Robert Graves

Robert von Ranke Graves

Born: 24th July 1885 in London, Britain.
Died: 7th December 1985 on Majorca.

Summary
British poet, writer, classical academic and critic whose war poems laid the foundation for an acclaimed, albeit troubled, career.

Family Background
Robert Graves was born into a dynasty of true European heritage, for within his family tree were English, German, Scottish, Danish and Irish nationals.

Despite this, the Graves were a typical British Victorian family of the upper-middle classes: strict and somewhat cold, but also loyal and well-educated. Biographies often stress the literary history of Robert's ancestors, for his great uncle - Leopold von Ranke - was a highly accomplished historian, while an eighteen century relative - Richard Graves - wrote The Spiritual Quixote, a novel successful within its era. Robert's father kept this 'tradition' alive by writing poetry.

Robert Graves' Youth
Having attended preparatory schools, Robert went to Charterhouse in 1907 via a scholarship: he disliked many of his fellows, thought even less of his teachers, became a school-boxing champion in two weights (welter and middle) and began writing poetry. He was also academically successful enough to gain a scholarship to St. Johns College in Oxford, where his intended subject was the Classics.

Enlisting
However, Robert was a strong-minded young man with a contentious nature and, driven partly by boredom in his course and partly - as some critics have suggested - by a desire to escape the perceived oppression of his father and to carve his own identity, Graves reacted to the declaration of war (for World War One) by travelling to the nearest place he could find for officer training and signing up.

He was on holiday in Wales at the time, and consequently Robert Graves joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, travelling to France as a captain in May 1915.

War and War Poetry
By coincidence, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers contained another captain given to writing poetry, Siegfried Sassoon, and the two soon met, supposedly after Graves found a copy of The Essays of Lionel Johnson on a mess table; recognising the work as that of an 1890's poet, Robert peeked at the inside cover and discovered Sassoon's name.

The pair struck up a friendship and Sassoon soon became a major - and some critics would say negative - influence on Graves' early poetic style. Nevertheless there was a war on, and Robert fought in both the Battle of Loos and the Battle of the Somme, where his Fusiliers were reduced to under 400 men. Soon after Graves was hit by shellfire as he waited for reinforcements.

Despite being wounded and evacuated to a hospital, Graves was quite literally dead to the world for a few hours, as the Fusilier's Colonel was told that Robert had died and The Times published his obituary accordingly. The mistake was soon discovered, but Graves' wounds caused a long period of convalescence. It was during this period, 1916 - 1917, that Robert Graves published the three volumes of war poetry which would always earn him a mention alongside people like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and his own mentor, Siegfried Sassoon: Over the Brazier, Goliath and David and Fairies and Fusiliers.

Classical Influences
Discussions of Graves Great War poetry are numerous, but the main comments regard the absence of anger or indignation over the war and the replacement of Christian images with a growing emphasis on classical mythology.

Both are partly explainable in terms Robert's history: having grown up in a partly German family Graves felt more confusion and ambivalence towards the enemy than hate, and it is perhaps inevitable that a classics scholar should replace his crumbling Christian faith with the depth and mystique of ancient mythology.

Graves Returns to the Front
Graves may have suffered severe injuries, but he healed physically and was soon active again. He helped save Siegfried Sassoon from court martial, trained troops and returned - and attempted to stay - at the front lines despite being exempted to do so because of his injuries: legend has it that Robert was threatened with court martial by the Fusilier's surgeon if he didn't return home. Further injuries returned him to Britain before the armistice, where he married Nancy Nicholson.

A Troubled Post-War Life
Although the war finished Graves was left shell-shocked and mentally scarred so, despite taking a position at St. John's College in Oxford and having four children with his wife, Robert became depressed and terribly troubled. Family and financial troubles helped exacerbate Graves' health, and he split from his wife in 1927.

Graves and Laura Riding
A new influence on Graves' life emerged in 1926 - a year before his marriage finally ended - when Robert met the human whirlwind that was Laura Riding. Attacked by some, praised by others - highlights of Riding's full-throttle life include jumping from a third floor balcony and driving a wife to madness so Laura could consummate an attraction for the husband - Riding's aggressive, ambitious and vaguely fantastic nature affected Graves both personally and creatively. Literary critics claim that Riding caused Graves to focus his poems, cutting out waffle and tangential material while highlighting irony, transforming him over the next few decades into one of Britain's leading romantic poets. Meanwhile, the events of 1914-18 were brought to closure by Robert's book Goodbye To All That, an account of his experience in World War One. This proved hugely important to the literature of warfare and enormously healing for Graves himself.

Shortly after the publication of Goodbye To All That, Graves and Riding moved to Majorca where they wrote numerous works, both in collaboration and alone, until the Spanish Civil War caused them to travel to American in 1936; three years later, Riding left Graves. Together, they had founded Seizin Press and co-authored several key pieces of poetical critique, including the important 'A Survey of Modernist Poetry' (an intriguing text which managed to be the first in identifying the modernist movement whilst also being the first to criticise it!) Individually, Graves refined his poetical style and wrote several of the books which made him a household name, the most famous being I, Claudius; others from his career include Claudius the God, Count Belisarius, Wife to Mr. Milton, Seven Days in Crete, and The Golden Fleece (sometimes called Hercules, My Shipmate).

The White Goddess
Now alone, Graves returned to Britain in 1939; he married Beryl Hodge shortly after, with whom Robert had another four children. The outbreak of World War II led to Graves writing war poetry for a new conflict, one that also killed his son David, and when Europe was at peace Graves moved his new family to Majorca.

The remaining decades of Robert Graves life were dominated by theories first published in his The White Goddess of 1948, a highly controversial and wide-ranging book which looked at classical mythology and poetry, examining the existence of a religion focused around a highly inspiring goddess. Critics have found both implicit and explicit references to the White Goddess in many of Graves works, while Robert's personal life remained highly troubled, for he was obsessed with a series of 'muses' whom he considered to be manifestations of the White Goddess. The extent to which Graves really believed in his goddess, and the effect it had on his life and work, is a focal point of modern study.

Growing Fame
Goddesses aside, Graves' reputation grew as he produced more novels, poetical critique, classical studies, religious texts and original poetry; he also made frequent revisions to his earlier poetry. Notable volumes include The Greek Myths, a two volume dictionary; The Hebrew Myths and The Nazarene Gospel Restored. He also translated famous literature, his most popular - and most controversial - being The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyàm (with Omar Ali-Shah) and The Golden Ass. In 1961 Oxford University elected Graves as Professor of Poetry, in 1962 W.

H. Auden described him as England's "greatest living poet" and six years later the Queen of England awarded Robert a Gold Medal for Poetry. Needless to say, Graves was now an internationally renowned and highly inspirational figure.

Death and Importance
Although Graves continued to work he became affected by a disease of the brain, fading into a quiet senility; he died in 1985 at 90. Often cited as a war-poet of the 1914-1918 conflict, or as the author of I, Claudius, Robert Graves actually published over 140 works in a large range of disciplines, courting controversy with his academia but gaining fabulous praise for his poetry which he refused to alter in the face of modernism. No study of twentieth century literature is complete without him - indeed, he helped invent the modern critical apparatus - and hundreds flocked to see him on Majorca every year (much against his wishes).

His personal life may have been full of confusion, passion and angst, but his obituaries reflected how much he'd achieved since his first in 1916.