Robert von Ranke Graves (1895-1985) was a poet, novelist and writer of other prose, including biography, social history and accounts of myths.
He was born on 24 July 1895 into a family with literary and Celtic-Germanic background. On the brink of entering university, he joined the Royal Welch Fusiliers at the outbreak of the First World War, and had poems published while still serving. He was twice invalided away from the Front, the second time permanently. He married Nancy Nicholson in 1918.
For most of his life after discharge from the army, he made his living as a writer, though at first the need for money put him to various shifts, and in 1926 he briefly took an academic post in Cairo. His first real commercial success was with Lawrence and the Arabs, arising from his friendship with T E Lawrence, but he achieved real fame with his autobiography Goodbye To All That, written in 1929. In the same year, having left Nancy and his first family of two sons and two daughters, he moved to Mallorca with the American poet, Laura Riding, who collaborated with him in various literary undertakings. Graves's bestsellers, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, were written in Mallorca, but in 1936 the Spanish Civil War caused him and Laura to return to Britain. During a trip to America in 1939 she separated from him, and he, returning to Britain, soon took up with Beryl, the wife of one of his collaborators, Alan Hodge. He later married Beryl, while remaining on good terms with Alan, with whom he wrote The Long Weekend, an account of British life between the wars.
After the Second World War he returned to Mallorca, while still working on his book The White Goddess, expressing his belief in the primacy of goddess-worship. This was published in 1948. He remained in Mallorca for the rest of his life, with occasional trips abroad, mostly to give lectures, and raised a second family of four children. His second marriage endured, despite his having a series of relationships with young women whom he regarded as successive temporary incarnations of the Goddess. Having been supported by the generosity of family and friends when young, he was able to be generous himself to a wide circle of friends in later life. He died on 7 December 1985.
Robert Graves regarded himself as primarily a poet, undertaking other writing in order to make a living. He started as a war poet, but later played down that early writing, omitting it from collections. His output was mainly lyrical. When he translated the Iliad as The Anger of Achilles he wrote the bulk of it in prose, though his professed purpose was to restore something of its value as mixed entertainment.. He thought poorly of Virgil and Milton, both writers of epics, which he described as works of almost superhuman eloquence (thus dismissing them from the realm of poetry). Most of his poems can be appreciated without an understanding of his personal mythology.
The bestsellers, I, Claudius and Claudius the God, were straightforward imaginative historical novels based on classical scholarship. Some of his fiction, on the other hand, was used deliberately to convey his own particular beliefs. Wife to Mr Milton expressed his hostility to John Milton. Homer's Daughter attributed the authorship of the Odyssey to a woman. The SF novel Seven Days in New Crete, set in the future, gave life to his faith in the White Goddess., while King Jesus, written at the same time as The White Goddess, expressed ideas about goddess-worship in the past. In a slightly different vein, the Sergeant Lamb novels were based partly on his respect for his old regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
The autobiography Goodbye To All That has a tone of laconic and humorous candour which contributed greatly to its original popularity and still speaks directly to the reader. It appeared in two versions, the first in 1929 and a revised edition of 1957, with the grammar brushed up and the homage to Laura Riding removed.
His criticism, some of which was written with Riding, occurred in various forms, as articles, as coherent books, and as lectures (among them the Clark Lectures at Cambridge and his lectures as professor of poetry at Oxford). He delighted in being provocative and in praising minor poets at the expense of the accepted classics, and showed great ability in defending his statements.
He also undertook various translations, and several miscellaneous works, including ones on Hebrew religion/myth.
The White Goddess stands in a category of its own. It set out to be a demonstration and proof of a primeval religion of worship of the triple goddess, but also expresses Graves's own faith in that religion. Underlying it is his belief in the superiority of women as being more intuitive than men. Although it demonstrated learning and wide reading across various cultures, as an interpretation of pre-history it has never been taken seriously; though to many it has been suggestive, even inspirational, almost an independent mythology. The Greek Myths, written for Penguin, takes the goddess thesis for granted, but in its actual account of the myths, as distinct from their interpretation, shows Graves's mastery of his subject matter.
Note on sources
At this stage, it seems that any account of Graves's life must be controversial. There is an early biography by Martin Seymour-Smith, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has an archived account by John Wain, which is fairly detached and uninformative as regards Graves's personal life, but comments, revealingly sometimes, on his poetry. Graves's nephew, Richard Perceval Graves, normally a reliable biographer, has written both a three-volume biography and the current ODNB life, which in some places verges on hagiography (he terms Goodbye To All That a "work of towering genius"), and in others appears to accept much of Laura Riding's version of her influence on him. Miranda Seymour, using additional sources, has written a well-documented account, with her own more complex interpretations included, and some detectable errors.
- Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
- Seymour, M. Robert Graves: Life on the edge. Doubleday. 1995