Graves in 1920
|Born||24 July 1895|
Wimbledon, Surrey, England
|Died||7 December 1985 (aged 90)|
Deià, Majorca, Spain
|Occupation||Novelist, poet, soldier|
|Alma mater||St John's College, Oxford|
|Years of service||1914-1919|
|Unit||Royal Welch Fusiliers|
|Battles/wars||First World War|
Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 - 7 December 1985) was a British poet, historical novelist, critic, and classicist. His father was Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet and figure in the Gaelic revival; they were both Celticists and students of Irish mythology. Graves produced more than 140 works. Graves's poems--together with his translations and innovative analysis and interpretations of the Greek myths; his memoir of his early life, including his role in World War I, Good-Bye to All That; and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess--have never been out of print.
He earned his living from writing, particularly popular historical novels such as I, Claudius; King Jesus; The Golden Fleece; and Count Belisarius. He also was a prominent translator of Classical Latin and Ancient Greek texts; his versions of The Twelve Caesars and The Golden Ass remain popular for their clarity and entertaining style. Graves was awarded the 1934 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for both I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
Graves was born into a middle-class family in Wimbledon, then part of Surrey, now part of south London. He was the third of five children born to Alfred Perceval Graves (1846-1931), who was the sixth child and second son of Charles Graves, Bishop of Limerick, Ardfert and Aghadoe. His father was an Irish school inspector, Gaelic scholar and the author of the popular song "Father O'Flynn", and his second wife, Amalie Elisabeth Sophie von Ranke (1857-1951), the niece of the historian Leopold von Ranke.
At the age of seven, double pneumonia following measles almost took Graves's life, the first of three occasions when he was despaired of by his doctors as a result of afflictions of the lungs, the second being the result of a war wound (see below) and the third when he contracted Spanish influenza in late 1918, immediately before demobilisation. At school, Graves was enrolled as Robert von Ranke Graves, and in Germany his books are published under that name, but before and during the First World War the name caused him difficulties.
In August 1916 an officer who disliked him spread the rumour that he was the brother of a captured German spy who had assumed the name "Karl Graves". The problem resurfaced in a minor way in the Second World War, when a suspicious rural policeman blocked his appointment to the Special Constabulary. Graves's eldest half-brother, Philip Perceval Graves, achieved note as a journalist and his younger brother, Charles Patrick Graves, was a writer and journalist.
Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools, including King's College School in Wimbledon, Penrallt in Wales, Hillbrow School in Rugby, Rokeby School in Kingston upon Thames and Copthorne in Sussex, from which last in 1909 he won a scholarship to Charterhouse. There he began to write poetry, and took up boxing, in due course becoming school champion at both welter- and middleweight. He claimed that this was in response to persecution because of the German element in his name, his outspokenness, his scholarly and moral seriousness, and his poverty relative to the other boys. 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. However, Graves himself called it "chaste and sentimental" and "proto-homosexual," and though he was clearly in love with "Peter" (disguised by the name "Dick" in 'Goodbye to All That'), he denied that their relationship was ever sexual. He was warned about Peter's morals by other contemporaries. 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 did not take his place there until after the war.
At the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers as a second lieutenant (on probation) on 12 August. He was confirmed in his rank on 10 March 1915, and received rapid promotion, being promoted to lieutenant on 5 May 1915 and to captain on 26 October. 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 the experience of frontline conflict. In later years, he omitted his war poems from his collections, on the grounds that they were too obviously "part of the war poetry boom." 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 was officially reported as having died of wounds. He gradually recovered and, apart from a brief spell back in France, spent the remainder of the war in England.
One of Graves's friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow officer in his regiment. They both convalesced at Somerville College, Oxford, which was used as a hospital for officers. How unlike you to crib my idea of going to the Ladies' College at Oxford, Sassoon wrote to him in 1917.
At Somerville College, Graves met and fell in love with Marjorie, a nurse and professional pianist, but stopped writing to her once he learned she was engaged. About his time at Somerville, he wrote: "I enjoyed my stay at Somerville. The sun shone, and the discipline was easy.
In 1917, Sassoon rebelled against the conduct of the war by making a public antiwar statement. Graves feared Sassoon could face a 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 in Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and met fellow patient Wilfred Owen. Graves was treated here as well. Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was then called, but he was never hospitalised for it:
I thought of going back to France, but realized the absurdity of the notion. Since 1916, the fear of gas obsessed me: any unusual smell, even a sudden strong scent of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling. And I couldn't face the sound of heavy shelling now; the noise of a car back-firing would send me flat on my face, or running for cover.
The friendship between Graves and Sassoon is documented in Graves's letters and biographies; the story is fictionalised in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. Barker also addresses Graves's experiences with homosexuality in his youth; at the end of the novel Graves asserts that his "affections have been running in more normal channels"  after a friend was accused of "soliciting" with another man. The intensity of their early relationship is demonstrated in Graves's collection, Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which contains many poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon 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 often used to send me poems from France."
In September 1917, Graves was seconded for duty with a garrison battalion. 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." 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.
Immediately after the war, Graves had a wife, Nancy Nicholson, and a growing family but was financially insecure and weakened physically and mentally:
Very thin, very nervous and with about four years' loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy, but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone's orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.
In October 1919, he took up his place at the University of Oxford, soon changing course to English Language and Literature, though managing to retain his Classics exhibition. In consideration of his health, he was permitted to live a little outside Oxford, on Boars Hill, where the residents included Robert Bridges, John Masefield (his landlord), Edmund Blunden, Gilbert Murray and Robert Nichols. Later, the family moved to Worlds End Cottage on Collice Street, Islip, Oxfordshire. His most notable Oxford companion was T. E. Lawrence, then a Fellow of All Souls', with whom he discussed contemporary poetry and shared in the planning of elaborate pranks. By this time, he had become an atheist.
