Good-Bye to All That
Good-Bye to All That
Robert Graves 1929Introduction
There were many fine, powerful memoirs published about the First World War, and Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That is considered to be one of the most honest and insightful. The descriptions of battle are horrifying, and the descriptions of military bungling and pomposity are darkly amusing. Graves' factual tone makes the remarkable seem unremarkable and the ordinary seem well worth examining. The book was published in 1929, more than ten years after the war's end, at a time when, like many writers who had lived through the war, Graves was still suffering from the trauma of fighting and was angry about the whole concept of war. His suffering shows in the disjointed methods he used—combining excerpts from letters, poems by himself and others, army commands and ramblings—to create a sense of the disorder he had felt since his time in battle.
Graves revised Good-Bye to All That in 1957 at the request of an American publisher. While revision usually leads to improvement, many critics believe that the cuts he chose to make actually detracted from the book and made the book a less honest work, taking away some of the immediacy and confusion that made the original version ring so authentic. A major change in the 1957 edition, for example, is the removal of information about Laura Riding, a poet with whom Graves was deeply involved in 1929. Looking back almost thirty years later, their affair might have seemed unimportant to him, but the material that is in the earlier edition tells much about the author that should be taken into account when reading this autobiography.
Robert von Ranke Graves was one of the most prolific poets of the twentieth century, with an active career that spanned six decades. He was born in London, England, on July 24, 1895, and grew up in a well-established British family, with German ancestry on his mother's side and Irish on his father's. His mother's family, the von Rankes, was dominated by clergymen, while the Graveses of his father's side were generally intellectuals, right down to his father, who was an amateur poet and an inspector of schools. Graves was raised in an atmosphere of thoughtfulness and civility. He attended private preparatory schools until he was ready to go to Oxford, but his education was interrupted when he enlisted to fight in World War I soon after it began in 1914.
Graves' service in the war is told about in great detail in Good-Bye to All That, the memoir that he wrote when he was thirty-three, an age at which most people lack enough life experiences to fill a book. He was an officer in the war, serving in the trenches that were in such close proximity to the enemy that unexpected, violent death was commonplace. A punctured lung removed him from active duty, but he returned to France, and, despite his pacifist inclinations, he served in the army until the Armistice was declared in 1918.
After the war Graves went to Oxford, taking advantage of government money available to him. There he became acquainted with many of the great writers of his time, including T. S. Eliot, John Masefield, and England's Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. His career as a poet bloomed, supported, as poets often are, by money made from teaching. At that time, his personal life became incredibly convoluted, as he tried to maintain a three-way marriage with his wife and Laura Riding, a poet who was both his lover and teacher. This experiment in flouting social and sexual conventions came to an end with Riding's attempted suicide and Graves' wife taking their four children and leaving him.
His career as a writer was remarkable for both its longevity and its diversity. He was primarily a poet, producing dozens of volumes of poetry between 1916 and 1975. He thought of himself as a poet and considered other work that he did as necessary to support himself. Graves is most remembered for prose works, though. His most famous work is the novel I, Claudius, which was a bestseller in 1935 and which was made into a very influential television series on the British Broadcasting Corporation in the 1970s. His biography of T. E. Lawrence, entitled Lawrence and the Arabs, was adapted to a major motion picture that has become a perennial classic. His translation of The Rubáiyat of Omar Khayyám became the classic translation, and his autobiography, Good-Bye to All That was re-released in a revised edition in 1957. These works were familiar across the world to people who had no idea their author wrote poems. When he died on December 7, 1985, in Deya, Majorca, Spain, Graves was a somewhat forgotten figure in British poetry, although his work continues to be examined in schools.
Good-Bye to All That begins with Robert Graves giving a brief account of his earliest memories, followed by a brief summary of what he is like at the time of writing: "My height is given as six feet two inches, my eyes as gray, and my hair as black." With those staples of "biographical convention," as he puts it, out of the way, Graves starts into the background of his family on both his mother's and father's sides, which is important information for showing the privileged class from which he came. His mother's German family is credited with being "a family of Saxon country pastors, not anciently noble" but educated and thoughtful people. From His father's Irish family, he sees an inherited gift for conversation. His father was an amateur poet but mostly a school-board official, and he was widowed with five daughters when he married Graves' mother. He was their third child together, born in 1895, when his mother was forty and his father forty-nine. Due to this great age difference, his father had little to do with the young Graves' childhood and is hardly mentioned in the book.
Unique memories of his childhood include the time he realized that he and the servants who worked for the family were of different classes; another, his "horror of Catholicism," which he learned growing up in a strictly Protestant household. In subsequent chapters, he explains that when he was not away at school, he was with his family at their house in Wimbledon or traveling, particularly to visit relatives in Germany.
Graves' childhood was spent moving from one preparatory school to another: his father disapproved of one, he was thrown out of another for using bad language, and he attended another for just one semester, "for my health." From the earliest schools, he remembers traumatic sexual encounters with girls. The daughter of one headmaster tried, with her friend, to find out about male anatomy by peeking down his shirt front, and, in what he calls "another frightening experience from this part of my life," he once had to go to his sister's school and wait for her, with dozens of girls walking past and staring at him. "[F]or months and even years afterwards my worst nightmares were of this girls' school," he explains, summarizing his fear as being "'Very Freudian,' as we say now."
The final prep school that he goes to, Charterhouse, is the one at which he spends the most time and the one that he dislikes the most. In his second year, he writes to his parents, listing the improper things that go on so that they will let him leave Charterhouse, but instead they take his letter to the headmaster, making Graves even more of an outcast. Left alone, he begins writing poetry and submits some of his work to the school's literary magazine, which leads to his joining the Poetry Society. There one of the other boys convinces him to try boxing, and he meets the character whom in the book he calls by the pseudonym "Dick." The book strongly hints at Graves' relationships with other boys while growing up. "In English preparatory and public schools," he explains, "romance is necessarily homo-sexual." His relationship with Dick is one of the most important things in his life at Charterhouse.
A few days after Great Britain declares war on Germany in 1914, Graves decides to leave Charterhouse and to enlist in the army. The war was expected to last only a few months, and he is desperate for an excuse to avoid graduating and moving on to college at Oxford. He takes a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a company with a long, revered history going back for several generations of British military service. After passing Officers' Training School, he enters the army as a lieutenant and, at age nineteen, is in charge of old soldiers who have already served in the army and have reenlisted. His first assignment is to a prison camp at Lancaster, where he watches enemy aliens. (The book confirms stories that the army denied about the mistreatment of prisoners.) While guarding them, he learns to be a proper soldier, picking up along the way the correct ways of giving orders and of behaving toward superior officers. In chapter XII of the book, by printing part of a short story that he wrote during the war about the experience, he reconstructs what he felt like when he arrived at the scene of battle in France. It provides a glimpse of one of the most glaring cases of officers being kept warm and dry and unaware of the damp, degrading, demoralizing conditions that the common soldiers face.
Life in the trenches soon becomes more boring than heroic. His descriptions of bloated bodies and men suddenly gunned down by snipers alternate with descriptions of the rations provided by the army and of quirky characters he has met. He describes the summer of 1915 as becoming more regimented, with new, more dangerous weapons and increased discipline. He also describes seeing the ghost of a dead comrade, noting that "Ghosts were numerous in France at the time." In September of that year, he takes part in an attack on the town of Auchy, which turns out to be one of the most senseless defeats in the book; the Germans are well-fortified, and Graves' company loses most of its men. After that action is over, and for the rest of the book, he has trouble with nerves.
In early 1916, Graves goes to England for an operation on his nose: it was broken during his days of boxing at school, leaving him unable to breathe through the army regulation gas mask. While he is away, a bloody battle at the Somme ends up killing sixty percent of the officers in his battalion, as well as tens of thousands of enlisted men. Graves returns to service, to another battalion at the Somme, and is soon seriously injured, getting shrapnel through his lungs and a piece of mortar embedded in his forehead. A well-meaning colonel, having noticed how far gone he is, writes to his parents that he has died in battle, a mistake that he corrects as soon as he is able. His battle career over, he is sent to England for a while to recuperate. He rejoins his battalion as soon as he can but quickly catches bronchitis, and the company doctor declares him too ill to serve in battle. He spends the rest of the war at desk jobs, such as adjudicating on a court marshal review board.
Having married Nancy Nicholson during the war, Graves sets about, after the war's end, to create a family. Because they were both late children in large, spread-out families, the couple decides that their children should come quickly, while they are young. Between 1919 and 1925, Nancy gives birth to four children. Living off Graves' military pension, they do what they can to supplement their income, at one point opening a small store that fails, while Graves, at various times, takes teaching jobs. There is a little money coming in from his poetry but nothing substantial. Writing poetry is, however, the main focus of his life, and he develops his own sensibilities as a writer seriously. He publishes poetry books frequently and tries other styles to make money, but none of them is popular.
In 1925, he accepts a teaching position at the University of Cairo, where he teaches English. The story ends abruptly upon the family's return to England, a stylistic quirk that is accounted for in Graves' cryptic "Dedicatory Epilogue to Laura Riding," who was his mistress and poetry mentor during the 1920s. He explains that he did not mention her in the book because mentioning her would have made her a flat character and demeaned her actual self but that the last few chapters "have a ghostly look" because of her absence from them. The epilogue gives a brief sketch of how she came to Islip at the request of Nancy and himself, how she accompanied them and the family to Cairo, and how she attempted suicide at the end of their affair by jumping out of a fourth-story window.
While the Graves family is living a peaceful suburban life in Islip, they try to be as good as they can to the unemployed beggars who have found themselves out of work in the postwar economy, especially those who have been in the service. Daisy is the thirteen-year-old daughter of one of those men. To save the trouble of worrying about her on the road, the Graves take Daisy into their house, offering to adopt her.
Daisy, as Graves puts it, "was not a success." She is big and coarse and awkward, unwilling to go to school; she argues with children her own age and is homesick for life on the road. When hobos come around asking for handouts, she chases them away, knowing better than the Graves which ones are able-bodied but unwilling to work. The next time that her father passes through town, he takes Daisy with him.
