Robert Graves, Reluctant War Poet

Review: Charles Mundye, ed., 'Robert Graves: War Poems'

Robert Graves

Robert Graves / AP

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If it wasn't exactly the book that made him famous, the sales of Goodbye to All That certainly made possible Robert Graves' uncontainable and eccentric maturity—complete with the house in Majorca—and the means by which to ensure that his poetic art consisted not just of a "technical mastery of words" but a "particular way of living and thinking." A century after the events this autobiography depicted, it is still easy to see why it sold so well: it was and is an uncommon book. Narrated throughout in Graves' chiseled, ironic prose, it consists of unequal parts abject horror (the young Lieutenant Graves in a shattered wood robbing dead Germans of their great coats so that his men can have blankets, dodging clouds of undissipated gas as he goes), dishy amusements (T.E. Lawrence conspiring with Graves at Oxford to kidnap the Magdalen College deer), and frank sexuality—scandalous sexuality, at the time of publication in 1929.

What it doesn't contain much of is poetry, or accounts of the writing of poetry. The reader knows that he is scribbling the stuff throughout, but Graves the autobiographer keeps such business off stage. Despite this, moments essential to Graves' poetry and poetic career can't help but attract attention, like his first encounter with Siegfried Sassoon, who in 1915 was serving as another young lieutenant in his regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Inasmuch as Graves' account of this conversation involves Sassoon criticizing some drafts of poetry Graves shows him as being too "realistic," and showing Graves some embarrassingly sentimental verses in return, the moment falls squarely into the category of "dishy." Indeed, Sassoon was so upset at gossipy elements of the memoir, which he attributed to a bid for sales, that he was able to have the first edition suppressed, and subsequent editions revised.

Sassoon of course then saw heavy combat and began to write the brutally realistic war poetry that, in death, has remained the principal source of his fame, along with his own fictionalized memoirs. The same thing did not happen to Graves, who, despite almost always being counted among "the war poets," did not depend on membership in that club to maintain his reputation. This may be because Graves went on to be, well, Graves: controversial outsider and author of more than a hundred books including novels, translations, historical inquiries into the foundations of myth and religion, and of course poetry, most of which did not take war as its subject.

It may also be due to the fact that Graves actively resisted the status of "war poet." Charles Mundye, editor of a new collection of Graves' war poetry, outlines in a long and worthwhile introduction how Graves went so far as to suppress a fair amount of the writing he did in France, stating in 1941 that such work had been "too obviously written during the war poetry boom." Reading through the new edition, what is most striking is the heterogeneity of this young man's work. There are poems here that could easily be mistaken for something written by any other contributor to said boom—conventional war poems, if you will, combining the genre elements of horror and ironic reversal, and heavily influenced by the prevailing Georgian style. Graves' sonnet "Limbo" opens in the trenches, where "After a week spent under raining skies, / In horror, mud and sleeplessness" and where the dead bodies of fellow soldiers are stacked to build up the parapet,

…then one night relief comes, and we go
Miles back into the sunny cornland where
Babies like tickling, and where tall white horses
Draw the plough leisurely in quiet courses.

There are poems that have principally to do with poetry, like "Free Verse" and "John Skelton." There are also poems that clearly foreshadow Graves' interest in what he would term the "Old Religion"—the folk tales and rituals of England and Wales (Jack the Giant-killer, Lob, and so on) that, along with other European traditions, he came to believe transmitted the remnants of an Indo-European matriarchal ur-cult. Tied to such mystical concerns is the recurring theme of ghosts, as when, in "The Morning Before the Battle," Graves' narrator encounters his own wraith before him in a garden, and finds the fruit he has been eating "to clotted blood / Was transubstantiate…"; or when, enjoying a hearty dinner well behind the lines, a group of fusiliers is surprised to see their dead comrade Corporal Stare swagger up the street,

Just like a live man—Corporal Stare!
Stare! Killed last May at Festubert.
Caught on patrol near the Boche wire,
Torn horribly by machine-gun fire!
He paused, saluted smartly, grinned,
Then passed away like a puff of wind…

This last poem corresponds to the account in Goodbye to All That of a Private Challoner, whose ghost Graves claims to have seen. ("Corporal Stare" is a clear case of poetic license: much easier to work with, rhythmically and metrically, than "Private Challoner.") Having been killed in May at Festubert, Challoner "looked in at the window" where Graves and his fellow soldiers were enjoying a celebratory meal, "saluted, and passed on," leaving as his only trace a smoking cigarette on the street, as in the poem.

Written more than ten years after the fact, one has to wonder what role the act of writing the poem about Stare had distorted the memory of the actual "encounter" with Challoner—memories, especially those born of trauma and stress, are unstable concoctions, and the creative act has a way of looping back and flavoring the well of recollection with its own inventions. One also wonders whether or not a broader version of this concern had something to do with Graves' resistance to being seen as a "war poet," and his skepticism of the "war poetry boom," as he put it. The way that this school—Sassoon, Owen, Thomas, Winters, and so on—interpreted their own condition had quickly become the accepted way to understand the experience of modern war. It is probably fair to say that it remains the accepted way through to the present, even if later generations of war artists lacked much of the cultural equipment that the original set brought to bear. However true—and there was a lot of truth to it—such a dominant interpretation has a way of being a straitjacket, of containing honest impulses, and twisting them to what readers expect in a "war poem." And in life, let alone in poetry, Robert Graves did not intend to be contained.

Aaron MacLean   Email Aaron | Full Bio | RSS
Aaron MacLean is a senior writer at the Washington Free Beacon. A combat Marine veteran, he was educated at St. John’s College, Annapolis, and Balliol College, Oxford. He served as an infantry officer in Afghanistan, and his final assignment in the Marine Corps was teaching English literature at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he was the 2013 recipient of the Apgar Award for excellence in teaching. Aaron was a 2016 Next Generation National Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, and has been a Novak Fellow, a Claremont Lincoln Fellow, a Marshall Scholar, and a Boren Scholar. He lives in Virginia, where he was born.