Robert Graves, born 100 years ago, was a paradoxical, eccentric, at times scandalous figure. The new books that mark his centenary give us a chance to reappraise his work

Blake Morrison
Saturday 01 July 1995 23:02

ONE OF the oddest moments in the long career of Robert Graves (1895-1985) was his election as Oxford Professor of Poetry in 1961. Here, fittingly honoured, was a fine English gentleman-poet, author of I, Claudius, The White Goddess and Goodbye to All That, a First World war veteran now passing into old age (he had just had a serious prostate operation) yet enjoying such celebrity there were even rumours he might win the Nobel Prize. On the other hand, here was a batty exile of 66 to whom the Sixties were just beginning to happen: Graves had recently got into Sufism, loved eating magic mushrooms, was an advocate of LSD (in one Oxford lecture, he even gave students the address of a Bromley chemist where they could get hold of it), and since 1930 had lived in Dey, Mallorca, increasingly a refuge for artists, dropouts, hippies and Beats, some of whom - the women, anyway - he had taken as lovers.

Rising to the occasion, true to his role as both rebel and conformist, Graves was provocative in his Oxford lectures, while also slyly claiming his place in the English poetic tradition. In his first two addresses, he praised "dedicated", trance-like poets and attacked coldly Apollonian ones, leaving his audience in little doubt which camp he belonged to himself. In his third address, he turned to the relation between the love poet (always a man) and his muse (always a woman, or rather always the "other woman, never the poet's wife"). Some of his harshest comments were reserved for John Donne, who "used love-poems as a means of seduction". Donne's poems, Graves complained, "yield no portraits of individual women; their bright eyes always reflect his own passionate image". Abject and hypocritical, Donne kept the identities of his lovers secret, "roundly cursing any man who guessed", and had "little thought for the women he celebrated save as beautiful, complaisant bedfellows". This was characteristic of a pseudo- poet. Luckily, Graves decided, there were still a few true poets about - he quoted liberally from his own verse - whose devotion to "the woman, the royal woman, an incarnation of the Goddess" promised to put an end to "total wars, uncontrolled money, denatured food, soul-destroying machines, academicism, and commercialised entertainment". The fate of the world rested on the shoulders of these dedicated poets: "The only alternative seems to be universal catastrophe."

Some bits of this lecture were bonkers, other bits written out of pique: Graves's current girlfriend had run off with a "pseudo-poet", and this was his way of telling her she'd made a mistake. But the question which Graves raised about Donne goes straight to the heart of the matter: what makes a great love poet? And is Graves one himself? By general consent, any revival in Graves's reputation, which had begun to decline long before his death 10 years ago, must rest on his love poetry. "Graves is to love what Philip Larkin is to mortality," says his latest biographer, Miranda Seymour, and Patrick Quinn, editor of a new Selected Poems, agrees that "Graves's love lyrics are amongst the finest written in a poetic era noticeably lacking in poetry celebrating love". Graves, who thought love "the main theme and origin of true poems" and regarded his prose works as mere potboilers, would have wanted it this way - to be remembered and judged as a love poet above all.

The trouble is that Graves the love poet commits most of the faults for which he castigates Donne. Nancy, his first wife, wooed when she was 16 and discarded a decade and four children later, once described Graves as an "insistent but unsatisfactory" lover. This more or less describes the poetry, too: the more insistent, the less satisfactory. Graves the troubadour is rapt, worshipful, "wild at heart", quaking with wonder before the queen in her high silk pavilion. But he's also oddly impersonal. Though he did leave one description of what the white goddess looks like ("a lovely slender woman with a hooked nose, deathly pale face, lips red as rowan berries, startling blue eyes and long fair hair"), none of his real muses, falling short of the goddess ideal as they inevitably did, were given a look in. Graves didn't worry too much about this, believing that a particular woman in a particular place has no consequence, except as an incarnation of the invisible Muse: "Woman is mortal woman. She abides." The reader in 1995 may be less charitable: a little mortality now and then - a cheekbone, a hair, a fingernail - would gives his love poems more substance.

Graves does sometimes address a "you", but she remains a shadow across the bed or a goddess wafting through a classical landscape. "You wear that sorrowful and tender mask/Which on high mountain tops in heather- flow/Entrances lonely shepherds" goes one stanza. "Lying between your sheets," another poem begins, more promisingly, but then runs on: "I challenge/A watersnake in a swoln cataract/Or a starved lioness among drifts of snow." Graves does tend to be swoln, as well as swooning. There is a lot of moonshine, not to mention gorgons, lions, dragons, rats, maggots, wolves and all the imaginary menagerie a lover has to contend with to win the princess in the tower. Anxious to be universal without being worldly, Graves forgets that microcosmic attention is what moves us. The bodilessness of his poems seems old-fashioned - not just less modern than Robert Lowell but less modern than the Song of Solomon.

