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|Robert Graves (1895-1985)|
English poet, classical scholar, novelist, and critic who produced some 140 books. Robert Graves is perhaps best known for the historical novel I, Claudius (1934), with its sequel Claudius the God (1943). In his controversial study The White Goddess (1948) Graves rejects the patriarchal gods as sources of inspiration in favour of matriarchal powers of love and destructiveness. The Muse, or Moon-goddess, inspires poetry of a magical quality, in contrast to rational, classical verse.
"Philosophy is antipoetic. Phisosophize about mankind and you brush aside individual uniqueness, which a poet cannot do without self-damage. Unless, for a start, he has a strong personal rhythm to vary his metrics, he is nothing. Poets mistrust philosophy. They know that once the heads are counted, each owner of a head loses his personal identify and becomes a number in some government scheme: if not as a slave or serf, at least as a party to the device of majority voting, which smothers personal views." ('The Case for Xanthippe', in The Crane Bag, 1969)
Robert Graves was born in Wimbledon, south London, into a middle-class family. His father, Alfred Percival Graves, was a school inspector, a Gaelic scholar, and the author of the popular song 'Father O'Flynn'. Amalie von Ranke, Graves' mother, was a great-niece of the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795-1866). Graves's childhood was a happy one, although he hated his school. He was educated at Charterhouse, where he started to write poetry. His first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, came out in 1916.
Graves did not graduate from Oxford University but joined in
1914 the British Army. During World War I he served alongside Siegfried
Sassoon in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. The regiment was involved in some
of the heaviest fighting on the Western Front. On the Somme Graves was
severely wounded. A piece of shell went right through his back and
chest; his obituary was appeared in The Times. Being listed by
in military casualties troubled him a decade. Among the allied dead of
the Somme were a number of writers, including H.H.
W.N. Hodgson, T.M. Kettle, and Alan Seeger. From the 1940s, Graves
suppressed his war poems, whereas Sassoon continually revised his
In 1918, Graves married the painter and feminist Nancy Nicholson, and took his B.Litt in 1926. In the same years Graves moved to Egypt to work as a professor at the University of Cairo. He was accompanied with his wife, children and the poet Laura Riding (original surname Reichenthal), with whom he established the Seizin Press and published the journal Epilogue (1925-38). Devoted to her, Graves saw her as his muse, a great natural fact, like fire or trees or snow. Virginia Woolf, who met Graves in 1927, described him as having "a crude likeness to Shelley, save that his nose is a switchback & his lines blurred. But the consciousness of genius is bad for people." Her conclusion was that "No I don't think he'll write great poetry: but what will you?"
In 1929, Graves moved with Riding to Deya, in Mallorca, where he lived the most of his life. The outbreak of Spanish Civil war forced them leave the island, and after brief periods in Lugano, Brittany and London, they sailed for America in 1939. Graves and Riding settled with Schuyler B. Jackson on a farmhouse in Pennsylvania.
The controversial autobiography Good-Bye to All That (1929), a chronicle of the disillusioned postwar generation, became a huge bestseller but alienated several of Graves's friends, notably Sassoon and Edmund Blunden. The book described the author's unhappy time at school, the horrors of war and the end of his first marriage. "And if condemned to relive those lost years I should probably behave again in very the same way; a conditioning in the Protestant morality of the English governing classes, though qualified by mixed blood, a rebellious nature, and an overriding poetic obsession, is not easily outgrown." (in Good-bye to All That, 1929)
Another commercially successful book was Lawrence and the Arabs (1927). Later Graves told that Goodbye to All That "paid my debts and enabled me to set up on Majorca as a writer". With Riding he collaborated on a number of literary projects, but their personal relationship was undermined by infidelities. Riding's polemical A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), published by Seizin Press, influenced the New Criticism. By the end of the 1930s their paths separated. Riding declared that she had made a serious error by joining him in 1926, and married in 1941 Schuyler Jackson (d. 1968). Graves fell in love with Beryl Hodge, the daughter of a London solicitor and wife of his friend Alan Hodge, with whom he returned to Mallorca in 1946 and married her in 1950.
Alexander Korda's doomed production of I, Claudius was shut down after the leading lady, Merle Oberon, was involved in a car accident. Charles Laughton's performance in the title role has been called one of the greatest in the history of cinema. Originally Korda wanted William Cameron Menzies to direct the film, but eventually he hired Josef von Sternberg, who was in a London hospital, but recovered once signed for the production. He even began to wear his signature turban. Oberon was not very seriously injured, but by the time she was ready to continue, Sternberg had taken refuge in a mental hospital.
