Robert Graves

Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) is probably my favourite poet of the war era. I’m sure that means you guys will like him too. There is so much to say about him that I have pretty much copied / pasted the following from wikipedia, from what was an unusually thorough article.

Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools until in 1909 he won a scholarship to Charterhouse. There, in response to persecution (in the most part due to the German element in his name and his relative poverty) he feigned madness, began to write poetry, and took up boxing, in due course becoming school champion at both welter- and middleweight. He also sang in the choir, meeting there an aristocratic boy three years younger, G. H. “Peter” Johnstone, with whom he began an intense romantic friendship, the scandal of which led ultimately to an interview with the headmaster. Among the masters his chief influence was George Mallory, who introduced him to contemporary literature and took him mountaineering in vacations. In his final year at Charterhouse he won a classical exhibition to St John’s College, Oxford, but would not take his place there until after the war.
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, in 1916. He developed an early reputation as a war poet and was one of the first to write realistic poems about experience of front-line conflict. At the Battle of the Somme, he was so badly wounded by a shell-fragment through the lung that he was expected to die and, indeed, was officially reported as having died of wounds. He gradually recovered, however; and, apart from a brief spell back in France, he spent the remainder of the war in England.

One of Graves’s close friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, also an officer in the RWF. In 1917, Sassoon rebelled against the war by making a public anti-war statement, which later became known as the Soldier’s Declaration. Graves feared Sassoon could face court martial and intervened with the military authorities, persuading them that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock and that they should treat him accordingly. As a result Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart, a military hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and met fellow patient Wilfred Owen (there will be more details about this epic meeting of giants in a later post). Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was officially called, although he was never hospitalised for it.The friendship between Graves and Sassoon is documented in Graves’s letters and biographies, and the story is fictionalised in Pat Barker’s novel Regeneration. The intensity of their early relationship is demonstrated in Graves’s collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which contains many poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon himself remarked upon a “heavy sexual element” within it, an observation supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves became a friend of Wilfred Owen, who would often send him poems from France.

Graves’s army career ended dramatically with an incident which could have led to a charge of desertion. Having been posted to Limerick in late 1918, he “woke up with a sudden chill, which I recognized as the first symptoms of Spanish influenza.” “I decided to make a run for it,” he wrote, “I should at least have my influenza in an English, and not an Irish, hospital.” Fair enough. Arriving at Waterloo with a high fever but without the official papers that would secure his release from the army, he chanced to share a taxi with a demobilisation officer also returning from Ireland, who completed his papers for him with the necessary secret codes.

After the war (this is me again) Graves earned his living from writing. In addition to his poetry, he was a scholar/translator/writer of antiquity specializing in Classical Greece and Rome, and the author of several popular historical novels including I, ClaudiusHis memoir of his early life, including his role in the war, Goodbye To All That, is definitely worth a read, not only as a tongue-in-cheek commentary of the war, but also as a ‘who’s who’ of early C20th English society. Graves was a well connected man, or at least he paints himself in such a light. In Goodbye to All That we see him bump into the great and good of London: amongst other people, Bertrand Russell, Thomas Hardy, D.E. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Lord Asquith, Walter Raleigh, H.G. Wells and A.A. Milne. It is also fascinating to see the relationship between Graves and Sassoon as Graves presents it, although the publishing of Goodbye To All That did lead to a fall out between the two men, who were never properly reconciled. Graves was twice married and had eight children. He died in from heart failure on 7 December 1985 aged 90.

This may come of a shock you, but I may have to break my self-imposed ‘2 poems per poet’ rule in this post, because I can’t narrow it down beyond 3 in the case of Graves. He’s just that good.

To Lucasta on Going to the War – For the Fourth Time
 
It doesn’t matter what’s the cause,
What wrong they say we’re righting,
A curse for treaties, bonds and laws,
When we’re to do the fighting!
And since we lads are proud and true,
What else remains to do?
Lucasta, when to France your man
Returns his fourth time, hating war,
Yet laughs as calmly as he can
And flings an oath, but says no more,
That is not courage, that’s not fear—
Lucasta he’s a Fusilier,
And his pride sends him here.
 
Let statesmen bluster, bark and bray,
And so decide who started
This bloody war, and who’s to pay,
But he must be stout-hearted,
Must sit and stake with quiet breath,
Playing at cards with Death.
Don’t plume yourself he fights for you;
It is no courage, love, or hate,
But let us do the things we do;
It’s pride that makes the heart be great;
It is not anger, no, nor fear—
Lucasta he’s a Fusilier,
And his pride keeps him here.

The Next War

You young friskies who today 
Jump and fight in Father’s hay
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers,
Happy though these hours you spend,
Have they warned you how games end?
Boys, from the first time you prod
And thrust with spears of curtain-rod,
From the first time you tear and slash
Your long-bows from the garden ash,
Or fit your shaft with a blue jay feather,
Binding the split tops together,
From that same hour by fate you’re bound
As champions of this stony ground,
Loyal and true in everything,
To serve your Army and your King,
Prepared to starve and sweat and die
Under some fierce foreign sky,
If only to keep safe those joys
That belong to British boys,
To keep young Prussians from the soft
Scented hay of father’s loft,
And stop young Slavs from cutting bows
And bendy spears from Welsh hedgerows.
Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
Wars don’t change except in name;
The next one must go just the same,
And new foul tricks unguessed before
Will win and justify this War.
Kaisers and Czars will strut the stage
Once more with pomp and greed and rage;
Courtly ministers will stop
At home and fight to the last drop;
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers. 
 
Goliath and David
(written for his friend, David Thomas, who died at Fricourt, March 1916).
 
Once an earlier David took
Smooth pebbles from a brook:
Out between the lines he went
To that one-sided tournament,
A shepherd boy who stood out fine
And young to fight a Philistine
Clad all in brazen mail. He swears
That he’s killed lions, he’s killed bears,
And those that scorn the God of Zion
Shall perish so like bear or lion.
But . . . the historian of that fight
Had not the heart to tell it right.
 
Striding within javelin range
Goliath marvels at this strange
Goodly-faced boy so proud of strength.
David’s clear eye measures the length;
With hand thrust back, he cramps one knee,
Poises a moment thoughtfully,
And hurls with a long vengeful swing.
The pebble, humming from the sling
Like a wild bee, flies a sure line
For the forehead of the Philistine;
Then . . . but there comes a brazen clink.
And quicker than a man can think
Goliath’s shield parries each cast.
Clang! clang! and clang! was David’s last.
Scorn blazes in the Giant’s eye,
Towering unhurt six cubit’s high.
Says foolish David, ‘Damn your shield!
And damn my sling! but I’ll not yield.’
 
He takes his staff of Mamre oak,
A knotted shepherd-staff that’s broke
The skull of many a wolf and fox
Come filching lambs from Jesse’s flocks.
Loud laughs Goliath, and that laugh
Can scatter chariots like blown chaff
To rout: but David, calm and brave,
Holds his ground, for God will save.
Steel crosses wood, a flash, and oh!
Shame for Beauty’s overthrow!
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre cut —
‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries,
Throws blindly foward, chokes . . . and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.
Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Beyond The Grave, Real War Poetry

3 responses to “Robert Graves

  1. 90 years old! Imagine the tales he could tell….

  2. Pingback: The David Jones Collection | First World War Poetry Digital Archive « Steffan Jones-Hughes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s