Walter de la Mare: A fine English all-rounder.

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) is one of those writers who are pretty thin on the ground at the moment, which is to say that he was something of an accomplished all-rounder. Or to give him more traditional description that would have had more currency in his day, he was a ‘man of letters’. Poet, short story writer, novelist, writer for children and essayist among others things, de la Mare is still read today, although perhaps not as widely as he deserves.

Many British schoolchildren are familiar with de la Mare thanks to one of (or perhaps THE) most famous poem of his, ‘The Listeners’. This is a great piece of verse to give to a child if you really want him or her to engage with the words, mood, atmosphere and meaning, mainly because it’s one of those poems that pose a myriad of questions while deliberately not stating anything clearly.

Sometimes this can be very annoying, but very often (as is the case here) the fact that it so open-ended is a great spur to the imagination and to discussion.

Here it is:

The Listeners

‘Is there anybody there?’ said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller’s head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
‘Is there anybody there?’ he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplexed and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveller’s call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
’Neath the starred and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:—
‘Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,’ he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

It’s a fabulous poem, right up there with a verse like Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for simultaneously firing a listener’s imagination, while simultaneously demanding a response, by means of deliberately not stating who or where or when in time the protagonists in the poem actually are.

Subtle and memorable are two adjectives I’d apply to “The Listeners”, and the same qualities are present in a book I bought at the weekend. Published in 1942 by Faber and Faber, Best Stories of Walter de la Mare is a good book to turn to for anyone like me who knows a bit of de la Mare through his poetry and who wants to read further.

I need to sketch a little bit of personal history here. A few years ago I heard a reading on BBC Radio by Richard E Grant of de la Mare’s supernatural story “All Hallows”. It was billed by the BBC as a ‘ghost story’ so maybe for that reason i found it a little underwhelming, since de la Mare it seems didn’t really write in the ‘classic’ vein of writers like le Fanu or MR James. While they all write in the supernatural idiom, de la Mare is more of a man for mood and atmosphere, rather than the outright shock of an apparition or a demonic presence. If de la Mare’s approach is like anyone else’s, I think it’s similar to Henry James’s, in that the stories will definitely give you a chill, but it comes less from a ghostly hand tracing its finger down the spine and more from the unsettling and lingering thought that what the protagonist in the story has experienced could just as easily be explained by it being all in the mind, as much as being caused by any supernatural agency. Think of something like James’s “The Jolly Corner” where there IS an apparition, but its appearance might just be the result of a fevered imagination as much as anything emanating from an occult source. If you take the premise of the story as read, then either of these possibilities is as scary as the other.

So although I didn’t deny the strength, power and mood of “All Hallows”, I came away with the impression that this was a story that needed to be read carefully. and I resolved to try and read it whenever I got the chance. Tracking down a new copy of de la Mare’s stories wasn’t easy (though I admit I don’t really shop for new books). So, when I came across the old wartime copy of Best Stories in an Oxfam bookshop, and saw that “All Hallows” was one of the pieces it contained, that sealed the deal. Having now read it I think it really works well.

The collection also makes it clear that there’s more to de la Mare than being a master at evoking an atmosphere or a chilling mood. Though the supernatural is a key element to his work, he is not confined to this area at all, so in the short story collection are other pieces that, while they might not chill or unsettle, still get you thinking.

In the race for poetic immortality, a few get to enter the Pantheon. Others seem destined for the library store of history…

Against Oblivion is a fascinating and eye-opening book. Written by Ian Hamilton, a British poet, biographer and critic, it was his final (posthumously published) work, dating from 2002. It consists of a series of potted biographies-cum-short critical appraisals of 45 poets who were active and published in the twentieth century. According to Hamilton’s introduction, the book’s genesis came when he was approached to write a modern version of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. Thinking this a decent idea, if a little gimmicky, Hamilton says that he duly went back to Johnson’s book to get some ideas and inspiration. However, of the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets ‘immortalised’ by Johnson,  Hamilton says there were a number he’d never heard of at all, and of those names he recognised there were not many he had read in great depth.

