Robert Graves Analysis

Other literary forms

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

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 Arts and Sciences.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Robert Graves considered himself primarily a poet. Beginning with Over the Brazier (1916) and ending with New Collected Poems (1977), he published more than fifty books of poetry. His poems during and for some years after World War I explored themes of fear and guilt, expressive of his experience of trench warfare in France. He later became more objective and philosophical. After he developed his theory of the White Goddess in the 1940’s, he wrote love poetry almost exclusively.

Graves also published more than fifty works of nonfiction, including literary criticism, books about writing and language, an autobiography (Goodbye to All That, 1929), a biography of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence and the Arabs, 1927), social commentaries, and studies in Greek and Hebrew myths. In addition, he translated the works of such writers as Suetonius, Homer, Hesiod, Lucius Apuleius, and Lucan. He also published a few collections of short fiction.

Achievements

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Robert Graves was one of the most versatile writers of the twentieth century, known not only as an excellent poet but also as a mythologist, novelist, translator, lecturer, and persistent intellectual maverick. He has perhaps the clearest claim among twentieth century poets as the inheritor of the Romantic tradition, although he purified his poetry of the kind of flowery elaboration that is often associated with Romanticism. He avoided fads and schools in poetry, perfecting a delicate craftsmanship generally outside the modern trends inspired by T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

For the novel I, Claudius, Graves received the Hawthornden Prize, 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 brought the Loines Award for Poetry (1958), the William Foyle Poetry Prize (1960), the Arts Council Poetry Award (1962), and the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry (1968).

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948) and Graves’s other studies in mythology, particularly The Greek Myths (1955), Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (1964, with Raphael Patai), and The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953, with Joshua Podro), together with his novels based on myth, have undoubtedly had a subtle and pervasive influence on modern literature. Graves was a prominent spokesman for the view that women and matriarchal values were much more prominent in the ancient world than had previously been realized and that civilization has suffered from the overthrow of women as social and spiritual leaders. The demotion of women from their former prominence, Graves said, is recorded and rationalized in Hebrew texts and classical Greek mythology.

Discussion Topics

To what extent can negative criticism of Robert Graves be regarded as disapproval of him as a maverick poet scornful of the principles that guided his contemporaries?

What is the relationship between the war and its warriors in Goodbye to All That?

Contrast Graves’s interpretation of Ulysses with Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s.

Can it be argued that the power of the poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” does not depend on its underlying mythology?

Consider Graves’s historical novels as the source for his later interpretation of the ancient classics.

Graves wanted his poems to be concentrated and lucid. Did the literary forms he used promote this aim? Did he succeed in fulfilling it?

Bibliography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Robert Graves. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on Graves’s historical novels, autobiography, and major themes. Includes chronology and bibliography.

Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926. New York: Viking Press, 1986. Written by Graves’s nephew. Though primarily concerned with Graves’s life, this book delineates the conditions that led the poet to write his autobiography and leave England. The effect of World War I and his rejection of conventional morality appear largely in this study.

_______. Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940. New York: Viking Press, 1990. The second volume of Graves’s three-volume study. Looking closely at the relationship between Graves and the American poet Laura Riding, this volume provides information concerning the respective contributions of the collaborators. Richard Perceval Graves is concerned with literary matters, though his fascination with the sensational aspects of the years Robert Graves and Riding spent together is evident. Of much interest, as in the first volume, are the notes, which indicate the breadth of the poet’s friendships and the variety of places in which his papers have been placed.

_______. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson,...

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