Biographers have identified the boy whom Graves refers to as "Dick" to be George Johnstone. At Charterhouse, Dick is admittedly one of the most important things in Graves' life. He is three years younger than Graves; they meet when they are both in the choir. It is implied, though never stated, that there is a romantic relationship between them. Dick weaves in and out of chapter VII, always mentioned as an important fact of Graves' life, although the book only talks about his attachment to Dick without ever showing them interacting. When a poem that he writes about Dick gets him called before the headmaster as "filthy," Graves threatens to reveal the fact that the headmaster is guilty of kissing Dick, too. When Dick is sent for, he confirms the story, although he later admits that he made it up.
While Graves is away at war, fighting in the trenches, he receives news that Dick "was not at all the sort of innocent fellow I took him for." Since the news was sent by a cousin who has a grudge against him, Graves decides to forget about it. Later, a colleague sends him a newspaper clipping about a court case in which a sixteen-year-old boy—Dick—was arrested near Charterhouse for propositioning a soldier. The article is written to complain that the boy had been given a light sentence because he came from an aristocratic family. After reading it, Graves decides that Dick must have been driven insane by the war, because he knows that there is insanity in his family. After this, Graves decides, "It would be easy to think of him as dead."
Laura Riding Gottschalk
See Laura Riding
Graves is of course the central figure of his autobiography. The book starts with a chronology of his family, tracing it back for centuries on both his mother's and his father's sides and pointing out famous people with whom the family interacted in order to establish the author's social rank. His childhood is spent in Wimbledon, with some summers spent in Germany visiting relatives on his mother's side. He ends up going to six preparatory schools, changing often because his father, an education specialist, disagrees with their programs, and this leaves Graves with a negative impression of the strictness and artificiality of the education system. He hints at sexuality with the sentence, "In English preparatory schools romance is necessarily homosexual," but, even though romances are hinted at (especially with the boy referred to as "Dick"), he gives no specific confirmation of any involvements. At his last school, Charterhouse, he learns to fit into the tight social order by taking up boxing, which establishes his niche as an athlete and leaves him with a broken nose.
Most of the book is about Graves' service in the First World War. He is attached to the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His involvement in fighting is minimal; the French and Germans have fairly intricate systems of trenches dug across from each other, and there are only occasional reasons to go out into the open, called "No-Man's Land," where one might be exposed to gunfire. For the most part, the danger is in standing up and being shot by one of the German snipers, who always seem to be ready for anyone. In the few cases in which there are outright attacks, such as the attack at the Somme, where Graves is injured, he offers graphic descriptions of the deaths that surround him. Because he is a gentleman-officer, Graves does not let his punctured lung keep him out of the service, and he returns to his battalion as soon as he can, only to find that he is too injured to bear the strain of war.
After leaving the service, Graves turns his attention to writing. He attends Oxford, only because the government is willing to pay his tuition, and he meets dozens of famous, influential writers. Teaching English is not, however, something that he wants to do. After he and his wife and children leave Oxford, they take a small cottage in Islip, living in near poverty and taking charitable contributions from friends to get by. A few friends recommend him for a teaching position at the University of Cairo, and the book's final chapters are spent describing the ways of the Egyptian people. Much detail about his personal life is missing from these chapters, which, by no coincidence, cover the years of his life that the poet Laura Riding was traveling with his family.
- In 1985, Books on Tape, Inc., released an unabridged audio version of Good-Bye to All That in eight cassettes.
- A 1990 audiotape version of Good-Bye to All That is available from Isis Audio Books of Oxford, England.
- Fans of Robert Graves can find out more about him at the Robert Graves Trust, Society, Journal and Archive home page at http://www.robertgraves.org (March 2001), with links that will lead students to related sites.
Hardy is one of England's greatest literary figures. His international reputation was established by the five novels he published before the turn of the century, from Far From the Madding Crowd in 1874 to Jude the Obscure in 1895. When Graves and Nancy go to see Hardy on one of their bicycle trips, he has them stay until the next morning. They talk about writing, about the neighbors, and about fashions. Near eighty by then, Hardy is bemused by Nancy's feminism, and he takes Graves' advice on handling autograph seekers.
T. E. Lawrence
Lawrence was an internationally respected hero in the First World War, having mobilized the Arabs to revolt against Turkish control of their country, weakening Turkey and, by extension, the entire Ottoman Empire. When Graves meets him in 1919, Lawrence has already achieved legendary status. They enjoy each other's company, talking about poetry. In 1927, Graves is contacted by a publisher to write a biography about Colonel Lawrence. The book turned out to be a bestseller, giving Graves his first taste of financial success.
Mallory is an instructor at Charterhouse school who befriends Graves. He is only twenty-five or-six at the time of their meeting, but he seems much younger, making people assume that he is a student. He becomes an admirer of Graves' poetry and shows it to others. It is Mallory who introduces Graves to the sport of mountain climbing. "George was one of the three or four best climbers in climbing history," Graves explains. The book later mentions that Mallory died climbing Mount Everest after the war.
Masefield is one of the most famous poets of the World War I generation. When they move to Oxford after the war, Graves and his family rent a house on Masefield's property. They expand the house to include a little shop, but they have trouble keeping it going, and so they go bankrupt. The Masefields are not interested in continuing the shop after Graves and his wife are forced to move away.
Nancy Nicholson is Graves' wife and the mother of his four children. Graves meets Nancy in 1916, when he is on leave after having his nose operated on. She is sixteen. He has come to visit her brother, whom he knows from the army, and after leaving he keeps thinking about her. They keep in touch because she is going to illustrate some children's poems of his, and at some point during their correspondence, he realizes that he is in love with her. They are married in January 1918, when she is eighteen and he is twenty-two.
Nancy is a strict feminist, according to Graves. She retains her own name and gives their daughters the last name Nicholson, while their sons have the last name Graves. When he rejoins the war, she is the inspiration for his poetry. After the war, they live in several locations—first Harlech, where his parents live, then Oxford, then Islip—with Graves writing and Nancy giving birth to babies and tending to them. She has four children with him in five years. At Oxford, it is Nancy's idea to open a little shop, like one that her old nurse opened in Devonshire. When it turns out that the shop is not only keeping her away from painting but also from raising the children properly, Nancy makes the decision to sell it, six months from when it opened. During the four years they spend at Islip, Graves is content to stay at home, but, at Nancy's request, they periodically take a borrowed vehicle and go on short trips, traveling without any plan, meeting interesting characters. The book does not mention it, but the trip to Egypt at the end included not only the Graves family but also Laura Riding, who was along, officially, as a secretary to Graves. By the time they returned to England, Graves was involved with Laura Riding, with Nancy's knowledge and consent, a relationship that is not mentioned in the book and is only hinted at in the "Dedicatory Epilogue" of the 1929 edition.
Though she is not mentioned within the text of the book and is not mentioned at all in the revised 1957 edition, Good-Bye to All That has Riding's influence all over it. The original 1929 book uses a poem of hers, "World's End," as an epigraph, and the book ends with a "Dedicatory Epilogue" addressed to her.
Riding was Robert Graves' mentor, his instructor in poetry, and, finally, his mistress. She traveled with the Graves family to Cairo when they went, turning their marriage into a threesome. When they returned to England, she took on another protege, a handsome young writer named Geoffrey Phibbs. When he left her, she drank disinfectant and then jumped out of a window, a fact referred to in the 1929 epilogue. Her life was saved, but she was an invalid, and she and Graves were together for another ten years after that.
Raymond is a boy at Charterhouse who befriends Graves when he joins the Poetry Society. He is the one who recommends that Graves take up boxing, which he does with great success. At school Raymond stops associating with Graves because he is "a complete and ruthless atheist," and Graves begins thinking about religion while preparing for his confirmation. He mentions in passing that he went to see Raymond once, years later, when they were both in the army, and that still later he heard that Raymond was killed at Cambrai.
Sassoon, one of the most influential poets to come out of World War I, served with Graves in the same battalion in the war. After Graves has been sent home with permanent disabilities, he keeps up correspondence with Sassoon, who stays in the battle even after being injured and submits his poetry to pacifist publications. In 1917, Graves receives a newspaper clipping in the mail, an article that Sassoon has published, called "Finished With The War: A Soldier's Declaration." The argument that it makes against the "political errors and insincerities" that caused the war is enough to have Sassoon court-martialed. To save his friend, Graves calls acquaintances in the army chain of command, using whatever connections he has to make them overlook Sassoon's treason on the grounds of his recent injury. Sassoon is sent to a home for neurasthenics, where his influence convinced Wilfred Owen, one of the most-read war poets of all time, to start writing poetry.
Coming of Age
The early chapters of Good-Bye to All That are spent establishing the background from which Robert Graves came. His mother's family, the von Rankes, is described as having been pastors, historians, and intellectuals, whereas the Graves side of his forebears, well-established in Great Britain, were important Protestant figures: rectors, deans, and bishops. A child of such an austere background has his position in the world already established, with social and religious standards to be met. Life among members of his family, including both his immediate family and the extended families in Ireland and Germany that he visits, is a matter of quietly finding out what is expected of a Graves. What makes the book interesting in these early chapters is to see how young Robert Graves is able to cope with the expectations that are put upon him.
It is when he goes away to school that Graves starts to come into his own as a person. The first of his boarding schools meets with disapproval from Graves' father. This is one of the only times in the book that the father shows a distinct personality, and his decision, as an "education expert" (as the book makes sure to point out) seems to establish a strain of individualism in the son. Graves does not adapt to school well, forbidden by a doctor from participating in football and becoming the subject of bullying.
His own individual personality comes together at Charterhouse, the last boarding school he attends. He finds companionship in the school poetry club and self-esteem by becoming an accomplished boxer. He develops a sense of independence from the strict code of the school's caste system when he sees two other boys ignore the rules of appropriate dress without any consequence. When one of the instructors tells him to end his romantic relationship with Dick, he is not intimidated but calmly goes about blackmailing the teacher. In the final years before joining the army, he develops a sense of self-assurance that is independent of history and army rules so that he can report to the regimental tradition of the Royal Welch Fusiliers with a sense of detachment.
