Robert Graves – From Great War Poet to Good-Bye To All That 1895-1929

by Jean Moorcroft Wilson

  • Bloomsbury Continuum 2018
  • ISBN: 9781472929167
  • RRP $50 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

All famous artists have not so famous beginnings. But we look back on them from their peak in recalling their lives.

So it is pertinent that, in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s Robert Graves – From Great War Poet to Good-Bye To All That 1895-1929, she offers her readers the comments of Virginia Woolf after a three hour meeting with Graves on 24 April 1924 when he had come to offer himself as an author to the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press. Woolf saw a young man, possibly a genius and physically striking but unsure of himself:

The poor boy is all protestation and pose. He has a crude likeness to Shelley, save that his nose is a switchback and his lines blurred. But the consciousness of genius is bad for people. He stayed till 7.15 (we were going to “Caesar and Cleopatra” …) and had at last to say so, for he was so thick in the delight of explaining his way of life to us that no bee stuck faster than honey.

Robert Graves, at the time of his visit to the Woolfs, was a few months from his thirtieth birthday. He was also the father of four children and married to artist and fabric /textile designer Nancy Nicholson. But his short life to that point – like many of his generation – had absorbed the impact of searing experiences at war.

Graves enlisted in the Army on 12 August 1914, as a second lieutenant, a few days after his nineteenth birthday. He would survive the war, including the horrors of battles at Loos and being left for dead in the Somme. From early 1917, such was his state of health, he was no longer suitable for active duty.

This early life is the focus of Moorcroft Wilson’s first volume of biography of the author of such literary Western icons as Good-Bye To All That and I, Claudius. Yet it is Graves’ war poetry that enlivens Moorcroft Wilson’s exposure of Graves’ life and personality in these years – not his so much more successful prose. As she writes in her introduction, Graves became ambivalent about his war poems after the war – its background so traumatic it left him suffering mentally even while continuing to write prolifically.

In Graves’ powerful poem “The Gnat” war becomes a rape. Moorcroft Wilson explains that the poem’s “servant” and the servant’s murder of her rapist in self-defence is a mirror of “Graves’ own guilt-ridden memories of the enemies he killed in the war”. Graves’ war poetry lay forgotten for decades not only because of this ambivalence about it and the effects of the war on his mental health, but also because of his poetry’s more allegoric treatment of the realities of the trenches.

At first, Sassoon called it “bad, violent and repulsive” even unfit for publication. Yet Sassoon would also come to love it as he did the 23 stanzas of “Night March”, what he termed the “wonderful thing” which did not appear in print until 2000, and which Sassoon regarded as Graves’ “most sustained effort”:

Soon with a roaring song we start,
Clattering along a cobbled road,
The foot beats quickly like the heart,
And shoulders laugh beneath their load.

Where are we marching? No one knows,
Why are we marching? No one cares.

Moorcroft Wilson’s biography of Graves refreshes his memory after two decades of neglect. Her subject is a well brought up son of a prosperous and well-educated middle class family of Anglo/German heritage – his father Alfred a Master of Arts graduate of Trinity College Dublin. His mother’s strong religious faith and his father’s Victorian primness and command of his large tribe of children (over two marriages) contributed to Graves’ belated sexual maturity – albeit with early homosexual attractions. His father, an inspector of schools, and a published author and poet, strongly encouraged Graves in his academic endeavours although Graves himself was wont to write that this was not so.

For more than two thirds of Moorcroft Wilson’s volume, Graves’ life – until age 30 – is seen through the lens of an emerging adolescent against the now familiar rigours of English boarding school norms and a young man’s baptism of fire in the crucible of World War I. His marriage to Nancy Nicholson intervenes in 1919 and is largely explained as the result of Graves’ hearing that his friend Peter Johnstone had been arrested for soliciting a corporal in the Military Police. Graves having thought himself to be “in love” with Johnstone while finding heterosexual sex distasteful suddenly had a change of heart and began to develop platonic relations with women.

