Robert Graves Part 4: Words of warning.


The bronze head from a statue of the Emperor Claudius, now in the British Museum.

The names of Robert Graves and the first century Emperor Claudius are forever linked, since Graves wrote not one but two well-known major novels based on the Emperor’s life. In general it seems that Graves’s time spent bringing Claudius to life was a happy and profitable period. Biographies of Graves report him as stating that Claudius would always look out for him, and so it seemed, with the novels being bestsellers upon publication in the 30’s, and hitting it big all over again thanks to the BBC TV adaptation in the 70’s.

Nonetheless, I wonder if Graves had Claudius in mind when he wrote the poem below (certainly the line “limp as he limped” always brings Claudius to mind for me). Either way, I’ve blogged elsewhere here and here about some of the different aspects of Graves’s writing. Now here’s another poem which I like to think exemplifies another of his poetic voices, that of the finger-wagging scholar.

Graves lived a long and incredibly accomplished life. Though he succeeded in many things, I’ve little doubt that he considered himself a poet first and foremost. However another very important aspect to his life and career was his accomplishment as a classical and literary scholar. He was notably independent, though. I could not imagine him ever having settled to a life within a University (though he was Professor of literature at Cairo University for a while). He was too freewheeling for that.

Nonetheless, a scholar he was, and what he had in common with many of them was total confidence and a need to put others right when they were in danger of going wrong, and it’s a trait that made its way into his verse. In the poem copied below, note the total matter-of-fact bluntness and complete confidence of the first stanza. Then note the sheer number of imperative verbs running through the stanzas. They don’t really function as orders in this poem, but more as stages in a ritual the poem’s narrator has seen time and time again, as someone gets gradually more and more obsessed with the object of his fascination.

When he’s writing in this mode Graves reminds me a lot of Seneca in his letters. It’s a voice of experience, study and reflection, well suited to drawing our attention to life’s pitfalls. So here, from a man well used to studying the lives of others, is a warning about getting too fascinated.

This being Graves, though, there’s an emotional rawness ever present. Note how the poem gradually builds to a more intense emotional pitch, ending with the final stanza and its image of the dead man taking over the psyche and whole life of the living person who became too fixated. Of course it probably makes most sense to the majority of us when read as a metaphor. The dead haven’t literally come to life, they just have a tendency to play on our minds if we’re not too careful. However, we can’t be too sure that’s all Graves meant, and it’s probably more fun if we suspend our disbelief and admit that there might, just might, be a possibility that more than one unfortunate has been literally ensnared in the way described. In this sense, the last stanza’s final image reminds me of something out of MR James, another learned man whose writing mixed intellectual curiosity with terror.

To Bring the Dead to Life.

To bring the dead to life

Is no great magic

Few are wholly dead:

Blow on a dead man’s embers

And a live flame will start.

Let his forgotten griefs be now,

And now his withered hopes;

Subdue your pen to his handwriting

Until it prove as natural

To sign his name as yours.

Limp as he limped,

Swear by the oaths he swore;

If he wore black, affect the same;

If he had gouty fingers ,

Be yours gouty too.

Assemble tokens intimate of him-

A seal, a cloak, a pen:

Around these elements then build

A home familiar to

The greedy revenant.

So grant him life, but reckon

That the grave which housed him

May not be empty now:

You in his spotted garments

Shall yourself lie wrapped.


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