There is a sense of impending doom throughout Graves' stay in the army. This seems like an obvious turn of events, given the carnage and doom that surround a battle zone, but the structure of this memoir builds up his sense of fatalism even more than the war setting requires. Before being sent to France to fight in the trenches, while he is still guarding prisoners in England, the specter of his own death is already clearly present. He is well aware of the deaths of others who were in the exact same situation as he. He discusses his contemporaries being sent to France to fill the places of officers who have been killed and foreshadows the battle carnage with anecdotes about schoolmates that end with information about their eventual deaths in the war. He begins his account of being sent to war by saying that he first wrote that account two years after it happened, when he was recovering from being wounded at the Somme. The first dead body that he sees in the war zone is a young man who has committed suicide, a chilling reminder of the psychological pressure that was to weigh on Graves (and a fact mirrored years later when the last body he sees in the war is also that of a suicide).
It is obvious to readers that Graves will, in fact, survive the war, not just because he is the one telling the story but because he is able to capture some of the soldier's sense of battlefield fatalism. One method that he uses is the erratic appearance of death. George Mallory, for instance, comes through the war unscathed only to die five years later on Mount Everest. Nancy's mother hangs on to life in order to see her son, Tony, on leave, and Graves adds in parentheses when the story is all through that Tony died two months later. On the other hand, there are cases like that of Siegfried Sassoon, who takes a bullet through the head with little more effect than if he had broken his leg.
The true fatalism in this story is that Graves will go mad after all that he has seen. The story slips from a sense of old English order to the chaos of war, (concurrent with the deterioration of Graves' mental stability). It seems that eventual madness, or at least a loss of a sense of reality and propriety, is the fate of anyone who does not die in battle. Even from the first, there is no pretense that the person telling this tale has come through the war without mental damage, and the final chapters, containing less and less detail, fall apart as the destruction that war foretold comes to pass.
Topics for Further Study
- Read Siegfried Sassoon's recollections of service in the war, and point out ways in which they differ from Graves'.
- Before World War II, the war that Graves served in was known as the Great War and the War to End All Wars. Make a chart of things about that war that were different from anything people had experienced before.
- Get recordings of the music that people listened to during the war, and explain how the popular songs reflected ideas referred to in Good-Bye to All That. Explain why jazz music flourished during the 1920s, a period known as the Jazz Age.
- Read some poetry by Laura Riding, and compare it to some of Graves's poetry. Was he right to look on her as his mentor? Explain why or why not.
- Compare the gas used by Iraq during the Persian Gulf War to the chlorine gas and mustard gas used during World War I. Report on what defenses modern troops have against chemical warfare.
- Graves describes his wife, Nancy Nicholson, as a feminist. Describe what the feminist movement was like in England in the 1920s. What were the key issues? Who were the important figures?
Almost any story about the British upper class in the early part of the twentieth century is bound to touch upon the discomfort with the class system that was growing at the time, and a war story is even more likely to recognize this problem because the structure of the military throws members of different classes into close proximity with each other. Good-Bye to All That starts by establishing Graves' social standing, and throughout the book, readers can see his faith in the class system slipping. In the second chapter, he broaches the subject of class with an interest that would continue through adulthood: "I have asked many of my acquaintances at what point in their childhood or adulthood they became class-conscious, but have never been given a satisfactory answer." His own story involves the children that he meets while in the hospital with a case of scarlet fever: in the hospital, they all wear standard-issue nightgowns, but outside it is evident from the different styles of clothes who is from which class. "I suddenly recognized with a shudder of gentility that there were two sorts of people—ourselves and the lower classes." This episode presages the experience of war, in which uniformity of dress and behavior is stressed almost fanatically to erase individual identity.
Graves' wartime experience has the effect of teaching him respect for men of the lower classes and a corresponding dislike for those in fortunate positions higher up the social ladder. He is confident of his own ability as an officer and is not intimidated by the fact that he has to give commands to men twice his age, but at the same time he learns to be impressed with the natural intelligence of uneducated, poor men who are in the war simply for the money. He draws an implied comparison between the army regulars who enlist and reenlist and those who join with schemes of working themselves up to high offices. After the war, trying to raise his family on a military pension, he has no qualms whatsoever about opening a store, an activity that another gentleman of his class might have felt beneath him.
A chronicle is usually a record of events, in chronological order, without any commentary from the writer about them. For the most part, Good-Bye to All That takes the tone of a chronicle, with Graves presenting facts from his life dispassionately, as if he were a disinterested third party. The whole book is presented using the pronoun "I," so there is no pretense that the author is separate from the person whose life is recorded, but he does not give much sense of how he feels about the events recorded in the book. Even when he records events that obviously mean much to him, such as his relationships with Dick or his children or Laura Riding, he tells them as factually and unemotionally as possible, to let the details of the story speak for themselves. The fact that the information is presented chronologically, from his birth to the time of writing it, serves to assure readers that he does not want this story to be interesting because it is his story but that it is interesting in itself and does not have to be magnified with stylistic tricks.
Ironic language says one thing with words while conveying the opposite meaning with the way the words are arranged. In the case of Good-Bye to All That, irony is easy because the author's natural British English is elevated and formal, better designed for describing proper social behavior than for capturing the horrors of war. Graves makes use of the verbal skills of the English to point out the strangeness of mixing gentlemen of leisure with the crudeness of the battlefield. There is a politeness in referring to unintelligent students as "dull" in a sentence like "Many dull boys have brief brilliant military careers, particularly as air-fighters, becoming squadron and flight commanders," and this politeness thinly masks the implied fear that the fate of the war is in the hands of unqualified people whose careers, if surprisingly brilliant, are bound to be brief. The greatest moments of elevated language seeming out of place in the war are reserved for the officers whom he quotes directly, such as the doctor who patronizingly tells Siegfried Sassoon, while giving him a shot, "Toughest skin of the lot, but you're a tough character, I know." Readers can tell that Graves loves such inflated language—that as a gentleman he feels most comfortable with language that serves to cushion people from unpleasantness—but they can also tell that he is aware of the irony of bringing genteel sensibilities into war.
One of the strangest things about Good-Bye to All That is the "Dedicatory Epilogue to Laura Riding," which accompanied the 1929 edition but was removed from Graves' 1957 revision. The epilogue that was added in its place is not much to speak of, a quick list of what happened over time to some of the people and places described in the book. The 1929 epilogue, however, shows Graves exercising his poetic power to evoke the sort of life he wanted to build for himself, even as he was dismissing the military and academic lives that he had tried and found wanting. The fact that it is an epilogue at all is artistically innovative: normally, a dedication like the one he gives to Riding would have come at the beginning of the book, but Graves breaks convention because, as he explains to her, he wants to think of the book as a beginning of his life with her, looking "forward from where I was instead of backward from where you are." The language that he uses in this epilogue is airy, mysterious, like a private language that he shares with her, as opposed to the thick, rich language that comprises the substance of the book. He repeats the phrase "After which" eight times, four of them as lonesome sentences in freestanding paragraphs, which gives the epilogue a thoughtful, almost inarticulate tone—the voice of a serious artist. Riding was Graves' collaborator and his mentor in poetry, but she was also his lover, and this dedication, with its brief mention of her jump from a fourth-story window and her subsequent spinal disfigurement, tells the story behind the story, giving readers of the 1929 edition a glimpse at his frame of mind while he was writing the book. The Laura Riding epilogue was deleted from the 1957 edition, as were all mentions of Riding, apparently because they stopped seeing each other in 1940, but that does not diminish the understanding that this epilogue can offer about what Good-Bye to All That meant to Graves as he wrote it.
Britain's Entry into World War I
The start of World War I in 1914 was a result of tangled diplomatic efforts and treaties that bound some countries to aid others, drawing most of Europe into a war that was only remotely relevant to its citizens. The main aggressors in the war were situated in central Europe, east of France, but the sprawl of alliances quickly spread it far from its center. As in most cases of war, the roots of the conflict can be traced to historical causes decades before the event itself. One of the most significant of these was the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, in which Germany gained a large part of land from France, the Alsace-Lorraine. Always wary that France would try to take this border area back, Germany formed treaties with Austro-Hungary and Russia, to come to each other's defense in times of war. The Russians soon became uninterested, especially when Great Britain helped them through an economic crisis, and so Russia, France, and Britain ended up in a new alliance. In 1908 the Austro-Hungarian empire annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina, a situation of military occupation that many Bosnians resented.
The event that led to war was the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a member of a radical underground group while he was visiting Serbia. The Austro-Hungarian Empire held the Serbian government responsible for the assassination, and, when the strict demands that they made from Serbia were not met, they declared war. Russia moved its troops to the Austro-Hungarian border and to the German border; Germany declared war on Russia, and, to prevent French involvement, Germany attacked France, going through Belgium to come from a side that the French had not defended. Great Britain, in support of Belgium, declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914.
The defense line along the French border spread, reaching from the North Sea to Switzerland, and was known as the Western Front (as opposed to the war along the Russian border, which was the Eastern Front). Both sides dug miles and miles of trenches so that their soldiers could move around underground, out of sight of the enemy. The area between the trenches, where a person walking could be easily seen and shot, was referred to as No-Man's Land. For the entire the war, the trench network stayed in place, keeping combatants near each other but hidden.
Because both sides were literally rooted in the ground, the war did not show much prospect of nearing any sort of progression, much less a resolution. Both sides tried to find an advantage that would shift the tide of battle over to their side. On April 22, 1915, at the French town of Ypres, the German army ushered in a new, modern age that changed the face of combat, and of modern sensibilities in general, by introducing the use of poisonous chlorine gas into the theatre of battle. Past civilizations had considered gas, but the idea of spreading poison into the air where it would affect so many non-combatants was generally considered too barbaric, even in warfare. As recently as 1899, an International Declaration signed at The Hague addressed the issue specifically, recognizing that warring factions had considered gas since ancient times and had always found it to be too torturous to its victims and too uncontrollable to be considered a legitimate tool of war. The German gas attack at Ypres caught French and British troops by surprise, killing anywhere from a few hundred to fifty-nine thousand men. Over the whole war, chemical weapons are thought to have killed at least a million people. After Ypres, gas masks became standard issue for soldiers, although most masks, as Graves explains, offered minimal protection.
World War I also introduced new, portable, lightweight machine guns into the arsenal of war. Airplanes, which were a fairly new development since the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, were originally used for observation, but during the course of the war, pilots started to combine flight and machine gun technology to strafe enemy lines from above. Previous battle techniques of moving troops around in groups to shoot at one another gave way to destruction on a greater and greater scale.