This set Hamilton’s mind off in a different direction, and it seems that he was soon pondering which of the twentieth century poets he had planned to include would still be read in decades and centuries to come.  If Johnson’s book was any indication, it seemed that very few would survive. Hence the approach of  Against Oblivion as it appeared in its final form, which outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the poets put forward. For good measure,  a representative poem or two or three is printed at the end of each section. The resulting book is interesting, provocative and enlightening.  What Hamilton doesn’t do (though it is implied in a few instances) is make himself a complete hostage to fortune by coming out and explicitly saying who he thinks will be for posterity’s chop and who will survive to be read in ages to come. While he gives some hints about who he’d back to survive, the odds for most of them are not probably good since this seems to be just the way these things go.  As he states in the introduction, “it does seem a fair bet than in, say, one hundred years from now, about half of the poets I have chosen […] will have become lost to the general view”.

If you are interested in poetry in whatever capacity, I would highly recommend you take a look through this book if you come across a copy. It’s not perfect, but it is supremely good at getting you thinking, and some of Hamilton’s judgements are very sound indeed. He was a very good writer, capable of a memorable turn of phrase. In the months to come I think I may take a closer look at some of the poets mentioned in the book, and see if I agree with Hamilton in his judgements.

It remains to be seen what role the internet may have in terms of keeping alive the names and works of poets otherwise destined for obscurity and ultimate oblivion. In a sense the internet acts as a place where anything is available at any time. To go back to Samuel Johnson’s lives of the poets for instance, had you read that twenty years ago and come away with a sudden urge to take a look at some of the works of, for example, Thomas Tickell, Mark Akenside or Thomas Sprat, it might not have been easy. Chances are most public libraries would not have the works of these men in store. University libraries would perhaps have been a better bet, but even then there’d have been no guarantee you could have tracked their works down easily. With the internet, however, suddenly almost everything is to hand. It doesn’t mean forgotten poets will be widely read again, but it means that things otherwise forgotten now have far more potential to be recalled at some future point.

Anyway, here’s the list of poets Hamilton includes in Against Oblivion.  For the record, there are 8 poets on it I’ve never heard of. There are 7 I’ve heard of but never read.  There are 12 whose work I’d say I know pretty well (and extremely well in a few cases). The rest I know and have read a few poems by over the years.

(Note: the list does not include Yeats, Hardy, Eliot or Auden. Hamilton does not write about them in his book since he states with some certainty that enough has already been done to establish their names in the canon for posterity. Do you agree?)

Rudyard Kipling

Charlotte Mew

Robert Frost

Edward Thomas

Wallace Stevens

William Carlos Williams

DH Lawrence

Ezra Pound

Hilda Doolittle (HD)

Marianne Moore

Robinson Jeffers

Rupert Brooke

Conrad Aiken

Edna St Vincent Millay

Hugh MacDiarmid

Wilfred Owen

EE Cummings

Robert Graves

Hart Crane

Allen Tate

Stevie Smith

Norman Cameron

William Empson

John Betjeman

Louis MacNiece

Theodore Roethke

Stephen Spender

Elizabeth Bishop

Roy Fuller

RS Thomas

Randall Jarrell

Weldon Kees

Henry Reed

John Berryman

Dylan Thomas

Alun Lewis

Robert Lowell

Keith Douglas

Philip Larkin

Allen Ginsberg

James Merrill

James Wright

Gregory Corso

Ted Hughes

Sylvia Plath

 

Who do you think will be forgotten in another hundred years? Who do you think will survive? And is there any twentieth century poet not in Hamilton’s list who you think stands an equal chance against oblivion? Feel free to leave a comment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A review of TS Eliot A Short Biography by John Worthen.

