Flying a kite in a thunderstorm

4th August 1995 at 01:00
On the centenary of Robert Graves's birth, John Mole celebrates the life and work of a headstrong and heroic poet.

It would be disingenuous not to begin with a confession. In the Sixties, I was a Robert Graves groupie. Far too starry-eyed ever to introduce myself in person, though we did correspond briefly about some poems I'd sent him when I was a Cambridge undergraduate and he was professor of poetry at Oxford, I followed the later stages of his career with veneration. He seemed everything that a poet ought to be: authoritative, visionary, subversive, a maverick at odds with the establishment. There was about him a romantic glamour, but nothing fey. The magic cloak was metaphorical. In person, physically imposing with a head, as was often remarked, which might have been stamped on a Roman coin, he was very much the officer-in-charge.

Graves insisted on the highest professional standards in poetry and demonstrated these as much by a playful savaging of anthology favourites - Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" and Tennyson's "The Eagle" being just two among many - as by positive explication. Coleridge, one of his handful of true poets, wrote that "praise of the unworthy is robbery of the deserving" and once Graves had decided upon the unworthy - in their lives as well as in their work - there was no stopping him. In a 1969 Paris Review interview he declared: "There are fifteen English poets - I am speaking precisely - in the history of listed literature who were real poets and not playing at it". When asked to name them, he replied "That wouldn't be polite" but went on to insist that what they had in common was "a source in the primitive. In the pre-rational. "

His own poetry at this time, much of it inspired by and addressed to a succession of young muses, in whom the Goddess - alluring, demanding and always beyond reproach - was seen to abide, was a passionate, if increasingly formulaic, synthesis of dramatic mythological reference and classically controlled diction. "Let anyone call me a dirty old man who dares" he wrote to a friend regarding the last and youngest of the muses. Poetry made its own rules, one of which was to court disaster and celebrate the pain.

It is easy to see the great appeal of all this at a time when contemporary English poetry seemed both trivially factional and bound by respect for the monolithic modernists. Here was an utterly serious, magnetically attractive figure who belonged to no club but had clearly paid his dues. From a centrally poetic core he would pronounce on everything from global economics to magic mushrooms, an often bizarre, intuitive eclecticism making breathtaking leaps across chasms of nonsense and landing safe. Call him dotty who dared.

We know now, and it is not the least achievement of the recent biographies to have charted it so sympathetically, that towards the end of his career before an agonising and humiliating senility finally silenced him, with his memory going and unable to write sustained prose but ever more sought out for his opinions - even appearing on TV talk shows - he became a somewhat helpless showman. As Miranda Seymour points out, some of his friends started to squirm "at his references to the rape of the moon, secret plots by the CIA and the dangers of feeding milk to homosexuals", but at least to begin with "eccentricity and old age, rather than madness, seemed the appropriate diagnosis". A long-standing friend commented that "Robert simply became more Robert", and the real value of the present centenary reassessment is that it releases a marvellous writer from the prison of his decline, though at the time, to those who did not recognise the symptoms, that very decline had a magnificence all of its own.

Of the three recent biographies, Martin Seymour-Smith's is a reissue of his 1982 book, completed and published before the poet's death but with much new material added. Richard Perceval Graves (Robert's nephew) takes up the story of his uncle's life where his last volume left off - that is with the break from Laura Riding who, depending on the position you take, either revolutionised or clarified Graves's thinking, and his meeting with Beryl Pritchard (Hodge) whom he eventually married and who sustained him with, some would say, a saintly, ironic patience as he became more and more Robert. As Seymour-Smith writes in his introduction: "Graves's life would lend itself all too admirably to Sun-like treatment - what with war wounds, jumps from windows, threesomes in bed, adultery, blood-brotherhoods", but while he documents the high drama with relish, his real achievement is to show how - as Yeats once put it - "the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast" is shaped into art, into "something intended, complete".

Richard Perceval Graves, too, comes up with some striking insights where the work is concerned. Access to family papers does not, as it would with a lesser biographer, overwhelm him with material, and some of the best parts of his book are interpretative. Particularly impressive is his study of what many would regard as Graves's finest novel, Wife to Mr Milton. Graves's antipathy towards Milton was lifelong, and he never missed an opportunity to ridicule him, but what RP Graves convincingly demonstrates is that so much in Milton's life parallels events in Graves's own and that the novel derives its power from being a mirror held up to the dark side of his soul.

