Robert Graves Analysis

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(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

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Robert Graves published fifteen novels, including one (No Decency Left, 1932) written in collaboration with Laura Riding. His novels are usually based on historical events or mythology. I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1934) borrow heavily from Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars (c. 120 c.e.). Count Belisarius (1938) concerns the brilliant general of the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth (1940; also known as Sergeant Lamb’s America) and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb (1941) fictionalize the life of an actual English soldier in the American Revolution. The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr. Milton (1943; also known as Wife to Mr. Milton, the Story of Marie Powell) elaborates imaginatively on John Milton’s marital problems. The Islands of Unwisdom (1949; also known as The Isles of Unwisdom) is based on the abortive attempt by the Spanish in the sixteenth century to colonize the Solomon Islands. They Hanged My Saintly Billy (1957) is a minor work about the notorious career and execution of Dr. William Palmer for poisoning his friend, John Parsons Cook.

Biblical topics inspired two novels: My Head! My Head! (1925), about Elisha and Moses, and King Jesus (1946), his most significant attempt to fuse his ideas about the Triple Goddess with Christian and Hebrew myth. Greek mythology inspired The Golden Fleece (1944, also known as Hercules, My Shipmate) and Homer’s Daughter (1955), while Watch the North Wind Rise (1949; also known as Seven Days in New Crete) is an entertaining fantasy about a mythological future when the worship of the Goddess is reestablished in Crete, the ancient stronghold of the Goddess cult.

Graves published more than fifty works in the nonfiction category, including literary criticism, books about writing and language, an autobiography, a biography of T. E. Lawrence, social commentaries, and studies in Greek and Hebrew myths. In addition, he translated such writers as Suetonius, Homer, Hesiod, Lucius Apuleius, Lucan Pharsalia, and Manuel de Jesus Galvan. He was one of the most versatile writers of the twentieth century, a persistent maverick often embroiled in intellectual arguments with other scholars because of his sometimes eccentric views.

Achievements

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), and Robert Graves’s other studies in mythology, The Greek Myths (2 volumes; 1955), Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (1964, with Raphael Patai) and The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953, with Joshua Podro), together with his novels and poetry based on myth, have undoubtedly had a subtle and pervasive influence on modern literature. Their impact cannot be distinguished precisely from that of other writers, such as James Frazer, T. S. Eliot, Joseph Campbell, and others, who have contributed to the renewed interest in mythology and ancient patterns of belief. With the passing of the enthusiasm for social realism, the old patterns of myth reasserted themselves with a surprising vigor—perhaps in direct proportion to current discomfort with the demythologized, purely practical bent of technological society. Graves contributed significantly to this rediscovery of the past.

For the novel I, Claudius, Graves received the Hawthornden Prize, the oldest of the famous British literary prizes, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, administered through the University of Edinburgh for the year’s best novel. Collections of his poetry gained the Russell Loines Award (1958), the William Foyle Poetry Prize (1960), the Arts Council Poetry Award (1962), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1968).

Graves held only one full-time salaried position in his life—in 1926, when he taught for one year at the Egyptian University of Cairo. He was Clark Lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1954, however, and Arthur Dehon Little Memorial Lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1963. He also lectured in California, Hungary, Israel, and Spain. In 1970, he became an Honorary Member of the American Academy of...

(The entire section is 1,594 words.)