Robert Graves

Robert-Graves-in old-ageRobert von Ranke Graves (1895-1985) was a poet and novelist, now best known probably for his autobiography Goodbye to All That and for his two novels about the fourth Roman Emperor, I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). His classical interests also inspired him to write a fantasy novel which dramatised the story of The Golden Fleece, and his study of poetry and inspiration called The White Goddess (1948) also led him to publish a novel which is either science fiction or fantasy: Watch the North Wind Rise (1949) also published as Seven Days in New Crete. He wrote a memorable fantasy short story called “The Shout” (which became a horror film in 1978, starring Alan Bates), and what must be one of the most delightful of all science-fictional (or perhaps fantasy) poems, “Welsh Incident”:

‘But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.’

[…] They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail’s pace.

Graves was born in Wimbledon in Surrey, the son of an Irish journalist Alfred Perceval Graves and a German mother, Amalie Elizabeth Sophie von Ranke (“Amy”), who was the great-niece of the pioneering historian Leopold von Ranke. The Von Ranke connection was on both sides of the family: not only was Graves’ mother a von Ranke, but his Irish great-aunt Helena Clarissa Graves had married Leopold von Ranke himself. Graves’s full name was an embarrassment at school, of course, where they suspected that he was not only a German, but a German Jew, which was far worse. Graves always insisted (in an impeccable English accent) that he was Irish.

Robert Graves was at Charterhouse School from 1909-1914, where his poems were published from 1911 onwards in the school magazine. One of the masters, and a personal friend, was George Mallory, who taught Graves what he knew of mountain climbing. “He was generally despised by the boys because he was neither a disciplinarian not interested in cricket or football,” Graves wrote (GTAT, 64); “he tried to treat his classes in a friendly way and that puzzled and offended them.” Mallory died while trying to make the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1924; his body was found in 1999.

Graves was due to take up a classics exhibition at St John’s College, Oxford, in October 1914. The war intervened.

Graves got married during the war, in January 1918, to Nancy Nicholson, the daughter and sister of well-known artists; Graves’ best man was George Mallory. After Graves was demobilized, the two of them went to live in a cottage in John Masefield’s garden on Boar’s Hill, near Oxford. He enrolled in St John’s College to read English, rather than Classics, but the couple found life very difficult. They had almost no money, and were largely dependent on handouts from better-off friends. Graves was still suffering from shell-shock. Nancy gave birth to four children between 1919 and 1924. Graves gave up his undergraduate studies, but was unusually given leave to submit a dissertation for a BLitt (a lesser research degree than a DPhil, which is what Oxford called its PhD, but in those days perfectly respectable, as relatively few people did PhDs), and in 1926 he submitted a thesis on the illogicality of poetry, which gained him his degree and which had already been published as Poetic Unreason (1925).

In 1925 Graves was appointed Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. He left for Egypt with Nancy, and with an American poet called Laura Riding, with whom he began an affair after their return to England in July 1926. For a while the three of them lived together, and the threesome seemed to work. However, the arrival in the household of Geoffrey Phibbs, an Irish poet, complicated matters.The traumatic event of 27 April 1929, when Laura drank disinfectant and threw herself out of a fourth-floor window in St Peter’s Square, London, was what led directly to Graves writing his classic war narrative, Goodbye to All That (1929). All That included not just the Great War but his old life with Nancy, his family, even his children. He wrote the book in eleven weeks; it was published in November 1929, and it sold ten thousand copies in ten days (a success which built in part upon the scandal, during which for a while the police had suspected Graves of attempted murder). Graves and Laura then moved to Deyá in Majorca, where, on and off, he spent much of the rest of his life. They wrote a novel together; he wrote much poetry, and his two Claudius novels.

The Spanish Civil War caused them to leave Majorca in 1936, and, while on a trip to America in 1939, Laura left him for someone else. He returned to England, and almost immediately Beryl (newly married to Alan Hodge) came into his life, and they lived together in Devon through the Second World War (which saw the death of his son David). In 1941 Graves published a social history of the interwar period with his partner’s husband Alan Hodge (The Long Weekend) and his novel Wife to Mr Milton (both 1941).

In 1946 Graves and Beryl went to Majorca, where he wrote The White Goddess. He married Beryl in 1950, soon after being granted a divorce by Nancy Nicholson. Graves had four children by Beryl. During this second period in Majorca, Graves’ reputation soared, and he was given honours and awards in both Britain and America. From 1961 to 1966 he was professor of poetry at Oxford (and in Michaelmas Term 1965 he lived in a room on the same staircase in St John’s where I [Edward James] lived as a first-year history student—Graves’s nephew and future biographer Richard Perceval Graves was also a history student at St John’s at that time).

By the mid-1970s Graves was suffering from increasing memory loss, and by 1975 (when he was 80) was unable to work any more. He died and was buried at Deya in Majorca in 1985.

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Graves is by his nephew Richard Perceval Graves, who also wrote a three-volume biography: Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895–1926 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), Robert Graves: The Years with Laura Riding, 1926–1940 (1990)  and Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940–1985 (1995). I found the introduction by Steven Trout in his edited book Robert Graves: Goodbye to All That and Other Great War Writings (Manchester: Carcanet, 2007) extremely useful; but the edition of Goodbye to All That that I cite (it is the original 1929 version, not the heavily revised 1957 version that is more generally available) is Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography, edited with a biographical essay and annotations by Richard Perceval Graves (Providence RI and Oxford: Berghahn, 1995).


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