This was an impulse borrowing from my local library. It’s not bad and the fact that it’s reasonably short adds to the appeal for anyone looking to learn a little more about Eliot’s life but who doesn’t want to get too in-depth (and as a lot of Eliot’s life was quite  a troubled affair that can be no bad thing). As a basic primer on Eliot’s life, and as a means of shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the composition of his key works, it’s quite a useful volume.

Several years ago I read Peter Ackroyd’s 1980’s biography of the poet, which notably cites none of the poems since permission was not granted by Eliot’s widow and executor Valerie. Nonetheless, that remains a superb biography and I can heartily recommend that if you want to put gentility aside and ‘dig deep’. Worthen’s book, by contrast, quotes liberally from the poems but is shorter and more limited in scope. What Worthen seems to do is to quote the poems as a means of trying to explore how the poems reflect Eliot’s life and key preoccupations at the times of composition. Of course he also touches on some of the wider themes present in the poems, but for the most part this is quite a traditional literary biography in that it doesn’t get too technical in its exploration of the verses, and assesses them for the most part in terms of the basic context of the author’s life.

Along the way he touches on several of the controversies that inevitably crop up when discussing Eliot’s life, work and ideas. Just how bad was his first marriage? Unsurprisingly Worthen concludes that it was a disaster all round, but like others he contends that Eliot’s torrid marriage acted as a catalyst for some of his greatest work. Was Eliot gay? Worthen concludes that he doesn’t think so because there’s not enough evidence to prove it. Was Eliot an anti-Semite? Yes, he undoubtedly some poems whose tone is anti-semitic, and yes he was anti-semitic to a degree, but, he contends, that doesn’t mar the whole Eliot canon or make it as over-archingly anti-semitic as others say it is.

After reading Worthen’s book I went back to the poems once more and quickly realised that, as far as I am concerned, there’s far, far, far more to a poem as vast as-say-  The Waste Land than we can account for by inferring what was going on in Eliot’s head and heart at the time of its composition. I guess it is possible for the literary equivalent of a detective or psychologist to relate most if not all of it to what we know of Eliot and his life. But for me that is to place a limit on what the poem is capable of expressing. So on one level it is one man’s ‘rhythmical grumbling’ (to use Eliot’s phrase). But on so many other levels it is so much more. Take lines like these: “On Margate sands./ I can connect nothing with nothing.” Alright, so for some it might conjure the image of a sad Eliot in a deckchair in said seaside town trying to get his head together, but that is only one of many possible meanings that these rich lines spark in the mind.

To his credit a writer as good as Worthen knows this. As Eliot himself also stated (which is a fact he seemed to revel in) no-one, least of all the poet himself, can possibly account for the sum total of a poem’s meanings. So a decent little primer on Eliot then, but like al criticism it’s certainly not the last word on the poems themselves. Instead it serves as a good inspiration to go back to the works themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Jones: The Overlooked War Poet?

This year being the anniversary of World War One’s outbreak, there is of course no end of books, exhibitions, television and radio programmes and the like devoted to it.

Inevitably people’s minds are also focussed more at the moment on those writers who wrote about the War. I suppose, being cynical about it, that the anniversary represents something of a commercial opportunity for a lot of publishers to release or re-release editions of Great War poetry or the many memoirs written by survivors.

Less cynically, I like to think that the reading public would have gravitated back to the works that came out the War anyway, since so many of them are part of the cultural landscape. Generations of Britons have studied poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in school. Books like  Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front have also been widely read since publication and remain not only popular but classics of their kind.

However, there is one writer who took the War as the theme for one of his great long works, but who remains somewhat off radar as far as the general public is concerned, and is one mainly for the scholars. His name is David Jones. Jones was actually both a talented writer and artist. Born in 1895, a Londoner of mixed Welsh-English descent, he served on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His first major literary work to be published was In Parenthesis in 1937. It drew directly on his experiences as a soldier on the Front. Published by Faber and Faber, TS Eliot acknowledged it as a major work, and wrote an introduction to it. Hailed upon publication, it remains highly rated today and remains the work for which Jones is most well known.