Perhaps it is a lack of information to hand on Nancy Nicholson – Graves told Nancy he had burned all her letters to him at the time of his affair with Laura Riding – but Moorcroft Wilson’s account of the Graves/Nicholson marriage never gets to its heart. They had four children and for some years appeared a close if financially stressed couple. Instead, Moorcroft Wilson focuses on Nancy’s comment that Graves was a clumsy and far too hungry lover for her satisfaction. And, in spite of reflecting that Graves made little mention in his poems of his relations with Nancy, offers one sharp line as their relationship deteriorates to explain Graves’ feelings – “Two bergs of glinting ice were we”.

However, there is a lack of intimacy in Moorcroft Wilson’s unfolding of Graves’ personality so that with the entrance of poet Laura Riding into Graves’ life and marriage – in a ménage à trois tangle – readers are taken aback at how swiftly the narrative darts into melodrama. This culminates in Laura Riding’s attempted suicide by jumping out of a fourth storey window and Graves’ attempt to follow from a floor below. As fiction it would all be too overblown to convince.

No doubt some of this is due to the impact of Laura Riding herself, and her need for excitement, her lack of self-awareness and her dominance of the people nearest her, but there is no warning from the author that the emotionally maturing Graves is in fact a full party to the shenanigans Laura brings. Even more so, there is no proper explanation as to why and how Graves’ practical and strongly feminist wife Nancy could be drawn into her husband’s and Laura’s hysterical romp.

Moorcroft Wilson’s only “new” material on Graves is an annotated copy of Good-Bye To All That left by poet Siegfried Sassoon – notes by Sassoon wildly critical of that book’s interpretation of both the war and Graves’ recall of parts of his relationships. The book would be the end of the Graves/Sassoon friendship.

While the criticisms made by Sassoon are justified, both historically and for his own reputation and that of others, Moorcroft Wilson argues with reason that they could appear sometimes to be petty. She concludes that both historically accurate as well as emotional and inaccurate accounts of the war should be part of the overall experience for those who were not there.

Undoubtedly, Sassoon picked Graves’ work as a hastily scribbled outpouring of personal memoir that lacked factual checking. And, ironically, it was – written by Graves in less than three months to help pay Laura Riding’s mounting medical bills after her jump from the fourth floor window. Moorcroft Wilson is on the money when she refers to this extended episode as a “mixture of high farce and very real tragedy”. For all that, the book would make Graves’ name down the decades.

Moorcroft Wilson’s significant achievement is to illustrate Graves’ obsessive belief in his genius. And his egotistical first love – his writing. As Moorcroft Wilson acknowledges, Graves believed arrogance was a “necessity” for a poet. Siegfried Sassoon, on coming to know Graves for the first time, picked up features of character that would be sustained over time: “An interesting creature, overstrung and self-conscious, a defier of conventions… [and] very much disliked [in the unit]”

One of Graves’ fellow officers told Sassoon, “He’s quite dotty. He used to sit up till one o’clock at night writing with dozens of candles lit all around his bed, and in the morning he used to shave with one hand and read a book with the other.” All of which helps explain Graves’ prolific publishing from a young age, and his raw impact on numerous colleagues.

Graves once commented that he had “no reverse gear”. He certainly did not look back. There is nothing to suggest Graves was a poor father while he lived with Nancy, and his children loved him. Yet he would write to Nancy after their decision to separate in May 1929, saying, “The children are yours, you are their mother. I am their father but they are not my charges, I feel, only my friends. I hate being away from them but I do not feel anxious about them in a paternal way.” It was a neat washing of his hands as he planned his escape with Laura.

As Moorcroft Wilson records, “The older, more aware, children would find it hard to forgive their father for his apparent abandonment of them.” When he finally “vanished” – taking Laura with him – his youngest son told his mother in desolation, “Father gone, Laura gone – all gone.” Which Moorcroft Wilson also makes clear was part of the double entendre of his title Good-Bye To All That. He was not coming back – either to his thoughts about war or the life he had made because of it. With any luck, Moorcroft Wilson’s subsequent volume will shed a bit more light on this complex but talented writer of the twentieth century.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History