From the book jacket to Miranda Seymour’s biography of Robert Graves:
For some, The White Goddess made him an icon. Ted Hughes called it “the chief holy book of my poetic conscience.” Others knew him through his I Claudius novels, which became the acclaimed television programs, or through his work on hallucinogenic mushrooms,, which turned him into a cult figure in America. And for others still, he was a war hero whose memoir, Goodbye to All That, profoundly shocked a nation not yet come to terms with the horrors of WWI.
I’m happy now to count myself in the latter group, with those who know Robert Graves through Goodbye to All That. But from the very beginning I had a vague sense of the expansive Graves, with a distant familiarity of his best known works and a general sense of his reputation. I knew about Claudius, primarily through the TV series, which had a broad and powerful impact. I knew about his translations of classics and myths, but I couldn’t have told you what The White Goddess was about, exactly, and I didn’t know that it was a poetic manifesto of sorts. I suppose I knew that there was some sort of hippie and drug connection, but I would have thought it was tied to mythology, not the bohemian artistic life in Mallorca or specific studies of shrooming and ancient rituals. Once you get the story, it’s easy to see that Graves was within shouting distance of Aldous Huxley and The Doors of Perception. Robert Graves is a fantastic figure, who led a long, productive, crazy life.
The part I didn’t know, and the strangest section of what is very clearly a long strange trip, is the story of Graves and Laura Riding. I’m still trying to work it out, and it will require a few attempts and different accounts, and this first pass will be incomplete. I first saw it wondered about it as a vague hint at the end of GtAT, about one of the reasons that Graves was leaving and rejecting England was that he was accused of attempted murder. That led to equally vague hints in the general, wikipedia version of Graves biography (one can save time, I now know, by going to the biography on the website of the Robert Graves Trust.) It’s funny how a few brief notes, mentioning that Riding was one of the modernist “fugitive poets,” and how Graves had an affair with her, wrote Goodbye to All That, and moved to Mallorca, makes it seem like fairly standard stuff, sustaining mild intrigue. The truth is that this is one of the weirdest and most amazing literary stories I have ever heard. I’m on the lookout for short, essayistic versions of this episode, that will inform me on the broad, messy strokes I’m going to push through here.
Graves was a nut and a wild man. He was a poet in the true sense, as if it meant something, as if he had a responsibility to reveal veiled and uncomfortable truths, to find hidden meanings, to expose cant and sham. His background and character was an odd mixture of influences and experiences,, and then he was all but dead and thereafter deeply traumatized by the horror and bloodshed of war. He had true shell shock and PTSD, along with profound survivor’s sense of purpose and guilt. With all of that, he was just getting started.
His sexuality was immature, arrested, confused, and it’s hard to say if it was ever clear or resolved, if that’s the right word. He had a strong Puritan streak, and a strong mother who impressed upon him the degradation of sex. His response was to engage in a romantic (and poetic) relationship with a boy at public school, Peter Johnstone, remaining chaste but expressing his need for love and intimacy. As I mentioned in writing about GtAT, he does a good job of explaining how such relationships worked in British public schools, but one gets the sense that his version there is only part of the story. As a young officer he shunned the brothels at the front, and also sexual relationships with men. But what’s interesting is the frequency and intimacy of his relationships with men who were gay. Perhaps because of the seriousness of his attachment to Johnstone (“Dick” in GtAT), he was accepted and moved easily in a circle that included Edward Marsh and Robbie Ross, George Mallory shortly after he was exploring intimacy with James Strachey, and G.W. Young. In the war he bonded with Siegfried Sassoon, and together they befriended and encouraged Wilfred Owen. Graves, apparently, was a young celibate, and he was playing some sort of role, and this was after all, the world of poetry and literature, with war dominating.
