- This article is about the biography of Robert Graves. For his poetic influence, see Poetry in the early 20th century.
Robert von Ranke Graves (also known as Robert Ranke Graves and most commonly Robert Graves) (24 July 1895Â â" 7 December 1985) was an English poet, novelist, critic, and classicist. During his long life he produced more than 140 works. Graves's poemsâ"together with his translations and innovative analysis and interpretations of the Greek myths; his memoir of his early life, including his role in the First World War, Good-Bye to All That; and his speculative study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddessâ"have never been out of print.
He earned his living from writing, particularly popular historical novels such as I, Claudius, King Jesus, The Golden Fleece and Count Belisarius. He also was a prominent translator of Classical Latin and Ancient Greek texts; his versions of The Twelve Caesars and The Golden Ass remain popular, for their clarity and entertaining style. Graves was awarded the 1934 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for both I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
Graves was born into a middle-class family in Wimbledon in South London. He was the third of five children born to Alfred Perceval Graves (1846â"1931), an Anglo-Irish school inspector, Gaelic scholar and the author of the popular song "Father O'Flynn", and his second wife, Amalie von Ranke (1857â"1951). Graves's mother was from a recently ennobled German family, the eldest daughter of Heinrich Ranke, professor of medicine at the University of Munich and his wife, Luise Tiarks. She was also a great-niece of the German historian Leopold von Ranke.
At the age of seven, double pneumonia following measles almost took Graves's life, the first of three occasions when he was given up by his doctors as a result of afflictions of the lungs; the second being the result of a war-wound (see below) and the third when he contracted Spanish influenza in late 1918, immediately before demobilisation. At school, Graves was enrolled as Robert von Ranke Graves and in Germany his books are published under that name but before and during the First World War the name caused him difficulties. In August 1916 an officer who disliked him spread the rumour that he was a spy; a brother to a captured German spy who had coincidentally taken the name Carl Graves. The problem resurfaced in a minor way in the Second World War, when a suspicious rural policeman blocked his appointment to the Special Constabulary. Graves's eldest half-brother Philip Perceval Graves achieved note as a journalist and his younger brother Charles Patrick Graves was a writer and journalist.
Graves received his early education at a series of six preparatory schools, including King's College School in Wimbledon, Penrallt in Wales, Hillbrow School in Rugby, Rokeby School in Kingston upon Thames and Copthorne in West Sussex, from which last in 1909 he won a scholarship to Charterhouse. There, in response to persecutionâ"due to the German element in his name, his outspokenness, his scholarly and moral seriousness and poverty relative to the other boysâ"he feigned madness, began to write poetry and took up boxing, in due course becoming school champion at both welter- and middleweight. He also sang in the choir, meeting there an aristocratic boy three years younger, G. H. "Peter" Johnstone, with whom he began an intense romantic friendship, the scandal of which led ultimately to an interview with the headmaster. Among the masters his chief influence was George Mallory, who introduced him to contemporary literature and took him mountaineering in vacations. In his final year at Charterhouse he won a classical exhibition to St John's College, Oxford but did not take his place there until after the war.
First World War
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He published his first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, in 1916. He developed an early reputation as a war poet and was one of the first to write realistic poems about experience of front-line conflict. In later years, he omitted his war poems from his collections, on the grounds that they were too obviously "part of the war poetry boom." At the Battle of the Somme, he was so badly wounded by a shell-fragment through the lung that he was expected to die and was officially reported as having died of wounds. He gradually recovered and apart from a brief spell back in France, spent the remainder of the war in England.
One of Graves's friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow officer in his regiment. In 1917, Sassoon rebelled against the conduct of the war by making a public anti-war statement. Graves feared Sassoon could face a court martial and intervened with the military authorities, persuading them that Sassoon was suffering from shell shock and that they should treat him accordingly. As a result Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart, a military hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and met fellow patient Wilfred Owen. Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was then called, although he was never hospitalised for it:
I thought of going back to France, but realised the absurdity of the notion. Since 1916, the fear of gas obsessed me: any unusual smell, even a sudden strong smell of flowers in a garden, was enough to send me trembling. And I couldn't face the sound of heavy shelling now; the noise of a car back-firing would send me flat on my face, or running for cover.
