Robert Ranke Graves

The English poet Robert Graves (1895-1985) was also a very productive novelist, mythographer, critic and historian, with over 130 books to his credit. He was once nominated for the Nobel Prize.

Robert Ranke Graves was the son of a minor poet and celebrated Irish balladeer. His stepmother, a grandniece of German historian Leopold von Ranke, imposed a rigid morality on her husband and children which made young Robert poorly prepared for the rigor of English public school. He left school at the onset of the First World War, and enlisted promptly. He was wounded by shrapnel, not yet 21, and went home shell-shocked and suffering from severe neurosis because of the daily horrors of his year in France. Graves was treated by Dr. W.H.R. Rivers, an anthropologist turned neurologist, and it was Rivers who convinced Graves that his cure lay in writing. Rivers also was responsible for Graves's interest in matriarchal societies and women in power; this interest was later manifested in his controversial work The White Goddess. From then on, Graves wrote whenever he could, and constantly, convinced by Rivers that his life and his art were the same.

While still in the Army, Graves proposed to Nancy Nicholson—an 18-year-old feminist. He enrolled at Oxford to read for a degree in literature and occupied himself with domestic chores such as shopping, cooking, washing clothes, raising the children (of which there were eventually four), and writing "manically" all the time.

After correspondence with an American poet whose work he liked, Graves invited her to work with Nancy and him. Laura Riding arrived in England in 1926; for the following 13 years, she dominated Grave's life and his work. In the beginning, Graves and his wife and his new companion declared themselves to be The Trinity and lived together in Cairo (briefly) and England. The Trinity broke apart; in 1929, Graves and Laura left England for the Spanish island of Majorca, a departure punctuated by the publication of Goodbye to All That, an autobiography which became regarded as "one of the most outstanding first-hand accounts" of World War I in English. The work's financial success showed Graves that he could support his poetic ambitions by writing prose; Graves eventually wrote 20 volumes of fiction to support his 55 volumes of poetry, to say nothing of edited works, translations, adaptations, and other works.

In 1927, Graves's early poems were published in a volume called Collected Poems, beginning what turned out to be a series of such volumes published roughly every 10 years. In each of the successive volumes, Graves replaced earlier poems with later ones; consequently, none of them displays the full range of his poetic accomplishments. Nevertheless, they established Graves as the most important British poet of his age, and in the 1960s and 1970s, he became the chosen mentor of the next generation of poets. But it was Graves's novels and nonfiction works that created his international reputation. Among these, the 1933 novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God met with great acclaim, went through many printings, and provided a measure of financial stability for Graves and his family on Majorca. But Laura Riding disparaged these works, and he begged his friends to not mention any of his work in her company. The couple spent endless hours discussing his interest in goddess worship; she later claimed that she was the source of all his ideas about poetry as goddess worship. Her dominance of Graves was such that she became the incarnation of those ideas, particularly in The White Goddess.

In 1936, with the Spanish Civil War clearly looming, Graves and Riding returned to England on a British destroyer. Riding became attracted to an American writer, Schuyler Jackson (a friend of Graves), and all moved to Pennsylvania, near Jackson's farm. With Riding in charge of everyone's lives, Jackson's wife was declared to be a witch and driven to breakdown, and Graves was dismissed as Riding's collaborator and lover. Graves's spirit was broken (but nevertheless mesmerized by Riding for years to come), and he found solace in the calmness, sanity, and devotion of Alan Hodge's young wife Beryl. The Hodge's had followed Graves to America, and with Alan's eventual approval, Beryl joined Graves in England and stayed with him for the rest of his life despite all the women with whom he would become involved during that period. Settled in England in the early 1940s, Graves produced poems, historical novels for which he read voluminously, and a collaborative study with Alan Hodge on English rose style, The Reader Over Your Shoulder, which he later thought was the most useful of all his books.

Driven by a moment of insight from seeds long since planted by Rivers and Riding, in 1944 Graves began writing The White Goddess, a book which later became sacred to a number of poets and enjoyed great popularity in the 1960s (it became a source book for readers of The Whole Earth Catalogue). Subtitled "A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth," The White Goddess was at first dismissed by anthropologists and philologists as "irresponsible scholarship;" it is now recognized as an important work which demonstrates that mythic perception is a valid form of knowledge.

For Graves, it was much more than that; he became the Goddess's acolyte and devotee, her high priest. In the poet Alistair Reid's words, "only he could interpret her wishes, her commands." Writing The White Goddess gave order to Graves's deepest convictions and restored a sanctity to poetry he felt had been lost by neglecting myth for reason. She was also his muse, and his devotion to her was such that much of his last work from the 1960s on was given over to love poetry, inspired at the moment by whichever young woman had stepped into the muse-role (there were at least four).

After the Spanish Civil War, Graves and family moved back to Majorca. Though he had no strict schedule, he continued his habit of writing every single day, always in longhand. A classicist of the first order, he worked on translations alone (Lucius Apuleius' The Golden Ass, Homer's Iliad, which he entitled The Anger of Achilles) or with a collaborator (The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam); and wrote novels (Homer's Daughter, The Greek Myths, The Hebrew Myths), critical essays (The Crowning Privilege and Food for Centaurs), and muse poetry. In 1959, Graves's prostate operation in London produced serious complications and trauma from the massive blood transfusions he required. Friends and family thought this had much to do with his increasingly irrational behavior throughout the 1960s and his increasing insistence that he was a spokesman for his times whose long-held views were becoming generally accepted as the truth. In the early 1970s, Graves's productivity declined, and his last years, from 1975-1985, were given over to silence and senility.


Further Reading on Robert Ranke Graves

For a critical account of Graves's life by a friend and fellow-poet, see Alastair Reid, "Remembering Robert Graves," The New Yorker (Sept. 4, 1995). For excellent biographies, see Miranda Seymour, Robert Graves: Life on the Edge (1995); William Graves, Wild Olives: Life in Majorca with Robert Graves (1995); Richard Percival Graves, Robert Graves and the White Goddess, vol. III (1995); Martin Seymour-Smith, Robert Graves: His Life and Work, second edition (1995). For the Robert Graves Society Information Center, see