Compare & Contrast
1929: The horrors of the Great War are unprecedented in world history, leaving a generation disillusioned and cynical.
Today: After the vast international scope of World War II and the televised mayhem of Vietnam, politicians are only likely to commit to wars that can be waged with computers and long-distance missiles.
Today: Because of advances in travel and communications, the economies of separate nations are more dependent on each other than ever before.
1920s: Modernism, the artistic movement that turns away from traditional forms, brings thrilling new possibilities to painting, literature, and music.
Today: After post-modernism, which reflected art's awareness of its own techniques, artistic theories have become divided so that no particular school dominates artistic thought today.
1929: "Feminism" is seen as a rare, exotic political stance taken by women who are considered troublemakers.
Today: After tremendous gains for women's rights in the past few decades, the word "feminism" is still used often in the negative sense to brand its adherents as complainers and troublemakers.
1929: Cairo is seen by Europeans as mysterious and frightening, prompting T. E. Lawrence to comfort Graves by explaining that "Egypt, being so near Europe, is not a savage country."
Today: Television satellite feeds from all over the world have reduced stereotyped images about other cultures.
When the war was over, artists who had participated in it returned home with a different perspective on life than they had when leaving home. Many, like Graves, had been enthusiastic schoolboys, trained in literary traditions that spanned back to ancient Greece by schools that only admitted members of privileged social classes. In the war they saw death and mutilation affect anyone, rich or poor, crude or well-mannered, educated or ignorant. They learned that traditional expectations could not be counted on, that the rules of social behavior that had been taught to them could be erased within a couple of years. Artists and writers who had been in the war applied this lesson to their views of artistic tradition. "Modernism" is the word that is used to describe the change that swept over the arts in the 1920s. It was not a movement in the sense that members thought of themselves as belonging to something, but it was a philosophical outlook that came to dominate all of the arts from the end of World War I to the 1960s.
The modernist ethos, as summed up in an oftquoted line by poet Ezra Pound, was to "Make it new." In fact, modernist art went to any extremes to defy tradition, to flaunt artistic freedom, to offend the expectations of audiences who thought that they knew what art was supposed to be. Audiences had a difficult time knowing how to deal with such forms of modernism as cubism in painting and imagism in poetry, because the works created under these beliefs had no point of reference outside of themselves and certainly no tradition. Good-Bye to All That is a modern piece in its rejection of traditional war narrative and its willingness to examine the dark, gruesome realities of war.
Good-Bye to All That has been regarded, since its first publication in 1929, to be one of the most sincere books written about the Great War. Its sincerity, though, is an artistic sort of sincerity that was not always appreciated. As Steven Trout put it in an essay comparing Graves' form of "truth" with Daniel Defoe's nearly two hundred years earlier, critics judged books about the war "according to their perceivable 'facts'—whether a writer had accurately related the details of a particular battle, for example, or whether he had presented a supposedly isolated incident, such as drunkenness among officers, as a common occurrence." By these standards, Good-Bye to All That was a weak and deeplyflawed narrative. The 1920s were a time of artistic revival, though, with literary theorists recognizing the fact that pure objectivity is nearly impossible. The writer is not a camera, and a work is going to reflect its author's personality. Critics who did not look to Graves' book for facts about the war but for a sense of what it was like were impressed with what he managed to convey. Paul O'Prey wrote of Graves' using his writing as "a form of therapy" after the war, and the critics who recognized this element in the disjointed style of Good-Bye to All That knew how it helped make the soldiers' experience more vivid.
In fact, the public taste for literature expanded so much curing the 1920s that Graves' erratic structure was not just good for intellectuals and artistic theorists. According to Wolfgang Saxon's obituary when Graves died, the book "made an enormous impact on a reading public that was just beginning to come to grips with the realities of the war." Richard Pearson credited the book with creating Graves' "reputation as a writer of the first rank."
Graves continued his literary career for more than fifty years after publishing Good-Bye to All That. He considered himself primarily a poet, and those who took him seriously as a writer thought of him that way too: "Graves is first and last a poet," wrote Randall Jarrell, himself a poet of some repute, "in between, he is Graves." Jack Skow gave an even more lighthearted dismissal of Graves' non-poetic career in Esquire when he credited him with being "famous as a poet and as a literary buccaneer." Though most critics acknowledge that Graves is known to the public for his autobiography and his novels, they have generally been willing to take him at his word, while respecting his prose works, and regard him primarily as a poet.
Kelly is an instructor of creative writing at several colleges in Illinois. In this essay, he looks at Good-Bye to All That as a satire of warfare and British formality.
We all know that there is nothing funny about war and that death brings nothing but sorrow, especially when it comes to young men who are struggling to make the world a better place. On the other hand, even though we know this so well, there is no denying that the world has a rich tradition of war comedies. Robert Graves' autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, falls into this comedy tradition, although contemporary readers never seem to get the joke.
Comedy works best when it has some serious-minded opposition trying to suppress it. Background circumstances dictate how much an act can make people chuckle: the coarsest group of oil-riggers would turn away embarrassed when one of their group tries making a vulgar sound for a laugh, but the same sound in the hushed sanctity of a cathedral can make a bishop burst out in a chuckle.
A satire, if it is going to work at all, has to look reasonably like the thing that it is satirizing in order to draw attention to the flaws of the original. Silliness itself is not satire; a satiric work needs to surround itself with a context that is to be its victim.
The strongest aspect of Good-Bye to All That is its ability to satirize the situations that Graves found himself in during the early parts of his life, before he could arrange his life as he wanted it. Unfortunately, that element is the last one that contemporary students grasp. Because they are seldom very aware of what was going on in Graves' time, readers are faced with understanding his world through the events depicted in the book. Many readers take the book as a history lesson about World War I, reading it for information rather than style. The problem with this is that satirists feel no responsibility for telling the truth, or even for adhering strictly to any standard of honesty, just as long as they can draw attention to the dishonesty of others. Graves' book is useful as a history lesson only to the extent that a comedy skit from television can tell us something about how people of its time felt about a subject, but it is unreliable about what they actually did.
For today's student, there is little way of discerning the satiric element of the work just from looking at the text. The somber elements of a serious war story are all there, from sudden bloody deaths to slow and pointless losses, from sadness to madness, all seeming to be ennobled by the author's urge to write poetry, which itself is, today, taken to mark one a serious thinker. The separate elements each sound serious enough, as does Graves' elevated, Edwardian-era diction. The book has all of the elements that readers are used to seeing from important, weighty writers, and that apparent severity is what makes it able to make fun of other war stories.
What Do I Read Next?
- Robert Graves' best-known work is his novel I, Claudius (1934). It is told through the eyes of the Roman emperor and is considered to be not just educational but a fast-paced, fun read. Graves followed his story with a sequel, Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina.
- The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien, is a highly biographical 1990 novel about the Vietnam War, with anecdotes about war's insanity that match those that Graves discussed decades earlier.
- Siegfried Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man (1928) is a classic of British literature, and, though out of print in America, still is available through many libraries. Sassoon offers a different perspective on life in the first battalion than what Graves describes.
- A Selection of the Poems of Laura Riding, edited by scholar Robert Nye, offers the best that Riding produced in her long lifetime and shows her talent, not just during the time of her relationship with Graves but for decades beyond. It is currently available from Persea Books in a 1997 paperback edition.
- One of the great novels to come out of World War I was by a German soldier, Erich Maria Remarque. His novel All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) examines the insanity and horror that pits young men of different countries against one another and is generally considered a literary classic.
- Graves will always be associated with T. E. Lawrence because of the biography that made him famous, Lawrence and the Arabs (1927). Lawrence tells his own story in Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (1926), available in paperback.
- Paul Fussell's book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it was recently named one of the one hundred best non-fiction books of the twentieth century by the Modern Library. It contains a lengthy examination of Good-Bye to All That.
- Geoffrey Wolff's Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby (1976) gives the story of a decadent literary life in the 1920s that sounds like the kind of unorthodox situation that Graves might have imagined when he tried to establish a three-person marriage after the war. It is, in fact, the story of the whole postwar counterculture movement in Paris.
The book does have its farcical element, which is an aspect that few readers fail to notice. There is no shortage of self-important officials where wise father figures should be, or of bullies in place of comrades, or dumb educators, sneaky bureaucrats, cruel lovers, and even inarticulate poets. The least one can say is that it is a war story spiced with the satirical parts running through it. It is only when one buckles down to the task of appreciating the book's tone in every little place—a task that most students never get around to, as most of them are kept busy simply trying to figure out what is going on—that it becomes clear just how little this book is serious about anything. Graves delivers all of the details with a monotonous deadpan, as if all were equally important, from the snipers to schoolboys' uniforms. Without variance of tone to guide them, it is difficult for readers to know which is more important—the fact that trout come out of an underground stream near a German castle "quite white from the darkness, enormous of size and stoneblind" or that Siegfried Sassoon left the army after being shot through the head. The reason that old men often wink when they tell tall tales to children is to let them know that they are not serious; Graves' prose never winks.
There are dozens of episodes in the book that can be seen as setting the satiric tone, most of them taking place away from the war zone, in England. It almost goes without saying that the vague bumbling of everyday life will always seem meaningless when held up to the hideous rigors of the battlefield, which is why traumatized soldiers have such a hard time readjusting to peace. Graves establishes the pointlessness of home life so subtly that readers are, unfortunately, less likely to pick up on the satiric tone of his war descriptions than they would be if the book were about the trenches alone. The beginning ten chapters, taking the story up to the point at which war is declared, are generally forgotten in summaries of the book, considered to be just necessary background but not very important to the main focus, which is the war and its effects. They serve a much more important function, though, in adjusting readers' expectations. The placid social backgrounds of the English and German households of Graves' youth and the preparatory schools' obsession for making all things seem important all hope to lower readers' expectation, so that nothing said during the war, even in the midst of death, seems too surprising. The war stories that Graves tells lose their impact because the overall presentation is so droll.