Excellent though these two books are, it is Miranda Seymour's Robert Graves: Life on the Edge that I would recommend first to a reader unfamiliar with the pattern of Graves's career. With great clarity, and just the right amount of colourful incident, she shows how his capacity to thrive on images of fear and domination shaped the course of his life and art: childhood marked by the need to excel, an increasing hostility to all forms of convention, war experience, neurasthenia, early marriage to Nancy Nicholson leading up to the Majorcan years with Laura Riding and their aftermath, the "recovery" with Beryl to whom Graves wrote some of his most generous, least haunted love poems, and then, with the inevitable realisation that contentment was hostile to the spirit of his poetry, the coming together of personal need and poetic principle in The White Goddess, the universal Other Woman. Miranda Seymour closes with an account of Graves's relationships with the young muses who, for him, embodied the goddess, triggering his emotional responses. She neither praises nor blames, though towards the very end a note of gentle exasperation is sounded: "The love-songs and poems poured out for the last four women in his life are all stitched from the same piece of cloth".

No short review can do justice to the range of Graves's interests and the sheer industry which matched his inspiration: Goodbye to All That, the Claudius novels, King Jesus, social history in The Long Weekend (with Alan Hodge), huge tasks of restoration and recreation like The Nazarene Gospels Restored (with Joshua Podro, his most scholarly collaborator), short stories of which "The Shout" is the most remarkable, journalistic investigation as in "The Whitaker Negroes" . . . the list runs on. Graves was happiest working on several projects at once, although everything would stop for a poem, many of which went through 15 drafts.

In Wild Olives, William, the eldest son of his second marriage, has given us a delightful, personal account of life with father after the family's return to Majorca - all the local intrigues, litigation and gossip, interlaced with some vivid descriptions of the mental processes by which Graves imagined himself back into the past or made mercurially intuitive connections like some kind of literary Sherlock Holmes. These are witnessed at home and, most amusingly, in the car (which needless to say he was kept from driving) where on one occasion he solved a conundrum with an explosive "So there". "Here was yet another example of Father's way of seeing things. To whom at school could I ever try to explain this?" How, too, to convey the profundity of his idiosyncratic faith? "Father venerated the White Goddess. His poems were addressed to her, and every month, when the new moon - sacred to her - appeared, he went outside, onto the dep"sito in Canellu$ or the balcony of the Palma flat, and bowed nine times. He then turned a silver coin three times to attract fortune. His worship was as familiar to me as church-on-Sundays to my dormitory mates".

Most important of all, of course, are the primary texts, and Carcanet have just brought out the first two volumes in their Robert Graves programme. Paul O'Prey's editing of the Collected Writings on Poetry is exemplary, although since the volume is prevented by Laura Riding's embargo from including any of their joint works, the influential reading of Shakespeare's Sonnet 129 in A Survey of Modernist Poetry - which was almost certainly by Graves himself - has to be omitted.

As for the most important work of all, the poems, Patrick Quinn's centenary selection contains a helpful introduction to the 150 poems which are placed in sections according to the five main stages of Graves's career. The editing is scholarly in its attentiveness to variants, dates of composition, original magazine appearances and so on, but rather lacklustre and there is an irritating misprint in one of the most beautiful early lyrics. Nowhere does Quinn acknowledge that the Penguin selection of Graves's poems made by the poet himself - referred to with deference - was later augumented by Anthony Thwaite, and then superseded by Paul O'Prey's excellent selection rectifying the impression of decline created by the 1975 Collected Poems (which was top-heavy with those last "poured out" poems) by restoring many fine earlier pieces. The O'Prey is still in print, and at less than half the Carcanet price is much the better buy.

Re-reading Graves, I am as sure as ever I was of his enduring importance. There is, perhaps, a case for seeing him as the last great Romantic who, in his own words, went out and flew his kite in every thunderstorm that promised to excite his imagination and, as a close friend once wrote, "never dodged the point where art and agony meet".

ROBERT GRAVES: HIS LIFE AND WORK. By Martin Seymour-Smith. Bloomsbury Pounds 25. - 0 7475 2205 7.

ROBERT GRAVES AND THE WHITE GODDESS. 1940 - 1985. By Richard Perceval Graves. Weidenfeld Nicholson Pounds 25. - 0 297 81534 2. ROBERT GRAVES: LIFE ON THE EDGE. By Miranda Seymour. Doubleday Pounds 20. - 0 385 40423 9.

WILD OLIVES: LIFE IN MAJORCA WITH ROBERT GRAVES. By William Graves. Hutchinson Pounds 18.95. - 0 09 179152 9.

ROBERT GRAVES: COLLECTED WRITINGS ON POETRY. Edited by Paul O'Prey. Carcanet Pounds 35. - 1 85754 172 3.

ROBERT GRAVES: THE CENTENARY SELECTED POEMS. Edited by Patrick Quinn. Carcanet Pounds 15.95. - 1 85754 126 X.

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