As a young poet, Graves could be old-man lechy, watching a dress cling to a woman's body or famously ordering his penis to behave ("Down, wanton, down! Have you no shame?"). Later, for all the declared sensuousness, he's firmly unerotic. Perhaps Laura Riding, with whom he spent 10 intense years, had something to do with it: "Bodies have had their day," she declared halfway through their relationship, and Graves, obedient to his muse, concurred. Maybe it came as a relief, his fear of physicality having begun at the age of nine when, as he recounts in Goodbye to All That, two little girls "tried to find out about the male anatomy from me by exploring down my shirt-neck when we were digging up pig-nuts in the garden".

Graves once said that he could fall in love with his big toe, meaning that he found it easy to become infatuated, but betraying also the narcissism of his pashes. "Man does, woman is" he believed: muses were expected to be "quiet, unemphatic, non-competitive, but breathtaking" while a chap did the business. His poems are urgent but proudly unaffectionate, affection being the sort of "lesser" feeling a poet has for a pet or a spouse, not for a muse. "I forget the gentler tone," he writes, and certainly there is less tenderly attentive detail in his love poems than in his descriptions, in Goodbye to All That, of dead or dying soldiers. Seeing those bodies have their day made him squeamish about bodies ever after.

Graves's mistake was his servility to his own Goddess myth. To borrow a distinction of his own, the poems he excels at are not so much love poems, which commemorate "an ecstatic event which sets the world on fire", as poems about love, which "either sadly or satirically record its defeat by practical circumstance". Graves on fire soon burns out; sad or satirical, he endures. When the mask of rapture slips and he allows himself to be detached, ironic, Metaphysical, even Apollonian, he begins to notice things: the comedy of two bodies becoming one ("Neither can be certain who/Was that I whose mine was you"); the perversity which will always make us choose the bad angel who "beats, betrays and sponges" on us over the good angel who looks after our interests; the married woman refusing her lover "for the children's sake", then "turning suddenly cold towards them". In this vein Graves can sound as tough and oxymoronic as Donne: inconstant lovers are "true lovers even in this". And though too pedantic to be a great phrase-maker, once out of the clutches of the Goddess he is freed to speak of eternal verities. "Love is a universal migraine", one poem begins, almost Cole Porterishly. Love at first sight he defines as the "discovery of twinned helplessness/ against the tug of procreation". Marriages are good in so far as they challenge "the monogamic axiom/That strife below the hip-bones/Need not estrange the heart".

Graves in this vein is so persuasive that we forgive him for keeping the faces of his women veiled, the habit he deplored in Donne. Though indiscreet with friends, he described a selection of his love poems in 1969 as commemorating "secret occasions ... Since poetry should not be confused with autobiography I refrain from marking large groups with names of the women who inspired or provoked them. It would lead only to mischief." There's a similar argument in his poem "Secrecy": keeping love sacred means keeping identities secret; it would be deceitful and destructive to "make a him and her/Out of me and you".

Still, it's the him and the hers, the names and mischief, which the averagely prurient reader seeks now that Graves (and some of his women) are safely dead. To mark the centenary on 24 July, three hefty biographies are being published, all of which, to greater and lesser degrees of mischief, are happy to put names to the faceless faces. Each biography has something different to recommend it. Richard Perceval Graves's Robert Graves and the White Goddess (Weidenfeld pounds 20) concludes a three-volume Life (the first two volumes are available in paperback at pounds 14.99) informed by huge affection and family knowledge: the author is Graves's nephew, and appears towards the end of the book, in the third person, as a boy visiting his uncle in Dey. Martin Seymour-Smith's Robert Graves: His Life and Work (Bloomsbury pounds 25) is written by a disciple of Graves, and presents a picture of which the master himself would have approved - indeed, did approve, since it was first published in 1982, when Graves was still alive; for this version, 30,000 words have been added, though most of these, it must be said, are given over to mutterings against contemporary taste or to feuds with people accused of having less judgement than Seymour-Smith himself. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge (Doubleday pounds 20) by Miranda Seymour (no relation either of Graves or Seymour-Smith) is the most concise of these three biographies, the least pompous and partisan, and the only one to bring a feminist eye to the male-fantasising about muses and goddesses.

All these books discuss Graves's women with a freedom that wasn't possible when he was alive. So as well as Nancy, his enterprising first wife, Laura, his first muse, and Beryl, the long-suffering second wife (20 years his junior) with whom he settled after Laura had cleared off, now we get the late nymphets. There were four: Judith Bledsoe ("reddish-brown hair, magical grey-green eyes, a provocative mouth and a smile of searing warmth"), whom he met when he was 55 and she 17; Margot Callas ("shapely figure, long legs, challenging grey eyes", "dark, curling hair and a strong lovely face"), who later married Mike Nichols; Cindy Lee, aka Cindy Potts, aka Amelia, Emile or Aemilia Laracuen ("curling dark hair and a lively, attractive face", "highly sexed"), whom he met when he was 68 and she in her thirties, said to be keen on sugar-daddies (her previous boyfriend had won the $64,000 Question); last, Juli Simon, a family friend, aspiring ballet dancer and virgin, who visited him in hospital when he was recovering from a gall bladder operation and told him she'd fallen in love with him - she was 17, he 72.