While still an undergraduate he established a grocers shop on the outskirts of Oxford but the business soon failed. He also failed his B.A. degree but was exceptionally permitted to take a B.Litt. by dissertation instead, allowing him to pursue a teaching career. In 1926, he took up a post as a Professor of English Literature at Cairo University, accompanied by his wife, their children and the poet Laura Riding. One of his pupils he reported to include the young Gamal Abdel Nasser. He returned to London briefly, where he split up with his wife under highly emotional circumstances (at one point Riding attempted suicide) before leaving to live with Riding in Deià, 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 had great influence on modern literary criticism, particularly New Criticism.
In 1927, he published Lawrence and the Arabs, a commercially successful biography of T. E. Lawrence. The autobiographical Good-bye to All That (1929, revised by him and republished in 1957) proved a success but cost him many of his friends, notably Siegfried Sassoon. In 1934 he published his most commercially successful work, I, Claudius. Using classical sources (under the advice of classics scholar Eirlys Roberts) he constructed a complex and compelling tale of the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, a tale extended in the sequel Claudius the God (1935). The Claudius books were turned into the very popular television series I, Claudius shown in both Britain and United States in the 1970s. Another historical novel by Graves, Count Belisarius (1938), recounts the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius.
Graves and Riding left Majorca in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and in 1939, they moved to the United States, taking lodging in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Their volatile relationship and eventual breakup was described by Robert's nephew Richard Perceval Graves in Robert Graves: 1927-1940: the Years with Laura, and T. S. Matthews's Jacks or Better (1977). It was also the basis for Miranda Seymour's novel The Summer of '39 (1998).
After returning to Britain, Graves began a relationship with Beryl Hodge, the wife of Alan Hodge, his collaborator on The Long Week-End (1941) and The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943; republished in 1947 as The Use and Abuse of the English Language but subsequently republished several times under its original title). In 1946, he and Beryl (they were not to marry until 1950) re-established a home with their three children, in Deià, Majorca. The house is now a museum. The year 1946 also saw the publication of his historical novel, King Jesus. He published The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth in 1948; it is a study of the nature of poetic inspiration, interpreted in terms of the classical and Celtic mythology he knew so well. He turned to science fiction with Seven Days in New Crete (1949) and in 1953 he published The Nazarene Gospel Restored with Joshua Podro. He also wrote Hercules, My Shipmate, published under that name in 1945 (but first published as The Golden Fleece in 1944).
In 1955, he published The Greek Myths, which retells a large body of Greek myths, each tale followed by extensive commentary drawn from the system of The White Goddess. His retellings are well respected; many of his unconventional interpretations and etymologies are dismissed by classicists. Graves in turn dismissed the reactions of classical scholars, arguing that they are too specialized and "prose-minded" to interpret "ancient poetic meaning," and that "the few independent thinkers...[are]...the poets, who try to keep civilisation alive."
He published a volume of short stories, Catacrok! Mostly Stories, Mostly Funny, in 1956. In 1961 he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post he held until 1966.
In 1967, Robert Graves published, together with Omar Ali-Shah, a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The translation quickly became controversial; Graves was attacked for trying to break the spell of famed passages in Edward FitzGerald's Victorian translation, and L.P. Elwell-Sutton, an orientalist at Edinburgh University, maintained that the manuscript used by Ali-Shah and Graves, which Ali-Shah and his brother Idries Shah claimed had been in their family for 800 years, was a forgery. The translation was a critical disaster and Graves's reputation suffered severely due to what the public perceived as his gullibility in falling for the Shah brothers' deception.
On 11 November 1985, Graves was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow Great War poet Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." Of the 16 poets, Graves was the only one still living at the time of the commemoration ceremony.
UK government documents released in 2012 indicate that Graves turned down a CBE in 1957. In 2012 the Nobel Records were opened after 50 years, and it was revealed that Graves was among a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with John Steinbeck (who was that year's recipient of the prize), Lawrence Durrell, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen. Graves was rejected because even though he had written several historical novels he was still primarily seen as a poet, and committee member Henry Olsson was reluctant to award any Anglo-Saxon poet the prize before the death of Ezra Pound, believing that other writers did not match his talent.
In 2017 Seven Stories Press began its Robert Graves Project. Fourteen of Graves's out of print books will be republished over the next three years.The Reader Over Your Shoulder was the first adult title in Graves's oeuvre, published 9 January 2018. Ann at Highwood Hall, a children's book, was published in July 2017.
During the early 1970s Graves began to suffer from increasingly severe memory loss. By his 80th birthday in 1975, he had come to the end of his working life. He lived for another decade, in an increasingly dependent condition, until he died from heart failure on 7 December 1985 at the age of 90 years. His body was buried the next morning in the small churchyard on a hill at Deià, at the site of a shrine that had once been sacred to the White Goddess of Pelion. His second wife, Beryl Graves, died on 27 October 2003 and her body was interred in the same grave.
Robert Graves had eight children. With his first wife Nancy Nicholson he had Jennie (who married journalist Alexander Clifford), David (who was killed in the Second World War), Catherine (who married nuclear scientist Clifford Dalton at Aldershot), and Sam. With his second wife, Beryl Pritchard (1915-2003), he had William, Lucia (also a translator), Juan, and Tomás (a writer and musician).