Robert von Ranke Graves (July 24 , 1895 – December 7, 1985) was a major English poet of the twentieth century. Graves lived through the developments of Modernism and Postmodernism, a period of intense experimentation of poetic form. Nonetheless, Graves remained a traditionalist, writing poetry strictly in meter and rhyme to the end of his days. Although he was extremely idiosyncratic and belonged to no "school," Graves is often readily compared to Robert Frost, in that both poets were conservatives who fought to maintain poetic values. Like Frost, Graves' poetry tends to be brief, lyrical, and extremely ironic. Graves' talent for love poetry in particular is unquestioned, and and some consider him the most gifted love-poet in the English language, alongside W.B. Yeats.
In addition to poetry, Graves also wrote a number of novels and works of criticism. Graves himself disowned his fiction, but critics and audiences alike continue to regard his novels highly. His most notable work of fiction, the historical novel I, Claudius, remains one of the most popular novels of the last hundred years. Graves' criticism has garnered praise as well as controversy. Ever an iconoclast, Graves' most infamous contribution to literary criticism is his extensive work on poetry and mythology, The White Goddess, in which he proposes (through rather dubious evidence) that all poetry emerged from an ancient religion of goddess-worship. Critics are still baffled by The White Goddess, and Graves' increasingly bizarre and mystical theories of poetry; nonetheless, Graves is one of the great formal poets of the twentieth century. Along with Auden, Yeats, and Frost, he is one of the crucial formalist poets who helped to preserve the traditional forms of poetry in a period of radical change.
Born in London, Graves received his early education at Charterhouse School, winning a scholarship to St. John's College, Oxford. However, the prospect of spending another four years of his life studying Latin and Greek did not appeal to the nineteen-year-old Graves, and with the outbreak of World War I, he enlisted almost immediately in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He published his first volume of poems, Over The Brazier, in 1916. At the Battle of the Somme, Graves received such serious injuries that his family was informed of his death. Graves, however, recovered, at the cost of permanent damage to his lungs, and, after a brief spell back in France, spent the remainder of the war in England, despite efforts to return to the front.
In 1917, Graves played an important part in saving his fellow poet, Siegfried Sassoon, from a court-martial after the latter went absent without leave and wrote to his commanding officer denouncing the war. The two officers had become firm friends while serving with the Fusiliers. Graves's biographies document the story well. The intensity of their early relationship is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Graves's Fairies and Fusiliers (1916), a collection which contains a plethora of poems celebrating the bonds between soldiers.
Following his marriage and the end of World War I, Graves eventually entered St John's College, Oxford. He later attempted to make a living by running a small shop, but the business soon failed. In 1926, he took up a post at Cairo University, accompanied by his wife, their children, and the poet Laura Riding. He returned to London briefly, where he split up with his wife under highly emotional circumstances. At one point Riding attempted suicide, but Graves later left with her to live in Majorca. There they continued to publish letterpress books under the rubric of the Seizin Press, founded and edited the literary journal Epilogue, and wrote two successful academic books together: A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928) (both vastly influential on modern literary criticism), among much other literary work.
Some argue that A Survey of Modernist Poetry initiated the school of New Criticism; it is certainly true that it was one of the very first published works to address Modernist poetry in a deeply analytical way, focused exclusively on the structure and contents of the poems themselves—a method of analysis which would become the cornerstone of New Criticism. In 1927, Graves also published Lawrence and the Arabs, a commercially successful biography of T. E. Lawrence.
In 1929, Graves published an autobiography Goodbye to All That (revised and republished in 1957); it proved a success but cost him many of his friends, Sassoon notable among them. In Goodbye to All That Graves set out to explain why he had to "say goodbye" to England and English culture because of its antiquated (in Graves' view) morality. In so doing, he offended a number of his English compatriots, and the book also contained a number of highly controversial passages about Graves' experiences in World War I that insinuated that the Royal Army was responsible for a large number of unreported war crimes against the German people.
In 1934, Graves published his most successful work, I, Claudius. Using classical sources he constructed a complex and compelling tale of the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, a tale extended in its sequel, Claudius the God (1935). Graves followed this up with another historical novel, Count Belisarius (1938), recounting the career of the Byzantine general, Belisarius. These historical novels are easily Graves' most popular works, but Graves himself would distance himself from them, deriding the works as mere potboilers written from financial necessity.
Graves had been forced to leave Majorca in 1936 due to the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, he and Laura Riding moved to the United States and took lodging in New Hope, Pennsylvania. After a number of tumultuous years, the couple separated, and Graves returned to England. After returning to England, Graves began a new relationship with Beryl Hodge, then the wife of Alan Hodge. Ironically, Graves collaborated with Alan Hodge on 1943's The Reader Over Your Shoulder, a book on writing style. A 1947 revision was published as The Use and Abuse of the English Language. In 1946, he and his new wife Beryl re-established a home in Deya, Majorca. 1946 also saw the publication of the historical novel King Jesus. Graves published the controversial The White Goddess in 1948. In 1953 he published The Nazarene Gospel Restored with Joshua Podro. In 1955, he published his copiously annotated version of The Greek Myths. Even those who are unpersuaded by the White Goddess-like interpretations he provided acknowledge the completeness and accuracy of his compilation of the myths themselves. In 1956, he published a volume of short stories Catacrok! Mostly Stories, Mostly Funny. In 1961, he became professor of poetry at Oxford, a post he held until 1966.