Are we any wiser for being told all this? It's good to have chapter and verse, but does the verse improve on knowing which chapter it comes from? Or is there a risk we'll think the worse of it, and the author a silly old goat? Miranda Seymour thinks much of Graves's behaviour after 1960 was due to the "onset of senility". Martin Seymour-Smith also worries about it, refusing to concern himself with two of the muses, since he thinks them neither "important or interesting, either in themselves or in reference to Graves's best work". Snootily dismissive, and angry that 406 letters Graves wrote to one of the muses were later sold to a university, he seems baffled by what the master ever saw in these bimbos and airheads. In truth, it seems simple enough: they were flattered by his attention, grateful for his money and not too exhausted by his ardour (with one at least, there were no sexual relations at all); he, for his part, loved their youth, devotion and mythologisability. They were pretty, and they were putty. They danced to his tune; he wrote tunes for their dances. He needed to project his love; they were a blank screen. He attributed mysterious powers to them; they entered his control. Loyal to them so long as they were to him, he was more Pygmalion than Don Juan.

Graves wrote some good poems about his late muses, but none so intense as those about his earlier muse, the American poet Laura Riding. It's not as we would wish it: few women seem less deserving of eulogy (it isn't as he wished it, either: after their rift, he gradually excised her from his story). When Miranda Seymour tells us, for example, that the tender lines describing the nape of a woman's neck, "where kisses and all unconsidered whispers/ Go smoother in than by the very lip", were written about Laura, it's hard not to feel disappointed, and even the poem's violent development - that nape threatened by images of stabbing and strangulation - is insufficient consolation. Riding, after all, was a monster, manipulative and arrogant - "Riding Roughshod" Hart Crane nicknamed her. Her insensitivity was legendary: knowing the neurasthenic Graves's tormented memories of the trenches, for example, she used to tell him how much she enjoyed blood and gore, and taunted him for being a wimp. Though she didn't quite succeed in driving him insane, she had more luck with Kit, the first wife of Schuyler Jackson, denouncing her as a witch and hastening her committal to an asylum, which left Laura free to abandon Graves and go off with Kit's husband.

A distraught Graves found it hard to live without Laura. But living with her hadn't been easy either, and explains why Graves needed the myth of an exacting goddess. Guilty at abandoning his children, cut off by his parents (whose funerals he declined to attend), haunted by memories of the soldiers he'd killed in France, denied sex (Laura's back had given her trouble since an attempted suicide leap from a fourth-floor window), resented for his literary success (Laura forbade all mention of the Claudius novels), jealous of Laura's flirtations with other men, he inflated his own torment into a myth of subservience, the painful servitude which a poet must endure in order to write. It was a daft theory, but out of Graves's fervent belief in it came a handful of great poems.

Readers wanting to sample those poems are still better off with the Penguin edition (pounds 6.99) than with Robert Graves: The Centenary Selected Poems (Carcanet pounds 15.95), edited by Patrick Quinn. Partly it's a matter of value for money (Quinn offers 146 pages, the Penguin 264), partly of editing. Graves approved the Penguin selection, and though Quinn is surely right to attempt a different one, he unwisely chooses earlier versions of poems that Graves corrected and invariably improved on. The Carcanet volume also has irritating misprints (Snowden for Snowdon, for example, the photographer instead of the mountain) and bizarrely omits eight of the best love poems: "At First Sight", "With Her Lips Only", "The Thieves", "She Tells Her Love While Fast Asleep", "Conversation Piece", "Beauty in Trouble", "Call It a Good Marriage" and "Symptom of Love".

Carcanet have much more Graves to come, including, in September, both the Collected Stories and the first volume of the Collected Poems. In the meantime, there is the very useful Collected Writings on Poetry, edited by Paul O'Prey (pounds 35), which reprints Graves's Oxford addresses, his equally provocative Clark lectures at Cambridge, and other tart observations.

One of the tartest of all his observations came in a poem, for once not a love poem, called "Posterity": "To evoke posterity/Is to weep on your own grave", it begins. Graves, whose very name is a reminder of mortality, deserves a less ancestral fate than to be "cast in bronze for a city square". For all their deadly faults, his poems are alive with insights into the relationship between men and women. One hundred years after his birth, 10 after his death, their power to inspire and infuriate has not diminished.

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