Graves, Robert (1895–1985)

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GRAVES, ROBERT (1895–1985)


British poet, novelist, and classical scholar.

Robert von Ranke Graves, whose father was a school inspector and Gaelic scholar and whose mother was a great-niece of the German historian Leopold van Ranke, had a conventionally religious and sober London upbringing among nine other children, after which he was sent off to public school at Charterhouse, which he hated. He won a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford, but did not take up his place. After the outbreak of war in 1914 he volunteered for military service with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, serving as a junior officer in the infantry. Graves fought at the Battle of Loos and was severely wounded on the Somme front, and while recuperating he managed to read his own obituary in The Times of London. During the war he befriended his fellow poet and officer Siegfried Sassoon and came to see these years both as entirely mad and as the forcing house of his career as a writer. Graves defended his friend when Sassoon decided in 1917 to protest publicly against the continuation of the war for no reason; facing a court-martial, Sassoon was persuaded by Graves to pretend to being temporarily insane and got off the charge. Graves's protest was more indirect and more bound up with his career as a writer. He published four volumes of poetry during the war and in the last months of the conflict was once more wounded. He survived the war as a twenty-three-year-old combatant, old before his time.

After returning to Oxford and completing his degree, he still showed lingering effects of his war service, encompassed by the generic term shell shock. A period of instability was followed by a decision to emigrate. Graves lived outside of Britain throughout the interwar years. He held a chair at the University of Cairo and then settled in Majorca. At the outbreak of the Spanish civil war he left the Balearic Islands for New York but returned to Majorca after World War II.

In 1929 he published Good-bye to All That, which has become a classic account of trench warfare in the 1914–1918 conflict. It is in the form of an autobiography, but much of it is fictional. As he later said, only by telling lies about the war can anyone tell the truth about it. This challenge to narrative, and particularly to heroic narrative, is one of the foundational texts of twentieth-century war writing. It encapsulates the bitterness of a generation of writers who felt betrayed by the older generation, who sent them off to a war their elders did not see and did not want to see. The theme of decency and youth thrown away by the blind prejudices of a handful of old men too stupid to understand what they were doing and totally blind to the suffering they set in motion has framed later fictional accounts of warfare in the twentieth century and beyond.

The Great War haunted Graves throughout his life. His book Lawrence and the Arabs, a sympathetic account of T. E. Lawrence, another troubled veteran, was published in 1927. In the 1930s Graves's poetic interests were inflected by his partnership with Laura Riding (1901–1991) as well as by a deepening passion for classical literature and for the narrative and aesthetic power of myths. Poetry for Graves was a cathartic force for writer and reader alike. His iconoclastic style and irreverent tone are evident in much of his later discursive work. He wrote a brilliant account of the interwar years in Britain, The Long Weekend: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918–1939 (1940), a malicious but fair survey of a country in shock after one war and on the verge of another. He then turned to more learned themes, relating myth to religious belief and practice. His study King Jesus (1946) was followed by his two-volume synthesis of Greek Myths (1955). Both shared the deep scholarship and heterodox outlook that produced his two devastating accounts of Rome, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, both published in 1934. He was clearly influenced by Sir James George Frazer's Golden Bough but developed his own notion of myths, in particular those related to matriarchy.

In 1961 the prodigal son returned home, in a way, when he became professor of poetry at Oxford, where he taught until 1966. Never at ease in England, his poetry nonetheless retained its English cadences, echoing the rhythms of the landscape he saw blown to pieces in 1916. Never being able to say goodbye to all that, he was an artist whose lasting contribution as a poet was as a stubborn survivor from another world, the world before the Great War. He died in his beloved Majorca at the age of ninety.

See alsoSassoon, Siegfried; World War I.


Cohen, J. M. Robert Graves. New York, 1960.

Day, Douglas. Swifter Than Reason: The Poetry and Criticism of Robert Graves. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1963.

Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves. 2 vols. London, 1986–1990.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves, His Life and Work. London, 1982; reprint 1995.

Stade, George. Robert Graves. New York, 1967.

Jay Winter

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Graves, Robert (1895–1985)

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