3 minute read

Robert Graves (Robert van Ranke Graves) Biography

(1895–1985), (Robert van Ranke Graves), Over the Brazier, Goliath and David, Fairies and Fusiliers, Georgian Poetry

British poet, novelist, critic, and historian of mythology, born in Wimbledon, London, the son of A. P. Graves, and educated at Charterhouse School. At the outbreak of the First World War he volunteered for active service and remained on the Western Front until invalided out in 1917. Over the Brazier (1916), Goliath and David (1916), and Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), his first three volumes of poetry, were published with the support of Edward Marsh, in whose Georgian Poetry series his work repeatedly featured. He later suppressed most of the verse from these collections. The many war poems they contain appear in Poems about War (1988), edited by William Graves, his son; the volume is prefaced by Grave's essay ‘Poetry of World War I’, which is dismissive of ‘war poetry’ and accounts for his refusal to reprint a number of striking poems (see also war poetry). His experiences of the conflict and the radical changes in his attitudes that it caused are described in his autobiography Goodbye to All That (1929). In 1918 he settled near Oxford, where he ran a grocery business with his first wife and studied at St John's College, gaining his B.Litt. in 1925 with the dissertation Poetic Unreason and Other Studies. He became Professor of English at the University of Cairo in 1926; Laura Riding, whom he had met the previous year, accompanied him and his wife to Egypt. A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1928), a critical collaboration with Riding, is regarded as a seminal work on poetic ambiguity. He separated from his wife in 1929 and went with Riding to Majorca, where they remained, running the Seizin Press, until 1936. Following their separation in 1939, for the rest of his life he lived chiefly in Majorca. Riding is widely credited with assisting Graves in the fuller realization of his talent.

The poetry he produced from the early 1930s onward, principally published in a number of collected editions, is characterized by the accomplishment and individuality of its fluently conversational use of traditional forms. His many love poems display the sceptical intelligence which makes his frequent treatments of metaphysical and supernatural subjects disquietingly credible. His verse frequently makes plain his dissent from social, political, and religious orthodoxies, and numerous poems, among them ‘Ogres and Pygmies’ and ‘The Undead’, form compelling and witty allegorical critiques of modern cultural conditions. Collected Poems (1986, edited by M. Seymour-Smith) is a recent edition. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 1961 and 1966, publishing selections from his lectures in Poetic Craft and Principle (1967) and The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects (1969). Having begun as a novelist with My Head! My Head! in 1925, Graves enjoyed continuing popularity after the publication of I, Claudius and Claudius The God in 1934. Among his numerous other novels are The Story of Mary Powell, Wife to Mr Milton (1943) and the widely read historical fictions Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth (1940) and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb (1941). His extensive writings on mythology and religion, which have in common a stimulatingly original approach to their materials, include The Greek Myths (1955) and Mammon and the Black Goddess (1965), the latter complementing The White Goddess (1948).

Among his other works in some sixty years of prolific authorship were the biography Lawrence and the Arabs (1927) and many translations from various languages, including a controversial version of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam (1967). The Assault Heroic (1986) and The Years with Laura (1990) are the first two volumes of a biography by his son Richard Graves.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Francis Edward Grainger Biography to Thomas Anstey Guthrie Biography