It was followed by The Anathemata, another long poem, in 1952.

Jones probably isn’t more widely known because, to be frank about it, both of these poems on which his reputation rests are both very long, and quite difficult. I am currently reading The Anathemata, and while there are passages in it of great beauty, and phrases that leap out at me and strike a chord, more often than not I console myself with TS Eliot’s phrase (which always springs to mind when I encounter verse that defies me to make sense of it) that “a poem can communicate before it is understood.”

In Parenthesis  is less of a challenge in comparison to the later work, but remains a challenge nonetheless. Though his work is rooted in myth, religion and the ancient past, as a writer he is every inch the modernist, having much in common with poets like Eliot, Pound and Bunting. He is an experimenter, and challenges the reader. That said, although Jones weaves in all manner of historical, mythical and religious allusions into the text, it is most definitely about the War and his experience of War. There is, therefore, plenty to help the reader orientate him or herself when reading the poem. 

I’m in danger of making the work sound more inaccessible than it actually is. While not every single line might connect with its audience first time (and some may not at all), there are passages in the poem of great power. Jones’s visual art naturally informed his written work, and results in vivid images and passages that are easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Here is a link to a Guardian Books podcast, where Robin  Robertson reads from the final part of Jones’s poem. https://audioboo.fm/boos/1276875-guardian-books-poetry-podcast-robin-robertson-reads-david-jones#t=2m14s

Recordings also exist of Jones in later life reading from the poem in a very evocative voice that is part drawl, part growl. If I find a link I’ll add it to a future post.

 

 

 

 

“Out There” by RS Thomas.

Out There

It is another country.

There is no speech there such

as we know: even the colours

are different.

When the residents use their eyes,

it is not shapes they see but the distance

between them. If they go,

It is not in a traveller’s

Usual direction, but sideways and

out through the mirror of a refracted

timescale. If you meet them early,

you would recognise them by an absence

of shadow. Your problems

are in their past;

those that they are about to solve

are what you are incapable

of conceiving. In experiments

in outbreeding, under the growing microscope

of the mind, they are isolating the human virus and burning it

up in the fierceness of their detachment.

 

 

This year is the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth, and while I like some of his stuff, I prefer the work of Wales’s other Thomas, R.S.

Both men are great poets, and as such their work can be described and assessed in many different ways. One superficial description will do for this post for now, however. If the more familiar works of Dylan Thomas are verbally rich and dense, then the work of R.S. Thomas is lean and heavy.

That’s heavy in the hippy sense of being very, very, very serious. A lot of his verse has the quality of a zen riddle. I’ve blogged about R.S. Thomas before (click here if interested) and mentioned that for this reason I can only read a little bit at a time. Most of his poems are on the shorter side, and I always find that a little goes a long way.

A lot of his poems are about a specific subject (as a clergyman, many of his poems are meditations on religion and the nature of God for example). However, he often writes in a different mode, something approaching allegory, where the subject matter is open-ended. While on one level it can be frustrating if you are in the mood for clear cut descriptions and meanings, on the other it’s perfect if you want a challenge and like to make the meaning for yourself.

 

“Good” by RS Thomas

The old man comes out on the hill

and looks down to recall earlier days

in the valley. He see the stream shine,

the church stand, hears the litter of children’s voices. A chill in the flesh

tells him that death is not far off

now: it is the shadow under the great boughs

of life. His garden has herbs growing.

The kestrel goes by with fresh prey

in its claws. The wind scatters the scent of wild beans.

The tractor operates on the earth’s body. His grandson is there

ploughing: his young wife fetches him

cakes and tea and a dark smile. It is well.