The friendship between Graves and Sassoon is documented in Graves's letters and biographies; the story is fictionalised in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. The intensity of their early relationship is demonstrated in Graves's collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which contains many poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon remarked upon a "heavy sexual element" within it, an observation supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves became a friend of Wilfred Owen, "who often used to send me poems from France." Graves's army career ended dramatically with an incident which could have led to a charge of desertion. Having been posted to Limerick in late 1918, he "woke up with a sudden chill, which I recognized as the first symptoms of Spanish influenza." "I decided to make a run for it," he wrote, "I should at least have my influenza in an English, and not an Irish, hospital." Arriving at Waterloo with a high fever but without the official papers that would secure his release from the army, he chanced to share a taxi with a demobilisation officer also returning from Ireland, who completed his papers for him with the necessary secret codes.
Immediately post-war, Graves had a wife (Nancy Nicholson) and growing family but was financially insecure and weakened physically and mentally:
Very thin, very nervous, and with about four years' loss of sleep to make up, I was waiting until I got well enough to go to Oxford on the Government educational grant. I knew that it would be years before I could face anything but a quiet country life. My disabilities were many: I could not use a telephone, I felt sick every time I travelled by train, and to see more than two new people in a single day prevented me from sleeping. I felt ashamed of myself as a drag on Nancy, but had sworn on the very day of my demobilization never to be under anyone's orders for the rest of my life. Somehow I must live by writing.
In October 1919 he took up his place at Oxford, soon changing course to English Language and Literature, though managing to retain his Classics exhibition. In consideration of his health he was permitted to live a little outside Oxford, on Boars Hill, where the residents included Robert Bridges, John Masefield his landlord, Edmund Blunden, Gilbert Murray and Robert Nichols. Later the family moved to Worlds End Cottage on Collice Street, Islip, Oxfordshire. His most notable Oxford companion was T. E. Lawrence, then a Fellow of All Souls, with whom he discussed contemporary poetry and shared in the planning of elaborate pranks. He later attempted to make a living by running a small shop, but the business soon failed. In 1926 he took up a post at Cairo University, accompanied by his wife, their children and the poet Laura Riding. He returned to London briefly, where he split up with his wife under highly emotional circumstances (at one point Riding attempted suicide) before leaving to live with Riding in DeiÃ , Majorca. There they continued to publish letterpress books under the rubric of the Seizin Press, founded and edited the literary journal, Epilogue and wrote two successful academic books together: A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928); both had great influence on modern literary criticism, particularly New Criticism.
In 1927, he published Lawrence and the Arabs, a commercially successful biography of T. E. Lawrence. The autobiographical Good-bye to All That (1929, revised by him and republished in 1957) proved a success but cost him many of his friends, notably Siegfried Sassoon. In 1934 he published his most commercially successful work, I, Claudius. Using classical sources he constructed a complex and compelling tale of the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, a tale extended in the sequel Claudius the God (1935). The Claudius books were turned into the very popular television series I, Claudius shown in both Britain and United States in the 1970s. Another historical novel by Graves, Count Belisarius (1938), recounts the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius.
Graves and Riding left Majorca in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and in 1939, they moved to the United States, taking lodging in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Their volatile relationship and eventual breakup was described by Robert's nephew Richard Perceval Graves in Robert Graves: 1927â"1940: the Years with Laura, and T. S. Matthews's Jacks or Better (1977). It was also the basis for Miranda Seymour's novel The Summer of '39 (1998).
After returning to England, Graves began a relationship with Beryl Hodge, the wife of Alan Hodge, his collaborator on The Long Week-End (1941) and The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943; republished in 1947 as The Use and Abuse of the English Language but subsequently republished several times under its original title). In 1946 he and Beryl (they were not to marry until 1950) re-established a home with their three children, in DeiÃ , Majorca. The house is now a museum. The year 1946 also saw the publication of his historical novel, King Jesus. He published The White Goddess in 1948. He turned to science fiction with Seven Days in New Crete (1949) and in 1953 he published The Nazarene Gospel Restored with Joshua Podro. He also wrote Hercules, My Shipmate in 1945 which was first published as The Golden Fleece in 1944.