Graves considered himself primarily a poet. His early lyrics were written in gloomy, late-Romantic style. Later poems, often set within a mythological framework, dealt mainly with love and marriage, birth and death. Classical literature and mythology became Graves a constant source of inspiration. His views on intuition and poetry Graves summarized in the essay 'The Case for Xanthippe' (1960). According to Graves, women and poets are natural allies. Abstract reasoning is a predominantly male field of thought, and rational schooling discourages intuitive thought. "Abstract reason, formerly the servant of practical human reasons, has everywhere become its master, and denies poetry any excuse for existence." Reason fails to prompt the writing of original poems, and shows no spark of humour or religious feeling. Philosophy, under the name of abstract reasoning, is antipoetic. "Though philosophers like to define poetry as irrational fancy, for us it is practical, humorous, reasonable way of being ourselves. Of never acquiescing in a fraud; of never accepting the secondary-rate in poetry, painting, music, love, friends. Of safeguarding our poetic institutions against the encroachments of mechanized, insensate, inhumane, abstract rationality."
In the 1940s, Graves became interested in myths and history. Studies of goddess lore led him also reinterpret the genealogy of Jesus, and rewrite the Gospels. In the historical novel King Jesus (1946), which rejected the mystical Virgin Birth doctrine, he presented Jesus as a sage and poet. Through the voice of Agabus the Decapolitans, Graves stated: "Jehovah, it seems clear, was once regarded as a devoted son the the Great Goddess, who obeyed her in all things and by her favor swallowed up a number of variously named rival gods and godlings – the Terebinth-god, the Thunder-god, the Pomegranate-god, the Bull-god, the Goat-god, the Antelope-god, the Calf-god, the Porpoise-god, the Ram-god, the Ass-god, the Barley-god, the god of Healing, the Moon-god, the god of the Dog-star, the Sun-god. Later (if it is permitted to write in this style) he did exactly what his Roman counterpart, Capitoline Jove, has done: he formed a supernal Trinity in conjunction with two of the Goddess's three persons, namely, Anatha of the Lions and Ashima of the Doves, the counterparts of Juno and Minerva; the remaining person, a sort of Hecate named Sheol, retiring to rule the infernal regions."
Graves was influenced by a number of the 19th-and early 20th-century scholars, such as Sir James Frazer, J.J. Bachofen, Jane Harrison, and Margaret Murray. In the 1950s he published two volumes of The Greek Myths (1955) and The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1953, with Joshua Podro). Graves' influence can be seen among others in Ted Hughes' poetry and Joseph Campbell, who has examined the idea that "mythology is a sublimation of the mother idea" (Campbell in The Power of Myth, 1988).
From 1961 to 1966 Graves was Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford - he was 66 when he delivered his first lecture in this office. Graves wrote several autobiographical works, essays, and carried out Greek and Latin translations. On his close friend of T.E. Lawrence (1888-1935) Graves published in 1927 a biography. Lawrence had taken him under his wing at Oxford. When the director David Lean started to work with Lawrence of Arabia, he contacted Graves. "He was one of the most interesting people I met," Lean later said. "Graves was sitting in a bed in the public ward of a London hospital, looking eccentric. He had known Lawrence very well, and he used to laugh about him. He told me all sorts of things, which were fairly useful, but he was slightly malicious."
Together with Omar Ali-Shah, Graves published in 1967 a new versification of Omar Khayyam's quatrains, entitled The Original Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Apparently Graves genuinely believed that his collaborator's manuscripts, dated 1153, were genuine, but they turned out to be forgeries. Graves' later works often challenged academic and popular conventions, emphasizing the value of mythology and poetry over science and technology. He advocated a method of scholarly research, which he called "analeptic thinking" – first we should decide what we wish to believe, and then collect scholarly evidence to the support of the idea.
Graves' brother Charles, who worked as a journalist, described him in 1961 in The London Evening Standard as "immensely self-sufficient in his own craft, haunted with a gouty complex about his private life induced by our very religious early upbringing, completely charming when he feels you are with him, a fantastically hard worker with all the courage in the world..."
Richard Perceval Graves, the author's nephew, later published a three-volume biography on the great writer and scholar, one of the most colorful men of letters in the twentieth century, who confessed in The White Goddess: "Since the age of fifteen poetry has been my ruling passion and I have never intentionally undertaken any task or formed any relationship that seemed inconsistent with poetic principles; which has sometimes won me the reputation of an eccentric."
For further reading: Robert Graves by J.M. Cohen (1960); Swifter than Reason by Douglas Day (1963); Robert Graves by G. Stade (1967); The Great War and Modern Memory by P. Fussell (1975); Tobert Graves by K. Snipes (1979); Robert Graves by Martin Seymor-Smith (1982, rev. 1995); Conversations with Robert Graves, ed. Frank L. Kersnowski (1989); Robert Graves by Richard Perceval Graves (1986&1990); Robert Graves by Miranda Seymour (1995); Robert Graves and the White Goddess by Richard Perceval Graves (1995); Graves and the Goddess: Essays on Robert Graves's the White Goddess by Ian Firla and Grevel Lindop (2003); Counting the Beats: Robert Graves' Poetry of Unrest by Anne Mounic (2012); Robert Graves and the Classical Tradition, edited by A. G. G. Gibson (2015) - See also: Alan Sillitoe