The place where readers can check whether Graves' tone is actually satirical, and whether this book of horrors is actually being played as a comedy, is in the pieces from other writers that he includes. When other voices are brought in, there is some perspective, allowing an opportunity to tell whether the narrative is progressing straight, crooked, or in circles. For instance, he writes of the inanity of the school system with a well-chosen example from a textbook, in which the question, "Why were the Britons so called?" is answered with "Because they painted themselves blue." Readers can clearly see the fun in pointing out the foolishness involved, if such an exchange ever did appear in any textbook. (Many critics, such as Paul Fussell, have cast severe doubts on Graves' factual accuracy.) Less easy for readers to spot if they are not on the lookout for irony is the juxtaposition of two concepts, just a few lines after the "Briton" example, that do not belong together but that are given to the reader as simple natural facts. Graves tells of how poorly he fit in at King's College, Wimbledon: "I was just seven, the youngest boy there, and they went up to nineteen. I was taken away after a couple of terms because I was found to be using naughty words." It is not unusual for a seven-year-old to be punished at school for obscene language, but implied in the way this is phrased is that he was considered a threat to the older boys, by a school system that considered the word, not the child.
" It is precisely because we all know that there is nothing funny about war that satirists find it irresistible. The high-stakes, life-or- death atmosphere gives color to the ironies of common life, and the military mind, built around rules that can never fit actual situations, provides lots of ironies to examine."
Once readers have become accustomed to being told outrageous facts in this dry tone, Graves can get away with practically anything. Some of his war stories are just obvious tall tales. He explains, for instance, about a corpse with spread arms being kept in the trench, with soldiers squeezing past him or shaking his hand. The story is gruesomely funny, but it makes no sense: why would they keep a corpse in the trench? to protect it from snipers? Another example, which Fussell draws attention to, is the obvious canard of Burford and Bumford, age sixty-three and fifteen, respectively, who serve in the same battalion. Graves gives us explicit details about their backgrounds and situations, but he does so for the sheer love of storytelling. He cannot for a moment expect readers to believe that such a pair actually existed, with their perfectly polar situations and symmetrical names. Throughout the book, there are examples like this of outlandish fabrication, and once one begins unraveling the validity of the most broadly humorous stories, it becomes more and more evident that mockery is the book's main thrust.
Satire usually loses its punch as time passes; much depends upon readers' knowledge of the events being satirized and on the author's ability to play off prevailing attitudes. In the case of Good-Bye to All That, Graves worked mainly with a subject—war—that will always be somewhat of a self-contradiction as the most uncivil of civilization's pursuits. The problem modern readers have with the book is that they too often swallow his outrageous statements hook, line, and sinker, in a way that Graves surely never intended. The book is not meant to be misleading but enlightening, but its light can only shine if readers are willing to admit that horror can be attacked with humor.
David Kelly, Critical Essay on Good-Bye to All That, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
In the following essay, Fussell examines human caricature in Good-Bye to All That, asserting that "ninety percent of the characters" are "knaves" or "fools."
Of all memoirs of the war, the "stagiest" is Robert Graves's Good-bye to All That, published first in 1929 but extensively rewritten for its reissue in 1957. Like James Boswell, who wrote in his journal (October 12, 1780), "I told Erskine I was to write Dr. Johnson's life in scenes," Graves might have said in 1929 that it was "in scenes" that he was going to write of the front-line war. And working up his memories into a mode of theater, Graves eschewed tragedy and melodrama in favor of farce and comedy, as if anticipating Friedrich Dürrenmatt's observation of 1954 that "comedy alone is suitable for us," because "tragedy presupposes guilt, despair, moderation, lucidity, vision, a sense of responsibility," none of which we have got:
In the Punch-and-Judy show of our century … there are no more guilty and also, no responsible men. It is always, "We couldn't help it" and "We didn't really want that to happen." And indeed, things happen without anyone in particular being responsible for them. Everything is dragged along and everyone gets caught somewhere in the sweep of events. We are all collectively guilty, collectively bogged down in the sins of our fathers and of our forefathers … That is our misfortune, but not our guilt … Comedy alone is suitable for us.
And in Graves's view, not just comedy: something close to Comedy of Humors, a mode to which he is invited by the palpable character conventions of the army, with its system of ranks, its externalization of personality, its impatience with ambiguity or subtlety, and its arcana of conventional "duties" with their invariable attendant gestures and "lines." "Graves," says Randall Jarrell, "is the true heir of Ben Jonson." Luxuriating in character types, Graves has said few things more revealing about his art than this: "There is a fat boy in every school (even if he is not really very fat), and a funny-man in every barrack-room (even if he is not really very funny).
In considering Good-bye to All That, it is well to clear up immediately the question of its relation to "fact." J. M. Cohen is not the only critic to err badly by speaking of the book as "harshly actual" and by saying, "It is the work of a man who is not trying to create an effect." Rather than calling it "a direct and factual autobiography," Cohen would have done better to apply to it the term he attaches to Graves's Claudius novels. They are, he says, "comedies of evil." Those who mistake Good-bye to All That for a documentary autobiography (Cohen praises its "accurate documentation") should find instructive Grave's s essay "P.S. to Good-bye to All That, " published two years after the book appeared. Confessing that he wrote the book to make "a lump of money" (which he did—he was able to set himself up in Majorca on the royalties), he enumerates the obligatory "ingredients" of a popular memoir:
I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into other popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that have had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost. I put in three or four ghosts that I remembered.
And kings … People also like reading about other people's mothers … And they like hearing about T. E. Lawrence, because he is supposed to be a mystery man … And, of course, the Prince of Wales.
People like reading about poets. I put in a lot of poets … Then, of course, Prime Ministers … A little foreign travel is usually needed; I hadn't done much of this, but I made the most of what I had. Sport is essential … Other subjects of interest that could not be neglected were school episodes, love affairs (regular and irregular), wounds, weddings, religious doubts, methods of bringing up children, severe illnesses, suicides. But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones—the first conveniently enough a failure, though set off by extreme heroism, the second a success, though a little clouded by irresolution.
So it was easy to write a book that would interest everybody … And it was already roughly organized in my mind in the form of a number of short stories, which is the way that people find it easiest to be interested in the things that interest them. They like what they call "situations."
Furthermore, "the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest." Add "the best bet of all is battles" to "the most painful chapters have to be the jokiest" and divide by the idea of "situations" and you have the formula for Graves's kind of farce. The more closely we attend to Graves's theory and practice, the more we can appreciate the generic terminology used by "Odo Stevens," in Anthony Powell's Temporary Kings. Stevens was one who "hovered about on the outskirts of the literary world, writing an occasional article, reviewing an occasional book … [He] had never repeated the success of Sad Majors, a work distinguished, in its way, among examples of what its author called 'that dicey art-form, the war reminiscence."'
"Anything processed by memory is fiction;" as the novelist Wright Morris has perceived. In Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes puts it this way: "Imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names." And in An Apology for Poetry, Sir Philip Sidney apprehends the "poetic"—that is, fictional—element not just in all "history" but specifically in history touching on wars and battles:
Even historiographers (although their lips sound of things done, and verity be written in their foreheads) have been glad to borrow both fashion and perchance weight of poets … Herodotus … and all the rest that followed him either stole or usurped of poetry their passionate describing of passions, the many particularities of battles, which no man could affirm, or … long orations put in the mouths of great kings and captains, which it is certain they never pronounced.
We expect a memoir dealing with a great historical event to "dramatize" things. We have seen Sassoon's memoir doing just that. But with Graves we have to expect it more than with others, for he is "first and last," as Jarrell sees, "a poet: in between he is a Graves." A poet, we remember Aristotle saying, is one who has mastered the art of telling lies successfully, that is, dramatically, interestingly. And what is a Graves? A Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is "facts." Hear him on what happens to the wives of brilliant mathematicians:
Mathematic genius is … notoriously short-lasting—it reaches a peak at the age of about twenty-three and then declines—and is as a rule colored by persistent emotional adolescence. Since advanced mathematicians are too easily enticed into the grey political underworld of nuclear physics, a remarkably high percentage of mental breakdowns among their wives is everywhere noted.
Asked by a television interviewer whether his view that homosexuality is caused by the excessive drinking of milk is "based on intuition or on what we would call scientific observation," Graves replies: "On objective reasoning." His "objective reasoning" here is as gratuitously outrageous as the anthropological scholarship of The White Goddess, the literary scholarship of his translation (with Omar Ali Shah) of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, or the preposterous etymological arguments with which he peppers his essays.
" … we are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-bye to All That is no more 'a direct and factual autobiography' than Sassoon's memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy."
But to put it so solemnly is to risk falling into Graves's trap. It is to ignore the delightful impetuosity, the mastery, the throw-away fun of it all. Graves is a joker, a manic illusionist, whether gaily constructing flamboyant fictional anthropology, rewriting ancient "history," flourishing erroneous or irrelevant etymology, overemphasizing the importance of "Welsh verse theory," or transforming the White Goddess from a psychological metaphor into a virtual anthropological "fact." And the more doubtful his assertions grow, the more likely he is to modify them with adverbs like clearly or obviously. Being "a Graves" is a way of being scandalously "Celtish" (at school "I always claimed to be Irish," he says in Good-bye to All That"). It is a way—perhaps the only way left—of rebelling against the positivistic pretensions of non-Celts and satirizing the preposterous scientism of the twentieth century. His enemies are always the same: solemnity, certainty, complacency, pomposity, cruelty. And it was the Great War that brought them to his attention.
Actually, any man with some experience and a bent toward the literal can easily catch Graves out in his fictions and exaggerations. The unsophisticated George Coppard explodes one of the melodramatic facilities in Good-bye to All That with simple common sense. Graves asserts—it is a popular cynical vignette—that machine-gun crews often fired off several belts without pause to heat the water in the cooling-jacket for making tea. Amusing but highly unlikely—Coppard quietly notes that no one wants tea laced with machine oil. Another of Graves's machine-gun anecdotes collapses as "fact" upon inquiry. At one point he says,
There was a daily exchange of courtesies between our machine-guns and the Germans' at stand-to; by removing cartridges from the ammunition belt one could rap out the rhythm of the familiar prostitutes' call: "MEET me DOWN in PICC-a-DILL-Y," to which the Germans would reply, though in slower tempo, because our guns were faster than theirs: "YES, with-OUT my DRAWERS ON!"