In 1955, he published The Greek Myths, which retells a large body of Greek myths, each tale followed by extensive commentary drawn from the system of The White Goddess. His retellings are well respected; many of his unconventional interpretations and etymologies are dismissed by classicists. Graves in turn dismissed the reactions of classical scholars, arguing that they are too specialized and "prose-minded" to interpret "ancient poetic meaning," and that "the few independent thinkers...[are]...the poets, who try to keep civilization alive."
He published a volume of short stories, Catacrok! Mostly Stories, Mostly Funny, in 1956. In 1961 he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post he held until 1966.
In 1967, Robert Graves published, together with Omar Ali-Shah, a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The translation quickly became controversial; Graves was attacked for trying to break the spell of famed passages in Edward FitzGerald's Victorian translation, and L.P. Elwell-Sutton, an orientalist at Edinburgh University, maintained that the manuscript used by Ali-Shah and Gravesâ"which Ali-Shah and his brother Idries Shah claimed had been in their family for 800 yearsâ"was a forgery. The translation was a critical disaster and Graves's reputation suffered severely due to what the public perceived as his gullibility in falling for the Shah brothers' deception.
From the 1960s until his death, Robert Graves frequently exchanged letters with Spike Milligan. Many of their letters to each other are collected in the book, Dear Robert, Dear Spike.
On 11 November 1985, Graves was among sixteen Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow Great War poet Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." Of the 16 poets, Graves was the only one still living at the time of the commemoration ceremony.
UK government documents released in 2012, indicate that Graves turned down a CBE in 1957. In 2012, the Nobel Records were opened after 50 years and it was revealed that Graves was among a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with John Steinbeck (winner), Lawrence Durrell, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen. Graves was rejected because even though he had written several historical novels, he was still primarily seen as a poet and committee member Henry Olsson was reluctant to award any Anglo-Saxon poet the prize before the death of Ezra Pound, believing that other writers did not match his talent.
During the early 1970s Graves began to suffer from increasingly severe memory loss and by his eightieth birthday in 1975 he had come to the end of his working life. By this time he had published more than 140 works. He survived for ten more years in an increasingly dependent condition, until he died from heart failure on 7 December 1985 aged 90. He was buried the next morning in the small churchyard on a hill at DeiÃ , at the site of a shrine which had once been sacred to The White Goddess of Pelion. His second wife, Beryl Graves, died on 27 October 2003 and was buried with him.
His former house in Wimbledon, has a blue plaque on it, as does his former house in Brixham.
Robert Graves had eight children. With his first wife Nancy Nicholson he had Jennie (who married journalist Alexander Clifford), David (who was killed in the Second World War), Catherine (who married nuclear scientist Clifford Dalton) and Sam. With his second wife, Beryl Pritchard (1915â"2003), he had William, Lucia (also a translator), Juan and TomÃ¡s (a writer and musician).
- English translations of Homer: Robert Graves
- Graves, Robert (1960) Goodbye to All That, London: Penguin.
- Seymour, Miranda (1995) Robert Graves, Life on the Edge, London: Doubleday. ISBN 0-385-40860-9
- Robert Graves Trust and Society Information Portal
- Robert Graves Foundation
- Profile at Poetry Foundation
- Profile, poems written and audio at poets.org
- Profile, poems written and audio at Poetry Archive
- Gallery of Graves's portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London
- Papers of Robert Graves: Correspondence, 1915-1996
- Robert Graves' blue plaque at Islip, Oxfordshire Blue Plaques Scheme
- Translated Penguin Books - at Penguin First Editions reference site of early first edition Penguin Books.
Works and archives
- The Robert Graves Digital Archive by the University of Oxford
- Robert Graves collection at University of Victoria, Special Collections
- Robert Graves Papers at Southern Illinois University Carbondale Special Collections Research Center
- Works by Robert Graves at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Robert Graves at Internet Archive
- Works by Robert Graves at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
Articles and interviews
- 1965 BBC television interview (29 mins)
- Peter Buckman and William Fifield (Summer 1969). "Robert Graves, The Art of Poetry No. 11". The Paris Review.Â
- Pegasos article on Robert Graves
- Article by Robert H. Canary, "Utopian and Fantastic Dualities in Robert Graves's Watch the North Wind Rise"
- 'The Cool WebÂ : A Robert Graves Oratorio' - First World War commemoration piece based on texts from Robert Graves' poems