(Note: I’ve always liked this poem, just as I’ve always admired RS Thomas for his clarity and his strength. I first encountered this poem years ago, when one of my teachers invited me to take part in a reading of poems on the theme of Autumn. Now Autumn is almost over for the year, this poem came to mind the other day. Looking at it closely again, though, I think that in literal terms it makes more sense for me to read it as taking place in late summer, or at least that period of slow wind-down as summer blends into autumn. Either way, I think we’re invited into the world of a man who in symbolic terms has personally reached the season of winter, which strengthens the poem’s juxtaposition of life and growth in the outer world with the man’s inner feeling that his life is soon to be over. The wisdom of this poem for me, however, is that it isn’t seen as a cause for panic or overwhelming sadness. Instead it’s presented as part of the general pattern of things.  “To every thing there is a season” as the Good Book says, something Thomas perhaps referred to in his sermons over the years.)

Robert Graves Part 4: Words of warning.

claudius

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.

Poem of the day: A. E. Housman: “Far in a western brookland…”

woods

Where the tress whisper but the wind doesn’t blow: Let AE Housman be your guide.

 

 

Poem lii from A Shropshire Lad. 

 

Far in a western brookland

That bred me long ago

The poplars stand and tremble

By pools I used to know.

 

There in the windless night-time,

The wanderer, marvelling why,

Halts on the bridge to harken

How soft the poplars sigh.

 

He hears: no more remembered

In fields where I was known,

Here I lie down in london

And turn to rest alone.

 

There, by the starlit fences,

The wanderer halts and hears

My soul that lingers sighing

About the glimmering weirs.

 

 

A change of season brings a change of mood, and though it’s still not coat weather during the day round where I live, I did see a tree starting to drop its leaves this morning. If anything’s going to set me off thinking about Autumn, it’s that.

Time for that most melancholy of poets, then, Alfred Edward Housman, the ‘Shropshire lad’ himself (albeit one from Bromsgrove in Worcestershire).

I chose the above poem completely at random, and to be fair it could be set at any time of the year. Added to this is that whenever Housman does mention a particular season, he more often than not plumps for Spring. For me, though, there’s always a melancholy about his work that fits the season of Autumn. I’ve always thought of Housman as a great poet of the emotions, and he does crystalise in verse the rueful melancholy that a lot of people feel, however fleetingly, when the nights start drawing in. He is a poet of dark nights.

This poem may not be to everyone’s tastes. Personally I like it, although I’ll readily admit that there is a contrived element to it. The key words at play in the verse, however, are in stanza two, where despite the “windless” conditions the poplars are animated by some power, leaving the passer-by “marvelling”. And with that Housman takes what might be another routine lyric of loss and disquiet, and gives it an unsettling element, bordering on the supernatural.

As I say, some might find that Housman overdoes this. However, I don’t mind writers taking liberties like this in order to stir the emotions. After all, this is also the time of year when I like to go back to my books of ghost stories.

This is also the perfect kind of poem to give to schoolchildren: With skillful guidance from the teacher they’d be able to make personal sense of it in minutes, followed by an exercise where they could produce a personal response (a poem, a picture, a story)  based on the verse. There could also be a lot of interesting discussion as to the identity of the poem’s speaker.

 

Poem for the day: Gary Snyder “Changing Diapers”

gary snyder

The great Gary Snyder: Never a man to be afraid of kicking up (or even picking up) a stink.

Gary Snyder’s a poet that I don’t read enough of, but I really ought to. His work can be serious, since it covers a lot of weighty and complex issues (for instance he was in the vanguard of writers who were taking up themes of environmental concern). However, I’ve always found the dominant tone in his writing to be a good humoured openness, which allows him to convey the significance of everything from the wonders of nature to more domestic joys. Here’s  good example which I picked at random today. It’s called “Changing Diapers” (or ‘nappies’ where I come from).

What I like most in this poem is that it deals with an everyday domestic occurrence in tender language. In so doing this allows him to subtly convey his underlying serious point about how you define being a man.

