Robert Graves Graves, Robert (Vol. 11)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Graves, Robert 1895–

Graves is an English poet, novelist, critic, translator, and editor. Stylistically traditional in many ways, his verse is both technically complex and artful. He is a romantic whose work takes classical lines and clarity, whose poetry revolves around themes of love, childhood, and the spirit world. These ideas are also visible in his prose, perhaps most importantly in The White Goddess, an exploration of the poet's muse and mythology. Graves is also recognized for his historical novels and his wide-ranging criticism. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Monroe K. Spears

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Oxford Addresses on Poetry discusses "the hard core of our English poetic inheritance, namely poems inspired by the Muse rather than commissioned by Apollo, God of Reason," to quote Graves's foreword. "A good many of the younger University members agreed with me that such poems are alone likely to survive concentrated pressures from commercialized or politically slanted literature and entertainment," Graves observes, and continues: "The ornate academic Victorian tradition and the more recent but no less artificial Franco-American modernism, seemed to them equally bankrupt…." As his Muse-worship hardens into dogma, Graves seems to envision it here as the basis of a literary program. But such programs are, of course, Apollonian; and furthermore Graves does not really believe any living poets are worth reading. His thesis is, therefore, as applied to contemporary poetry, completely negative. (Curiously, however, he reminds his readers on occasion that he and Laura Riding wrote A Survey of Modernist Poetry, one of the first books to recognize and defend the poetry that he now holds to be worthless.)

Graves's case against Modernism is threefold. The first argument is based on pure xenophobic prejudice: modernist poetry is un-English. He calls it Franco-American, and observes that "Anglo-American poetry of, say, 1911–1929" was "based on Continental models and psychological theory." Often mixed with this argument is the second, a "traditionalist" complaint that Modernism is based on a confusion of the arts and that it doesn't make sense. In Food for Centaurs he said, "All I know is that a Modernism based on a confessedly impossible attempt at adapting English poetic practice to the aesthetic principles of French painting makes no sense; and has never made any sense."… His third and most fundamental objection is that modernist poetry is in motive "critical, rather than creative," and is thus a form of Apollonian poetry, which is always "composed in the forepart of the mind," on a preconceived plan, and based on a "close knowledge of rhetoric, prosody, classical example, and contemporary fashion."… In contrast, Muse poetry, the kind Graves writes and approves of, he describes as "composed at the back of the mind; an unaccountable product of a trance in which the emotions of love, fear, anger, or grief are profoundly engaged, though at the same time powerfully disciplined…. The effect on readers of Muse poetry … is what the French call a frisson, and the Scots call a grue—meaning the shudder provoked by fearful or supernatural experiences."

This sounds like the same distinction that Matthew Arnold once made, in the course of explaining why the 18th century was an age of prose, between poetry conceived in the wits and poetry conceived in the soul. After Eliot's devastating commentary on the relation of this crude dichotomy to Arnold's own poetry, conceived in "the soul of a mid-century Oxford graduate," and his patient exposure of the falsity of any such assumption that the creative and critical faculties are necessarily opposed to each other, one would hardly expect Graves to restate it in cold blood. But Graves has no respect for Eliot; either he never read the passage or he would brush it aside.

Graves's theory of poetry—if it can be dignified by the name of theory—is essentially a perfectly conventional late Romantic...

(The entire section is 4,769 words.)