Very nice. But the fact is that if you remove cartridges from the belt the gun stops working when the empty space encounters the firing mechanism. (These stories are like the popular legend that in a firing squad one man is given a rifle secretly loaded with a blank so that no member of the squad can be certain that he has fired one of the fatal bullets. But attractive as this is as melodrama, there's something wrong with it: the rifle containing the blank is the only one that will not recoil when fired, with the result that every man on the squad will end by knowing anyway. The story won't do.)
But we are in no danger of being misled as long as we perceive that Good-bye to All That is no more "a direct and factual autobiography" than Sassoon's memoirs. It is rather a satire, built out of anecdotes heavily influenced by the techniques of stage comedy. What Thomas Paine says of Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France applies exactly: Burke, says Paine, makes "the whole machinery bend to produce a stage effect." No one has ever denied the brilliance of Good-bye to All That, and no one has ever been bored by it. Its brilliance and compelling energy reside in its structural invention and in its perpetual resourcefulness in imposing the patterns of farce and comedy onto the blank horrors or meaningless vacancies of experience. If it really were a documentary transcription of the actual, it would be worth very little, and would surely not be, as it is, infinitely rereadable. It is valuable just because it is not true in that way. Graves calls on paradox to suggest the way it is true:
The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities. High-explosive barrages will make a temporary liar or visionary of anyone; the old trench-mind is at work in all over-estimation of casualties, "unnecessary" dwelling on horrors, mixing of dates and confusion between trench rumors and scenes actually witnessed.
In recovering "the old [theatrical] trench-mind" for the purposes of writing the book, Graves has performed a triumph of personal show business.
He was in an especially rebellious mood when he dashed off the book in eight weeks during May, June, and July of 1929 and sent the manuscript to Jonathan Cape. His marriage with Nancy Nicolson had just come apart, he owed money, he had quarreled with most of his friends, his view of English society had become grossly contemptuous, and he was still ridden by his wartime neurasthenia, which manifested itself in frequent bursts of tears and bouts of twitching. His task as he wrote was to make money by interesting an audience he despised and proposed never to see again the minute he was finished. Relief at having done with them all is the emotion that finally works itself loose from the black humor which dominates most of the book.
The first nine chapters detail his prewar life. He was, he says, a perceptive, satiric, skeptical infant, from the outset an accurate appraiser of knaves and fools, including Swinburne, "an inveterate pram-stopper and patter and kisser." His Scotch-Irish father was a school inspector, but also a composer, collector, and anthologist of Anglo-Irish songs. In addition, he was a popular dramatist, one of whose plays ran for two hundred performances. His first wife, who was Irish, died after bearing five children, and he then married a German woman who bore him five more, including Robert, born in 1895. The family lived at Wimbledon in ample, literate middle-class style while Robert attended a succession of preparatory schools and spent summers roaming through the romantic castles near Munich belonging to relatives of his mother's. At fourteen he entered Charterhouse School, which he despised. He was humiliated and bullied, and saved himself only by taking up boxing. He mitigated his loneliness by falling in love with a younger boy, "exceptionally intelligent and fine-spirited. Call him Dick." (The name Dick was becoming conventional for this sort of thing. Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, with its "Dick Tiltwood," had appeared a year before Graves wrote this.) Graves's devotion to Dick and his friendship with one of the masters, the mountaineer George Mallory, were about all he enjoyed at Charterhouse. Before he could go on to Oxford, the war began, and he enlisted immediately. He was nineteen.
In this nine-chapter prologue Graves practices and perfects the form of the short theatrical anecdote or sketch which he will proceed to impose upon the forthcoming matter offered by the war. His wry anecdotes take the shape of virtual playlets, or, as he is fond of calling them, especially when he is one of the players, "caricature scenes." They are "theatrical" because they present character types entirely externally, the way an audience would see them. The audience is not vouchsafed what they are or what they think and feel or what they were last Thursday, but only visible or audible signs of what they do and say, how they dress and stand or sit or move or gesture. Their remarks are not paraphrased or rendered in indirect discourse: they are presented in dialogue. Many of these playlets have all the black-and-white immediacy of cartoons with captions, and, indeed, Graves's skill at writing pithy "lines" will suggest the dynamics of the standard two-line caption under a cartoon in Punch. It is a model that is always before him. In 1955, ridiculing Yeats's shrewd irrationalism, he dramatizes Yeats's reliance on his wife as a medium whose maunderings can be turned into salable poems:
UNDERGRADUATE: Have you written any poems, recently, Sir?
YEATS: No, my wife has been feeling poorly and disinclined.
One can see it as on a stage and hear the burst of laughter at the end.
Whatever material they embody, the effect of Graves's "caricature scenes" is farcical, and they rely on a number of techniques associated with comic writing for the theater. Some depend upon astonishing coincidences. Some deploy the device of climactic multiple endings—the audience thinks the joke is over and is then given an additional one or sometimes two even funnier lines. Some expose the disparity between the expected and the actual. Some offer bizarre characters borrowed from what would seem to be a freak show. Some, like sketches in music hall, present comic encounters between representatives of disparate social classes. Some involve the main character's not knowing some crucial fact. And some, more melodramatic, depict rescues or salvations in the nick of time. All operate by offering the audience a succession of little ironies and surprises. By the time we have reached the fifth paragraph of Good-bye to All That, we are convinced that we are in the hands of a master showman who is not going to let us down. "My best comic turn," says the author, "is a double-jointed pelvis. I can sit on a table and rap like the Fox sisters with it." Indeed, so extraordinary is this puppet master that, as he says proudly, "I do not carry a watch because I always magnetize the main-spring."
Graves had been in the Officers Training Corps at Charterhouse, and when he presented himself at the regimental depot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Wrexham, he was commissioned after a few weeks' training. His account of his early days in the Army is full of caricature scenes. One of the funniest, the grave judicial inquiry into the "nuisance" deposited by Private Davies on the barrack square, Graves introduced into the book only in 1957. In 1929 he said, "I have an accurate record of the trial, but my publishers advise me not to give it here." It is a perfect Jonsonian comic scene, each man in his humor, and it is ready to be staged by a cast of six:
SERGEANT-MAJOR (offstage): Now, then, you 99 Davies, "F" Company, cap off, as you were, cap off, as you were, cap off! That's better. Escort and prisoner, right turn! Quick march! Right wheel! (Onstage) Left wheel! Mark time! Escort and prisoner, halt! Left turn!
COLONEL: Read the charge, Sergeant-Major.
SERGEANT-MAJOR: No. 99 Pte. W. Davies, "F" Company, at Wrexham on 20th August: improper conduct. Committing a nuisance on the barrack square. Witness: Sergeant Timmins, Corporal Jones.
COLONEL: Sergeant Timmins, your evidence.
SERGEANT TIMMINS: Sir, on the said date about two p.m., I was hacting Horderly Sar'nt. Corporal Jones reported the nuisance to me. I hinspected it. It was the prisoner's, Sir.
COLONEL: Corporal Jones! Your evidence.
CORPORAL JONES: Sir, on the said date I was crossing the barrack square, when I saw prisoner in a sitting posture. He was committing excreta, Sir. I took his name and reported to the orderly-sergeant, Sir.
COLONEL: Well, Private Davies, what have you to say for yourself?
99 DAVIES (in a nervous sing-song): Sir, I came over queer all of a sudden, Sir. I haad the diarrhoeas terrible baad. I haad to do it, Sir.
COLONEL: But, my good man, the latrine was only a few yards away.
99 DAVIES: Colonel, Sir, you caan't stop nature!
SERGEANT-MAJOR: Don't answer an officer like that! (Pause)
SERGEANT TIMMINS (coughs): Sir?
COLONEL: Yes, Sergeant Timmins?
SERGEANT TIMMINS: Sir, I had occasion to hexamine the nuisance, Sir, and it was done with a heffort, Sir!
COLONEL: Do you take my punishment, Private Davies?
99 DAVIES: Yes, Colonel, Sir.
COLONEL: You have done a very dirty act, and disgraced the regiment and your comrades. I shall make an example of you. Ten days' detention.
SERGEANT-MAJOR: Escort and prisoner, left turn! Quick march! Left wheel! (Offstage): Escort and prisoner, halt! Cap on! March him off to the Guard Room. Get ready the next case!
Despite such moments, Graves was proud to be in so self-respecting a regiment as the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a mark of whose distinction was the "flash" a fanlike cluster of five black ribbons attached to the back of the tunic collar. The Army Council had some doubts about permitting the regiment this irregular privilege, but the Royal Welch resisted all attempts to take it away. Graves's pride in it is enacted in this little bit of theater, warmly sentimental this time, set in Buckingham Palace:
Once, in 1917, when an officer of my company went to be decorated with the Military Cross at Buckingham Palace, King George, as Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiment, showed a personal interest in the flash … The King gave him the order "About turn!," for a look at the flash, and the "About turn!" again. "Good," he said, "You're still wearing it, I see," and then, in a stage whisper: "Don't ever let anyone take it from you!"
That is typical of Graves's theatrical method: the scene is a conventional, almost ritual confrontation between character types representative of widely disparate classes who are presented externally by their physical presence and their dialogue. We feel that the King would not be playing the scene properly if his whisper were anything but a stage-whisper: after all, the audience wants to hear what he's saying.
Posted to France as a replacement officer in the spring of 1915, Graves disgustedly finds himself assigned to the sad and battered Welsh Regiment, consisting largely of poorly trained scourings and leavings. His platoon includes a man named Burford who is sixty-three years old, and another, Bumford, aged fifteen. These two draw together with a theatrical symmetry which might be predicted from the similarity of their names: "Old Burford, who is so old that he refuses to sleep with the other men of the platoon, has found a private doss in an out-building among some farm tools … Young Bumford is the only man he'll talk to." We are expected to credit this entirely traditional symmetrical arrangement with the same willing suspension of disbelief which enables us to enjoy the following traditional turn. Two men appear before the adjutant and report that they've just shot their company sergeant major.
The Adjutant said: "Good heavens, how did that happen?"
"It was an accident, Sir."
"What do you mean, you damn fools? Did you mistake him for a spy?"
"No, Sir, we mistook him for our platoon sergeant."
