Almost thirty years since his death, the english poet and writer Robert Graves remains well known. However most people, if they read him at all, read his justly celebrated World War One memoir cum general autobiography Goodbye To All That, and his entertaining novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. They remain well worth reading and remain steady earners for the Graves estate.
Classics as they are, however, there is far, far more to Graves than these two works. He is by no means a ‘forgotten’ writer, and there are enough devotees and academics to ensure that he doesn’t fade entirely from view (there’s an active and well-organised Robert Graves Society for example). However, I do think that he’s in danger of fading from view, or at best being seen as a ‘two-trick pony’, as far as the non-specialist, general reader is concerned.
Over the course of a long and busy writing life, Graves showed himself to be a superb all-rounder, producing fiction, literary criticism and other scholarly works, and many superb poems. Personally I think it’ll be these poems on which his reputation will ultimately rest. Certainly Graves himself thought so, and he considered himself to be a poet first and prose writer second. Prose, Graves often said, was a necessary part of his writing life and it certainly paid the bills. But it was poetry that was his first love, and his true calling. I’ve been reading Graves for a number of years now, and I’ve always thought that he is at his best in his poetry. Certainly the poems do the most to get you to the heart of what this constantly intriguing and incisive writer is all about. Hardly any other poet I’ve read has provided me with so consistently an unexpected and original way of perceiving things.
He wrote many poems in his life, and was also something of a vicious editor of his own work. Fortunately a one-volume “Complete Poems” is available. It prints everything he published during his lifetime, and proves how right he was to heed his poetic calling time and again.
What is his work like? For me, Graves is the most complete poet I can think of. To use that term again, he’s a great all-rounder and very much his own man. If twentieth century poetry is a literature of movements, then I’m not really sure you can categorise Graves. In his early years he had poems published in the Georgian anthologies. In the 20’s and 30’s he was loosely allied with the Modern movement (he even publish a book entitled “A Survey of Modernist Poetry” with former lover, muse and collaborator Laura Riding). But from the 40’s you could argue he was pretty much on his own, his work defined by his own particular voice and thematic concerns.
Stylistically he wasn’t really an innovator, but he was a superb and unshowy technician (the merciless drafting and redrafting of almost every poem on offer here made sure his ideas and feelings received their clearest expression, couched in their most fitting form). But if the form of his verse holds no major surprises, in terms of subject matter I can’t think of another poet who covers so many bases so convincingly. He is rightly hailed as one of the finest love and lyric poets in the language. Indeed, many of these poems were inspired by his (in)famous devotion to the notion of the muse and to his muses. But to categorise him as ‘just’ a love poet- noble calling as it is- is to do him as much a disservice as to see him as ‘just’ a First World War poet. He ranges far wider. Indeed, Graves’s concerns and interests must have been incredibly wide to judge by the subjects touched on in this collection: religion, mythology, fatherhood, loss, desire, obsession, politics, society, language, the writing of poetry, the poetic impulse, domestic life… I could go on.
Here’s an example. This poem, called “Under the Pot”, displays Graves’s gift of providing an unexpected take on things, but doing it with an authority that can leave you thinking ‘I never thought of that. He has a point’:
Sulkily the sticks burn, and though they crackle
With scorn under the bubbling pot, or spout
Magnanimous jets of flame against the smoke,
At each heel end a dirty sap breaks out.
Confess, creatures, how sulkily ourselves
We hiss with doom, fuel of a sodden age-
Not rapt up roaring to the chimney stack
On incandescent clouds of spirit or rage.
This illustrates two of his chief poetic virtues which are brevity and incisiveness. He hardly wrote any long poems and most of his verses are straight to the point. He also had the gift not only of being able to turn a memorable phrase, but also of adopting a fresh perspective on things. Some of his best poems (masterpeices such as “To Juan at the WInter Solstice” or “The Cool Web”) made a big impression on me when I first read them, and yet they have a knack of yielding up something new each time I return to them.
In my opinion Graves’s Collected Poems has all the charm and merit of Thomas Hardy’s or WB Yeats’s respective Collected Poems: that is to say that they all contain absolute classics that you keep coming back to, but they’re all great for dipping into, since there’s so much on offer that you’re bound to find a new gem that you weren’t aware of before or had overlooked. So whether it’s just for browsing or for digging deep, the main thing is about such great volumes of poetry is that you keep reading them, and consequently they will remain on your bookshelf for life.
Just a word of warning if you’re buying a book of Graves’s poetry. As mentioned above he had a habit of editing out of the canon works of his he no longer liked or thought rang true. If you have one of the numerous ‘Collected Poems’ published during his lifetime, you won’t have all the poems. The ‘Complete Poems’ reverses that decision. As for the poems themselves, I’ve indicated above how in my view he’s right up there with the greats, but how he’s also a complete original. Other poets might be better, but I think very few range wider. Like other great poets though he distilling his own poetic voice.
You’ll hear that voice so clearly in his verse, a heady mix of the practical and the inspirational. It’s a voice of authority, rather clipped and formal at times, with a touch of the army officer about it (he never could get over the war in more ways than one). But it’s mixed with a tremendous sense of awe and wonder about the world. It’s rather like being in the presence of a great teacher who constantly beckons you on, showing you things you’ve never seen before, or pointing out different ways of seeing familiar things. You may learn from him. You may disagree with him. But he’ll make you think. And you’ll never be bored.
In part two (to be posted whenever I can get round to it!) I’ll write about some of his other prose works that I think you’ll like.