The pain of poetry

Patrick French applauds a new biography of Robert Graves; Robert Graves: Life on the Edge by Miranda Seymour Doubleday, pounds 20
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The death "from wounds" of Robert Graves was announced in the Times in the summer of 1916. Surviving both the prose report and the mass slaughter of the Somme, he thrived for another seven decades, producing a stupendous quantity of poetry, fiction, translation and literary criticism. He wrote his brilliant school and war memoir Goodbye to All That at the age of 33 - which seems as good a moment as any to publish your autobiography, before you have had time to become a Tory. Not that Graves ever did succumb, even vaguely, to the lure of convention. His life was a constant rollercoaster of upset, emotion, despair and elation. Miranda Seymour sees this, convincingly, as a deliberate strategy to ensure his survival at a pitch of creative intensity: "Graves lived as he thought a poet should - on an emotional tightrope."

Having made it through the Great War, he felt he had a duty to dedicate himself to poetry under the guidance of his muse, a sort of alternative deity to his stern mother's biblical God. The most significant and searing of the muse's many manifestations was Laura Riding, a powerful, dangerous American poet who was to bring severe disruption to his life. She was that most tricky of literary commodities, the unrecognised genius. She understood her own brilliance, as did Graves, but the rest of the world was left tepid by her ornate mythological poetry and dippy essays. She and Graves shared a vision of the poet as warrior and prophet, sent down to earth to bring wisdom and progress - a scarcely believable notion in our own deconstructive times.

When Graves met Riding he was already married to Nancy Nicholson, a feminist artist whose boyish looks offered him a bridge between the homosexual emotions of his youth and adult heterosexuality. Within days of meeting, they were to be found watching a Harold Lloyd film, "with Nancy and Robert each clasping one of Laura's hands as she sat between them in the dark." Complications set in when the triangle was joined by a pale young Irishman called Geoffrey, whose reverence for Laura Riding was only tempered by his inability to perform the required sexual services. After a time, Geoffrey decided to return to his wife, who was unwilling to join a menage a cinq. Riding disliked such an open challenge to the authority of her "Holy Circle", and responded with dramatic vigour.

Perched on a third-floor windowsill, she swung her legs out to face the streets of Hammersmith. Having said: "Goodbye, chaps" after the fashion of an Enid Blyton heroine, she flung herself out into thin air, where the expected "magic staircase" failed to materialise. She was closely followed by a distraught Captain Graves, leaping from one storey lower down. They both recovered, eventually, but decided to escape their problems by going to Majorca. (This was a cooler move than it sounds; the south side of the island had not yet become infested with Geordies eating cheeseburgers.) Apart from a brief break during the Spanish Civil War, Graves lived there for the rest of his life. His four children were left behind with Nancy Nicholson.

The period in Majorca during the Thirties is a depressing spectacle. Laura Riding exercised dictatorial control over Graves and their fluctuating entourage, insisting on total reverence for her work and ideas. Local people assumed that he was her butler. The strength of Riding's personality kept the illusion in place: it was clear that the Empress was wearing no clothes, but nobody dared to notice. Seymour is particularly effective at showing how Graves, still suffering from residual shell-shock, used the security of his muse's didactic self-importance to retreat into an interior world and create the novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. She believes it is simplistic to see him as a mere victim of the witch's spell: "Publicly, Riding never had a stauncher defender than Graves; in fiction, he continued to take liberties with her character."

As Graves's critical and commercial success grew, Riding became virtually unpublishable. She began to write dictionaries, in which every meaning was defined by herself, and also a wonderfully Rees-Moggish book called The World and Ourselves, designed to avert the looming world conflict. Her followers, whom she had now named the "Covenant of Literal Morality", only dispersed when she moved in with an unfortunate gentleman-farmer from Pennsylvania. (The man's wife was dealt with by being trussed up in a strait jacket, under Riding's supervision, and dispatched to an asylum.) Robert Graves then married an easier, less competitive woman called Beryl Pritchard, who was willing to tolerate his pursuit of a string of ever younger musettes.

Miranda Seymour is good at showing the correlation between Graves's writing and the events in his life. It was interesting to learn of his disdain for WB Yeats, which apparently stemmed from the fact that Yeats was a favourite of Graves's father, an endearingly dull schools inspector with bookish pretensions. This was despite the marked parallel between the two great love poets, notably a fondness for Celtic myths, Spanish islands, nubile fans, Eastern charlatans and barmy theories.

Generally, Seymour avoids setting Graves in a wider literary context, presenting him as a maverick. One rare and baffling exception is the opening sentence of her book, which reads: "In 20th-century poetry, Robert Graves is to love what Philip Larkin is to mortality." It struck me as extraordinary to compare Graves's epic, sprawling, cumulative, visionary verse with the slim evacuations of the poet from Hull. Graves himself despised most of his eminent contemporaries: "There was little he enjoyed more", writes Seymour, "than taking a bite at the trousers of a revered figure". When he was asked to sign a letter supporting the interned Fascist Ezra Pound, "Graves refused on the grounds that it would seem to be an endorsement of Pound's poetry".

This is a stirring story, and Seymour tells it exceptionally well. She manages to avoid the chronological accumulation of raw facts than can so easily sink a biography of this kind. Her psychological judgments are penetrating and credible, the loose use of the term "nervous breakdown" being a rare lapse. The only serious failing is her cursory treatment of the First World War. Although she does not doubt its significance in Graves's life (in old age he suffered terrible guilt, telling his nephew that he had killed more than 100 Germans) there is no serious engagement with the actuality of his life at the Front. Perhaps she feels that this ground has been too well-trodden in rival biographies and Goodbye To All That.

Graves did live a Life on the Edge, seeking poetic inspiration via emotional risk. In the end, it may be this that gives his best poetry its beautiful, lyrical passion: "Take your delight in momentariness,/ Walk between dark and dark, a shining space/ With the grave's narrowness, though not its peace."