After some months in and out of the line near Béthune, Graves finally joins the Second Battalion of his own regiment near Laventie, and his pride in it suffers a sad blow. He is horrified to find the senior regular officers bullies who forbid the temporary subalterns, or "warts," whiskey in the mess and ignore them socially for a period of six months except to rag and insult them whenever possible. He is humiliated by the colonel, the second-in-command, and the adjutant just as he had been humiliated by the "Bloods" at Charterhouse. But he finds one man to respect, Captain Thomas, his company commander. It is he who must direct the company's part in a preposterous attack, which begins as farce and ends as Grand Guignol.
The operation order Thomas brings from battalion headquarters is ridiculously optimistic, and as he reads it off, Graves and his fellow officers—including a subaltern called "The Actor"—can't help laughing.
"What's up?" asked Thomas irritably.
The Actor giggled: "Who in God's name is responsible for this little effort?"
"Don't know," Thomas said. "Probably Paul the Pimp, or someone like that." (Paul the Pimp was a captain on the Divisional Staff, young, inexperienced, and much disliked. He "wore red tabs upon his chest, And even on his undervest.")
Thomas reveals that their attack is to be only a diversion to distract the enemy while the real attack takes place well to the right.
"Personally, I don't give a damn either way. We'll get killed whatever happens."
We all laughed.
The attack is to be preceded by a forty-minute discharge of gas from cylinders in the trenches. For security reasons the gas is euphemized as "the accessory." When it is discovered that the management of the gas is in the hands of a gas company officered by chemistry dons from London University, morale hits a comic rock-bottom. "Of course they'll bungle it," says Thomas. "How could they do anything else?" Not only is the gas bungled: everything goes wrong. The storeman stumbles and spills all the rum in the trench just before the company goes over; the new type of grenade won't work in the dampness; the colonel departs for the rear with a slight cut on his hand; a crucial German machine gun is left undestroyed; the German artillery has the whole exercise taped. The gas is supposed to be blown across by favorable winds. When the great moment proves entirely calm, the gas company sends back the message "Dead calm. Impossible discharge accessory," only to be ordered by the staff, who like characters in farce are entirely obsessed, mechanical, and unbending: "Accessory to be discharged at all costs." The gas, finally discharged after the discovery that most of the wrenches for releasing it won't fit, drifts out and then settles back into the British trenches. Men are going over and rapidly coming back, and we hear comically contradictory crowd noises: "'Come on!' 'Get back, you bastards!' 'Gas turning on us!' 'Keep your heads, you men!' 'Back like hell, boys!' 'Whose orders?' 'What's happening?' 'Gas!' 'Back!' 'Come on!' 'Gas!' 'Back!"' A "bloody balls-up" is what the troops called it. Historians call it the Battle of Loos.
(A word about the rhetoric of "Impossible discharge accessory." That message falls into the category of Cablegram Humor, a staple of Victorian and Georgian comedy. Graves loves it. Compare his 1957 version of Wordsworth's "The Solitary Reaper" in Cable-ese: "SOLITARY HIGHLAND LASS REAPING BINDING GRAIN STOP MELANCHOLY SONG OVERFLOWS PROFOUND VALE.")
As the attack proceeds, farce gradually modulates to something more serious but no less theatrical. One platoon officer, attacking the untouched German machine gun in short rushes, "jumped up from his shell-hole, waved and signalled 'Forward!"'
He shouted: "You bloody cowards, are you leaving me to go on alone?"
His platoon-sergeant, groaning with a broken shoulder, gasped: "Not cowards, Sir. Willing enough. But they're all f——ing dead." The … machine-gun, traversing, had caught them as they rose to the whistle.
At the end of the attack Graves and the Actor were the only officers left in the company.
After this, "a black depression held me," Graves says. And his worsening condition finds its correlative in the collapse of his ideal image of Dick, at home. The news reaches him that sixteen-year-old Dick has made "a certain proposal" to a Canadian corporal stationed near Charterhouse and has been arrested and bound over for psychiatric treatment. "This news," says Graves, "nearly finished me. I decided that Dick had been driven out of his mind by the War … with so much slaughter about, it would be easy to think of him as dead." (The real Dick, by the way, was finally "cured" by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers, Sassoon's and Owen's alienist at Craiglockhart.) This whole matter of Dick and his metamorphosis from what Graves calls a "pseudohomosexual" into a real one lies at the heart of Good-bye to All That. Its importance was clearer in the first edition, where Graves says,
In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homo-sexual. The opposite sex is despised and hated, treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. I only recovered by a shock at the age of twenty-one. For every one born homo-sexual there are at least ten permanent pseudo-homo-sexuals made by the public school system. And nine of these ten are as honorably chaste and sentimental as I was.
In 1957 Graves deleted one sentence: "I only recovered by a shock at the age of twenty-one." The shock was his discovery that he had been deceived by pleasant appearances: a relation he had thought beneficially sentimental now revealed itself to have been instinct with disaster. It was like the summer of 1914. It makes a telling parallel with Graves's discovery—"Never such innocence again"—that the Second Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers, a few company-grade officers and men excepted, is a collection of bullies, knaves, cowards, and fools.
He is delighted to find himself transferred to the more humane First Battalion in November 1915. There he meets Sassoon, as well as Sassoon's "Dick," Lieutenant David Thomas. The three become inseparable friends while the battalion begins its long rehearsals for the breakout and open warfare it assumes will follow the Somme attack in the spring. Life in billets offers opportunities for numerous caricature scenes. One takes place in the theaterlike setting of a disused French schoolroom, where the officers of the battalion are addressed by their furious colonel. He has noticed slackness, he says, and as he designates an instance of it, he falls naturally into the Graves mode of theatrical anecdote, complete with a consciousness of social distinctions and the "lines" appropriate to different social players:
I have here principally to tell you of a very disagreeable occurrence. As I left my Orderly Room this morning, I came upon a group of soldiers … One of these soldiers was in conversation with a lance corporal. You may not believe me, but it is a fact that he addressed the corporal by his Christian name: he called him Jack! And the corporal made no protest … Naturally, I put the corporal under arrest … I reduced him to the ranks, and awarded the man Field Punishment for using insubordinate language to an N.C.O.
Listening to this as a member of the "audience," Graves is aware of the "part" he himself is playing in this absurd costume drama:
Myself in faultless khaki with highly polished buttons and belt, revolver at hip, whistle on cord, delicate moustache on upper lip, and stern endeavor a-glint in either eye, pretending to be a Regular Army captain.
But "in real life" he is something quite different, "crushed into that inky desk-bench like an overgrown school-boy."
Back in the line again in March 1916, the battalion has three officers killed in one night, including David Thomas. "My breaking-point was near now," Graves recognizes, and he speculates on the way his nervous collapse, when it comes, will look to spectators. His view of it is typically externalized, the telltale gestures visualized as if beheld by someone watching a character on stage: "It would be a general nervous collapse, with tears and twitchings and dirtied trousers; I had seen cases like that." His transfer back to the hated Second Battalion is hardly a happy omen, and in early July 1916, he finds himself in incredible circumstances near High Wood on the Somme. On July 20, his luck runs out: a German shell goes off close behind him, and a shell fragment hits him in the back, going right through his lung. He is in such bad shape at the dressing-station that his colonel, assuming he's dying, kindly writes his parents, informing them that he has gone. As a result his name appears in the official casualty list: he has "Died of Wounds."
A few days later Graves manages to write home and assure his parents that he is going to recover. There is some discrepancy about dates here: for symbolic and artistic reasons, Graves wants the report of his death to coincide with his twenty-first birthday (July 24), although his father remembers the date as earlier. "One can sympathize with Graves," says George Stade, "who as a poet and scholar has always preferred poetic resonance to the dull monotone of facts; and to die on a twenty-first birthday is to illustrate a kind of poetic justice.
Back in hospital in London, Graves is delighted by the combined comedy and melodrama of a clipping from the Court Circular of the Times:"Captain Robert Graves, Royal Welch Fusiliers, officially reported died of wounds, wishes to inform his friends that he is recovering from his wounds at Queen Alexandra's Hospital, Highgate, N." Almost immediately, he quotes another funny document, the infamous propaganda pamphlet containing a letter by "a Little Mother" reprehending any thought of a negotiated peace and celebrating the sacrifice of British mothers who have "given" their sons. It is sentimental, blood-thirsty, complacent, cruel, fatuous, and self-congratulatory, all at once, and ("of course," Graves would say) it is accompanied by a train of earnest illiterate testimonials from third-rate newspapers, noncombatant soldiers, and bereaved mothers, one of whom says: "I have lost my two dear boys, but since I was shown the 'Little Mother's' beautiful letter a resignation too perfect to describe has calmed all my aching sorrow, and I would now gladly give my sons twice over."
It is at this point in Good-bye to All That that we may become aware of how rich the book is in fatuous, erroneous, or preposterous written "texts" and documents, the normal materials of serious "history" but here exposed in all their farcical ineptitude and error. Almost all of them—even Sassoon's "A Soldier's Declaration"—have in common some dissociation from actuality or some fatal error in assumption or conclusion. Their variety is striking, and there are so many that Graves felt he could cut one entirely from the 1957 edition, the priceless letter at the end of chapter 2 from an amateur gentlewoman poet, instinctively praising Graves's very worst poem and at the same time slyly begging a loan with a long, rambling, self-celebrating paranoid tale of having been cheated of an inheritance. There is the "question and answer history book" of his boyhood, which begins
QUESTION: Why were the Britons so called?
ANSWER: Because they painted themselves blue.
There are the propaganda news clippings about the priests of Antwerp, hung upside down as human clappers in their own church bells. There is the laughable Loos attack order, and the optimistic orders, all based on false premises, written on field message forms. There is the colonel's letter deposing not merely that Graves is dead but that he was "very gallant." There is the erroneous casualty list and the Letter of the Little Mother. There is the farcical mistransmission in Morse code that sends a battalion destined for York to Cork instead. There is an autograph collector's disoriented letter to Thomas Hardy, beginning
Dear Mr. Hardy,
I am interested to know why the devil you don't reply to my request.
