, one feels the calm of a lifetime justified by past results and by new results expressing that peace gained.
There is a sense of reconciliation. Death was never far from his poetry, but now it has taken its place quietly in the valley among muses, poets, the olive trees and all the other holy properties of his verse….
The almost frenzied energy of some of Graves's earlier poetry has gone from this volume, but something mysterious and glimmering is gained; and the power of description of the peculiar moonlit classical landscape is retained. One remembers that in this part of Europe the moon is more revealing of gods and goddesses than the sun….
Graves is a traditionalist, but he it not given to archaisms or poeticisms. He is indeed a poet who achieves again and again the miracle of fusing the statement in current idiom with the form and grace of the traditional. In this respect he resembles Robert Frost, though he has a blunt directness and a defiant insistence on the rather loaded but cheerfully carried magical mythology which he draws on that is different from Frost. His poetry is as well written as the most impeccable prose, and this makes him a very formidable defender of his traditional position….
All his life Graves has been indifferent to fashion, and the great and deserved reputation he has is based on his individuality as a poet who is both intensely idiosyncratic and unlike any other contemporary poet and at the same time classical. There is one short poem written in Latin in this book, and his work is the nearest thing we have to Latin poetry. These new poems are not his greatest work, but they are not limitations of past achievements either. They are mysterious, shadowy, gentle, sad, yet smiling and strong, with a humanity that he has rarely quite achieved before. If not a crown to his life's effort, they are a shining green laurel wreath.
Stephen Spender, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 11, 1973, pp. 7-8.