Graves nearly died when he was wounded in the war, spending a night abandoned on a stretcher bleeding out, and he was reported dead. In the latter part of his recovery Graves began to explore his first relationship with a woman and sex. His young bride was Nancy Nicolson, a tomboyish teenage feminist who was the daughter of William Nicolson, an easygoing painter and artist. Part of the attraction to Nancy was her family, which was artistic, liberated and enlightened. Graves befriended her brother Ben, also an artist, at the same time he was getting to know Nancy, and the Nicolsons were a strong contrast to the religious and stodgy Victorianism of Graves’ parents. And if Graves was very young to have so many literary connections and war trauma, he and Nancy were naive and inexperienced about raising a family and trying to make a life together in Oxford, with Robert pursuing literary studies and writing. Even with a fair amount of family support and trial and error, the demands of babies and housekeeping and poverty put a tremendous strain on the couple. Graves worked as hard as he always would, and he made great progress in his studies and his effort to become a writer and poet, but after four or five years he and Nancy were under pressure and overwhelmed, and they were relatively estranged. And that’s when things started getting weird.
I suppose it should be remembered that they were young and artistic and bohemian themselves, and had been exposed to a number of alternative lifestyles. Nancy was an artist, unable to work because they had no money and young children, one coming right after the next. She made clothes and designed interiors, and determined the outward appearances of their lives. They felt that they needed a third person involved with them, sharing their experience, in order to reduce the mutual antagonism of a troubled couple under pressure, and Graves was at loose ends creatively, unsure on how to pursue his literary and poetic ambition. Needing money after a scheme of to open a village store failed, Graves got a well-paying academic job in Cairo. They were afraid of going way to an exotic country by themselves, just the two of them with the children. it’s important to note that Sassoon was their first choice for a companion. if he had only said yes, and gone with them! But Sassoon loved Graves in a way that wasn’t reciprocal, and one would have to look at his own biography to discover the specific circumstances and reasons. He declined, but he gave them one of his cars that they both coveted, to take with them.
In the meantime Graves was editing as well as writing poetry, and he had begun a correspondence with Laura Riding in America. Riding’s poems were experimental and striking, and her responses to Graves’ inquiries were brash and full of character. At this odd and pivotal moment, she somehow seemed to be what Graves and Nancy were looking for, a literary character who could accompany them to Cairo. The idea of their companion being a woman seemed to make more sense, as she would appear as Robert’s secretary and assistant, could be a friend and help to Nancy, and at the same time they would be sponsoring a talented, struggling poet. With youthful heedlessness, they extended the invitation that she should join them, despite never having met her. But Riding, when she arrived in England, was even more striking and impressive than they could have hoped. She was charming and confident, highly intelligent. For a troubled and beleaguered couple she seemed to be a dream come true.
It appears that both Robert and Nancy were looking for a strong figure to intervene in their challenging situation. They were young themselves, with four young children. One important element of the Graves-Riding relationship is the amount of time that it took to evolve, that it actually made sense for months, and over the course of the first year or two. It’s also worth noting that the origin of the relationship is set against the backdrop of life in Cairo, an exotic and mystical setting filled with ancient echoes. Riding moved from intelligent and charming to inspirational, dominating, and mesmeric.
Unfortunately it’s hard not to think of the 20th century’s gallery of despotic madmen when you read about Laura Riding, starting perhaps with Rasputin, although that’s not really fair. People in difficult, pressing circumstances will believe almost anything, it seems, or at least they’ll certainly believe what they want to. Rasputin’s strange power and reign over the Russian royal family appears to be pure medievalism in the early 20th century, Riding’s relationship with Graves was only a decade later, and it played out in private at the same time that Hitler became Der Fuhrer in Germany, leading the world into a second apocalyptic war and killing millions. The interesting thing about Riding is that her beliefs and strange manipulations evolved within the development of literary modernism, feminism and the world of poetry.
At any rate, Robert Graves was damaged goods and he was looking for something, and he found it in Riding. He was looking for creative inspiration, looking to fall in love with someone outside of his pressurized marriage and family circle, looking to be dominated by a woman who valued and understood poetry and its purposes. All of that is a recipe for sufficient conflict and domestic difficulty and drama. Where it gets weird is in Riding’s own grandiosity, and her belief that she was a prophet, a messiah, and a living god. Or, alternatively, that she was already dead, and had passed into a higher state of being, making her infallible and worthy of devotion and worship. All of that would have been manageable, perhaps, if Graves had maintained some perspective on it, but Graves invested everything in Riding’s vision and divinity. In some ways it was the move of a true poet. calculated to a degree as a specific means of seeing the world, investing it with meaning and developing subject matter, and it was organic enough, a quest for sacred vision and connection to eternal mysteries. It was epic, in its own way, a heroic commitment.