There are the lunatic examination-papers written by three of Graves's students of "English Literature" at the University of Cairo. And in the new epilogue, written in 1957, there is the news that one reason Graves was suspected of being a German spy while harboring in South Devon during the Second War is that someone made a silly, lying document out of a vegetable marrow in his garden by surreptitiously scratching "HEIL HITLER!" on it. The point of all these is not just humankind's immense liability to error, folly, and psychosis. It is also the dubiousness of a rational—or at least a clearsighted—historiography. The documents on which a work of "history" might be based are so wrong or so loathsome or so silly or so downright mad that no one could immerse himself in them for long, Graves implies, without coming badly unhinged.
The Letter from the Little Mother is the classic case in point and crucial to the whole unraveling, satiric effect of Good-bye to All That. One of Graves's readers, "A Soldier Who Has Served All Over the World," perceived as much and wrote Graves:
You are a discredit to the Service, disloyal to your comrades and typical of that miserable breed which tries to gain notoriety by belittling others. Your language is just "water-closet," and evidently your regiment resented such an undesirable member. The only good page is that quoting the beautiful letter of The Little Mother, but even there you betray the degenerate mind by interleaving it between obscenities.
A pity that letter wasn't available to be included in Good-bye to All That. It is the kind of letter we can imagine Ben Jonson receiving many of.
By November 1916, Graves is well enough to put on his uniform again—the entry and exit holes in the tunic neatly mended—and rejoin the Depot Battalion for reposting. He is soon back with the Second Battalion on the Somme, where he is secretly delighted to find that all his enemies, the regular officers, have been killed or wounded: it makes the battalion a nicer place and fulfills the angry prophecy Graves had uttered when he first joined and had been bullied in the Officers' Mess at Laventie: "You damned snobs! I'll survive you all. There'll come a time when there won't be one of you left in the Battalion to remember this Mess at Laventie." But the weakness in Graves's lung is beginning to tell, and he is returned to England with "bronchitis." He finds himself first in the hospital at Somerville College, Oxford, and then recuperating anomalously and comically at Queen Victoria's Osborne, on the Isle of Wight.
It is while at Osborne that he sees Sassoon's Declaration. He is appalled at the risk of court martial Sassoon is taking and distressed by Sassoon's political and rhetorical naïveté: "Nobody would follow his example, either in England or in Germany." The public temper had already found its spokesman in the Little Mother: "The War would inevitably go on until one side or the other cracked." Graves gets out of Osborne, rigs Sassoon's medical board, and testifies before it. He bursts into tears "three times" and is told, "Young man, you ought to be before this board yourself." His dramaturgy is successful, and Sassoon is sent to Craiglockhart for "cure." Graves tells us that there Sassoon first met Wilfred Owen, "an idealistic homosexual with a religious background." At least that is what he wanted to tell us in the American edition (the Anchor Books paperback) of the 1957 reissue. The phrase was omitted from the British edition at the request of Harold Owen, and it was subsequently canceled in the American edition. It does not now appear in any edition of Good-bye to All That. Just as Graves always knew they would, respectability and disingenuousness have won. Just as Graves learned during the war, written documents remain a delusive guide to reality.
He is now classified B-1, "fit for garrison service abroad," but despite his hope to be sent to Egypt or Palestine, he spends the rest of the war training troops in England and Ireland. In January 1918, he married the feminist Nancy Nicolson: "Nancy had read the marriage-service [another funny document] for the first time that morning, and been so disgusted that she all but refused to go through with the wedding":
Another caricature scene to look back on: myself striding up the red carpet, wearing field-boots, spurs and sword; Nancy meeting me in a blue-check silk wedding dress, utterly furious; packed benches on either side of the church, full of relatives; aunts using handkerchiefs; the choir boys out of tune; Nancy savagely muttering the responses, myself shouting them in a parade-ground voice.
The news of the Armistice, he says, brought him no pleasure; rather, it "sent me out walking alone …, cursing and sobbing and thinking of the dead."
Demobilized, he instantly catches Spanish influenza and almost dies of it. He recovers in Wales, where for almost a year he tries to shake off the war:
I was still mentally and nervously organized for War. Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me; strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed. When strong enough to climb the hill behind Harlech …, I could not help seeing it as a prospective battlefield. I would find myself working out tactical problems, planning … where to place a Lewis gun if I were trying to rush Dolwreiddiog Farm from the brow of the hill, and what would be the best cover for my rifle-grenade section.
Some legacies of the war ran even deeper, and one, perhaps, has had literary consequences: "I still had the Army habit of commandeering anything of uncertain ownership that I found lying about; also a difficulty in telling the truth." His experience of the Army had ratified his fierce insistence on his independence, and he swore "on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone's orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing." In October 1919, he entered Oxford to study English Literature, living five miles out, at Boar's Hill, where he knew Blunden, Masefield, and Robert Nichols. There he and Nancy briefly ran a small general store while he wrote poems as well as his academic thesis, brilliantly titled—the war had certainly handed him the first three words—The Illogical Element in English Poetry.
"The Illogical Element in the Experience of Robert Graves" might be the title of the episode that closes Good-bye to All That. He takes up the position of Professor of English Literature at the ridiculous Royal Egyptian University, Cairo. The student essays are so funny and hopeless that as an honest man he can't go on. After saying that "Egypt gave me plenty of caricature scenes to look back on," he approaches the end of the book in a final flurry of anecdotes and vignettes, most of them farcical, and concludes with a brief paragraph summarizing his life from 1926 to 1929, which he says has been "dramatic," with "new characters [appearing] on the stage." All that is left is disgust and exile.
Compared with both Blunden and Sassoon, Graves is very little interested in "nature" or scenery: human creatures are his focus, and his book is built, as theirs are not, very largely out of dialogue. And compared with Sassoon, who is remarkably gentle with his characters and extraordinarily "nice" to them, Graves, who had, as Sassoon once told him, "a first-rate nose for anything nasty," sees his as largely a collection of knaves and fools. Almost literally: one can go through Good-bye to All That making two lists, one of knaves, one of fools, and the two lists will comprise ninety percent of the characters. As a memoirist, Graves seems most interested not in accurate recall but in recovering moments when he most clearly perceives the knavery of knaves and the foolishness of fools. For him as for D. H. Lawrence, knavery and folly are the style of the war, and one of the very worst things about it is that it creates a theater perfectly appropriate for knavery and folly. It brings out all the terrible people.
If Graves, the scourge of knaves and fools, is the heir of Ben Jonson, it can be seen that Joseph Heller is the heir of Graves. And, the very theatricality of Catch-22 is a part of what Heller has learned from Good-bye to All That.Catch-22 resembles less a "novel" than a series of blackout skits, to such a degree that it was an easy matter for Heller to transform the work into a "dramatization" in 1971. Another legatee of Graves is Evelyn Waugh, whose Sword of Honor trilogy does to the Second War what Graves did to the First. Waugh's book is made up of the same farcical high-jinks, the same kind of ironic reversals, all taking place in the Graves atmosphere of balls-up and confusion. Indeed, both Graves and Waugh include characters who deliver the line, "Thank God we've got a Navy." If Loos is the characteristic absurd disaster to Graves, Crete is Waugh's version. Waugh's sense of theater is as conspicuous as Graves's, although it tends to invoke more pretentious genres than farce. During the rout on Crete, a small sports car drives up: "Sprawled in the back, upheld by a kneeling orderly, as though in gruesome parody of a death scene from grand opera, lay a dusty and bloody New Zealand officer." Both Graves and Waugh have written fictionmemoirs, although Graves's is a fiction disguised as a memoir while Waugh's is a memoir disguised as a fiction. To derive Waugh's trilogy, one would superadd the farce in Good-bye to All That to the moral predicament of Ford's Tietjens in Parade's End: this would posit Guy Crouchback, Waugh's victim-hero, as well as establish a world where the broad joke of Apthorpe's thunder-box coexists harmoniously with messy and meaningless violent death. And both Waugh and Heller would be as ready as Graves to agree with the proposition that comedy alone is suitable for us.
Paul Fussell, "The Caricature Scenes of Robert Graves," in Robert Graves, Modern Critical Views, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 111-127.
Fussell, Paul, "Theatre of War," in The Great War and Modern Memory, Oxford University Press, 1975.
Jarrell, Randall, "Graves and the White Goddess," in Third Book of Criticism, Faraar, Straus & Giroux, 1969.
O'Prey, Paul, "Captain Graves' Postwar Strategies," in New Perspectives on Robert Graves, edited by Patrick J. Quinn, Susquehanna University Press, 1999, pp. 36-44.
Peason, Richard, "Scholar, Author, and Poet Robert Graves Dies," in Washington Post, December 8, 1985, p. C10.
Saxon, Wolfgang, "Robert Graves, Poet and Scholar, Dies at 90," in New York Times, December 8, 1985, pp. 1, 19.
Skow, Jack, "If It Looks Like Zeus, and Sounds Like Zeus, It Must Be Robert Graves," in Esquire, September 1970, pp. 144, 180-185.
Trout, Steven, "Telling the Truth—Nearly: Robert Graves, Daniel Defoe, and Good-Bye to All That," in New Perspectives on Robert Graves, edited by Patrick J. Quinn, Susquehanna University Press, 1999, pp. 175-184.
Bell, Clive, The English Poets of the First World War, Thames and Hudson, Inc., 1981.
This book puts Graves in context with his peers, some of whom are mentioned in his autobiography (Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg) and many of whom are not (Gurney, Sorley, West, etc.).
Cohen, J. M., Robert Graves, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1967.
This small book, written with Graves' approval, gives more background about his publishing history during the war years than is covered in the autobiography.
Ellis, John, Eye Deep in Hell: Trench Warfare in World War I, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.
This historian's perspective of life in the trenches lacks the authenticity of Graves' autobiography but makes up for it with a wider range of stories to tell.
Hoffman, Daniel, "Significant Wounds," in Barbarous Knowledge: Myth in the Poetry of Yeats, Graves and Muir, Oxford University Press, 1967.
This chapter shows the links between war, mythology, and art in Graves' poems.
Snipes, Katherine, Robert Graves, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979.
Good-Bye to All That only figures into a brief early chapter on "biography," but this book is useful for a quick overview of Graves' entire career.
Winter, Denis, Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War, Penguin USA, 1993.
Winter recreates the experience of British soldiers on the front from sources like those that Graves used, getting deeper into the common soldier's perspective.