He knows that if you want to make a convert, you’ve got to make them laugh and smile first.

Changing Diapers

How intelligent he looks!

on his back

both feet caught in my hand

his glance set sideways,

on a giant poster of Geronimo

with a Sharp’s repeating rifle on his knee.

I open, wipe, he doesn’t even notice

nor do I.

Baby legs and knees

toes like little peas

little wrinkles, good-to-eat,

eyes bright, shiny ears,

chest swelling drawing air,

No trouble, friend,

you and me                and Geronimo

are men.

Robert Graves Pt. 3: Another reason why he defies simple categorisation.

copse

The Suicide in the Copse

The suicide, far from content,

Stared down at his own shattered skull:

Was this what he meant?

 

Had not his purpose been

To liberate himself from duns and dolts

By a change of scene?

 

From somewhere came a roll of laughter:

He had looked so on his wedding-day,

And the day after.

 

There was nowhere at all to go,

And no diversion now but to pursue

What literature the winds might blow

 

Into the copse where his body lay:

A year-old sheet of sporting news,

A crumpled schoolboy essay.

 

[Poem ends, blogger’s rant begins].

gravesathisdesk

To the Editor. Dear Sir, In a recent review your publication had the sheer brass neck to categorise me as just a…

So only the other night  I blogged in anger about an Economist review of the new Graves selected poems that tried to pigeon hole the writer as ‘just another’ war poet. Since then I’ve read another more positive review, but still rather tangled, in The Independent. Here the writer acknowledges that “Graves’s range is wide”. However, there is still some pigeon-holing evident because the critic asserts that Graves essentially “espoused a single subject”.

What was this subject? Here I have no option but to let the critic have his say.

“For Graves the imagination was not a framer of secondary worlds but an inhabitant of an underlying reality where a fundamental narrative, “one story and one story only”, was always in progress: the poet’s enchantment in the service of the White Goddess, in the worldly form of a Muse.”

What the critic does here is to take Graves’s own lead in asserting that “all true poetry” is in its way a representation of the poet’s relationship with The White Goddess, or of some aspect of her story. To explain exactly who the Goddess was, and what Graves’s Muse-based poetic system consisted of, is the subject of another blog to follow in due course.

In the meantime it’s worth pointing out that Graves’s Goddess system, expounded in book form in 1948 (The White Goddess) had been some years in the making. But once set down in print it gradually came to inform the bulk of his verse. Hence his later poetic phase where love is perhaps the dominant theme, and his working method whereby he felt he could only really write true poetry if he was in thrall to a real muse (i.e. an attractive, much younger woman, assumed to be the living invocation of the Goddess at a given point in time).

From my point of view, if you really want to add an extra level to your understanding Graves’s verse, you really need to have a basic knowledge of what the Goddess mythos consisted of. It’s worth mentioning, however, that even after he’d developed his Goddess mythos, his poetry continued to reflect the wide range of his lively and enquiring mind. Though the Goddess took over to some extent, he was by no means as love-struck or muse-fixated as the critic seeks to assert above. (I’ve written before about Graves’s immensely varied output: https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/robert-graves-part-one-never-mind-goodbye-to-all-that-try-saying-hello-to-all-his-other-writing/)

As I also wrote the other day (https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/robert-graves-part-two-try-to-pin-this-writer-down-at-your-own-risk/) you can’t blithely state that Graves is a war poet and leave it at that. And neither can you just maintain the critical assumption that he is a muse-driven love poet (even if Graves did more than most to give that impression!).

For me, one of the reasons that Graves remains one of the greats is because he defies simple categorisation. Look through any edition of his verse and you will find gems like the one I chose at random above (it was written in the late ’30’s). Have a look at it again and, if you’ve time, have a think about what the poem means to you. The Great War and the Goddess might somehow be factored into some people’s reading of the poem at some stage. No doubt, though,  this will occur far later than a host of other themes will have become apparent.