But of course it was nuts. Riding was strong and smart, insightful, but she didn’t have the same talent as Graves. Her ability, and her vision and power to express it, were limited, and obscured by personality issues. Who knows what she was really like, but obviously she wasn’t a god. She was manipulative, selfish, and cruel. More interesting is the position in which Graves put himself. His absolute submission served many purposes, it allowed him to continue his rejection of society and extend it to friends, wife and family, but it was never entirely his fault and he never had to take responsibility for it. He was in love with Laura, and acting under her decree. At the time he just seemed crazy, foolish, and often cruel himself. He stuck by Riding until she called it quits, until she rejected him, when she thought she didn’t need him or poetry. But Graves had loved her and never gave up, and saw it all the way through, until she finally put him aside for good. It’s only in his later life, in the theory of poetic inspiration that he outlined in The White Goddess (which I haven’t read), in the young and beautiful “muses” he pursued and loved and used for inspiration, that it’s possible to see what he was doing with Riding, how it makes sense. Who and what she was didn’t matter, not as much as it may have seemed at the time. So what was important was that she was strong and determined enough to take the role, to serve his purposes. It’s unfortunate that she wasn’t a richer, more humane, loving and balanced person, that Graves couldn’t have found a captivating intellectual partner who wasn’t so diabolical. In the pages of a biography Riding’s actions seem completely transparent. She can be a monster. But she had some sort of power, some kind of power on Graves and others. At first Graves’ old friends were all baffled, and thought that he was simply impossible. And he was. But he was always going to end up as the good guy, and his talent was going to express itself.
20th century poetry is a strange world, one that requires a certain amount of dedication to understand and decipher. I would love to listen to some one who knows what they’re talking about, who would tell me where Graves and Riding fit, and how their poetry measures up to contemporaries. I know some names and some basics, but it’s not by thing. A century has passed since Graves wrote his first poems as a teenager, and the basic canon of poetry and poets through to the 50s and the Beats should be pretty well established, I would think. It would be helpful knowledge, but it’s interesting that Graves was more than a poet, more than his poetry. He was a novelist, an important memoirist, a translator, a literary figure, an avatar of important cultural movements.
Graves wrote Goodbye to All That in a relatively early part of his Riding phase, generating a bestseller out of financial necessity as he was seeking liberation and freedom. It was part of his act of rejection of the world he would leave behind to follow and commune with Riding. And it must be said that its blunt and aggressive, even hostile honesty, and the degree of its rejection and break with the past, reflects Riding’s precepts and influence. The Riding phase–it diminishes her grandiosity to call it that–was about a decade (I think). What’s interesting is that, coming out of it. Graves wrote another massive bestseller, I Claudius, once again under financial pressures. But I Claudius is different. Riding may have helped Graves gravitate towards his purpose in GtAT, but Claudius apparently models the Graves-Riding relationship pretty closely, in its own way. I’ve always wanted to read it, and have been close before, but it will be that much richer reading Graves and Riding into it now.
Lastly, some notes on Miranda Seymour and this biography, which is very well done. It’s measured, thoughtful, and highly readable. Riding outdid herself at the end of the relationship, when she and Graves went to America and moved in with another couple. Seymour says in her introduction that the story is more of a novel, and she wrote it as such, The Summer of ’39, after she finished this biography. Her writing is quite good, she’s smart and she worked hard on the book, and the novel must be interesting reading, a fascinating supplement. There’s so much to Graves, however, and his life is so sprawling, that part of Seymour’s accomplishment was to contain it within a single, readable volume. She wrote this book with the cooperation of his family, or at least some element of it, in the decade after Graves’ death. It’s a great story, but Seymour has to keep things moving to get it all down. So it’s not surprising, and it’s welcome, that a longer and more exhaustive work on Graves has been written as well, by Richard Perceval Graves, and that’s what I’ll be getting to next.