In his poetry, Graves was an iconoclast, decrying many of the developments of the modernist schools of poetry, and holding highly individual views about the value of many works in the literary canon. His home in Majorca became something of a "Mecca" for iconoclasts and rebels of all sorts, and people as diverse as Len Lye, William Gaddis, and Robert Wyatt made the pilgrimage. Holding that love was the only true subject for poetry, Graves confined most of his poetry to short lyrics, many of which require an understanding of The White Goddess for full comprehension. Graves is highly regarded as a novelist, but like Thomas Hardy (whom Graves knew and admired greatly), Graves always considered himself to be a poet first and foremost.
Graves died in December 1985, at the age of 90, following a long illness and gradual mental degeneration. He and Beryl are buried in the small churchyard on the hill in Deia, overlooking the sea on the Northwest coast of Majorca.
Easily Graves' most popular works, the historical novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, were dismissed by Graves himself, but critics and audiences alike continue to regard the novels with great esteem. In particular, the novels are acclaimed for their historical accuracy, and for Graves' remarkable ability to adopt the voice of a Roman emperor in a way that is both believable and highly compelling.
I, Claudius and Claudius the God were written as if they were the secret autobiography of Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome (41-54). The historical Claudius was kept out of public life by his family, the Julio-Claudians, until his sudden elevation at the age of 49. This was due to several peculiarities on his part—including a stammer, a limp, and various nervous tics, which made him appear mentally addled to his relatives. This is how he was defined by scholars for most of history. Robert Graves claimed that Claudius came to him in a dream one night after reading Suetonius, and demanded that his real story be told. The life of Claudius provided Graves with a way to write about the first four emperors from an intimate, yet unintrusive, point of view. In addition, the real Claudius was a trained historian, and is known to have written an autobiography (now lost) in eight books that covered the same time period. I, Claudius is a first person narrative of Roman history from the reigns of Augustus to Caligula; Claudius the God is written as a later addition documenting Claudius' own reign.
Claudius writes his memoirs in Greek, which he believes will remain "the chief literary language of the world." This allows Graves to explore the etymology of Latin words (like the origins of the names "Livia" and "Caesar") that would otherwise be apparent to a native-born Latin speaker like Claudius.
The message of the story appears to concern the relationship between liberty (as demonstrated by the Roman Republic and its ideals) and political stability (as demonstrated by the Roman Empire, and in particular the character of Empress Livia). The Republic provided for freedom, but was inherently unstable and threw the doors open for endless civil wars, the last of which was ended by Augustus after twenty years of fighting. While Augustus harbors Republican sentiments, his wife Livia manages to convince him that to lay down his Imperial powers would be to destroy the peaceful society they have created. Likewise, when the similarly-minded Claudius becomes emperor, he is convinced by Empress Messalina and Herod to preserve his powers, for much the same reason. However, Graves acknowledges that there must be a delicate balance between Republican liberty and Imperial stability; whereas too much of the former led to civil war, too much of the latter led to the corruption of Tiberius, Caligula, Messalina, Sejanus, Herod Agrippa, Nero, Agrippinilla, and countless others—as well as, to a lesser extent, Livia and Claudius himself.
Near the end of Claudius the God, Graves introduces another idea, namely that when a formerly-free nation has lived under a dictatorship for too long, it is incapable of returning to free rule. This is highlighted by the failed attempts of Claudius and others to revive the Republic, centered on their own ambitions. Claudius noted that by "dulling the blade of tyranny, I reconciled Rome to the monarchy."
There also seems to be a subtle feminist message running throughout the works, in line with other works of Graves. Julia, Livia, Drusilla, Messalina, and Agripinilla are quite obviously the powers behind their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons. In the case of Augustus and Livia, she manages through her quiet maneuvering to avoid civil war, preserving the peace.
Graves' poetry is defined by his clear language, his masterful use of rhyme and meter, and his irony and brevity. His poems, whether ironic or sincere, tend to be intensely personal in subject-matter, often dealing with loss and love; yet, because of Graves' genius as an artist, he is able to avoid becoming sentimental, elevating emotions and scenes from everyday life to the level of high art. Here, for instance, is a beloved early poem, "She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep:"
Graves' clear, simple language and his preference for shorter forms gave him a gift for piercing imagery almost unmatched by any other poet of his generation. His poems resemble Frost's, frequently using simple images, often taken from nature, that are charged with a tremendous amount of meaning. Unlike Frost, however, Graves tended away from "poetry of the local" and the use of idioms; Graves tended away from colloquialisms and common speech in favor of dense, abstract symbolism. Graves, to the end of his life, preferred to write poetry with a timeless quality, in language that is as accessible now as it ever was, and for this Graves has become memorialized by more than one major critic as the greatest English poet of the twentieth century. Here, as an instance of Graves' style, is another oft-anthologized work, "The Cool Web:"
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