Robert Graves

By: Matthew Battles
July 24, 2010


The life of ROBERT GRAVES (1895–1985) is as an impenetrable forest, tree ravaging tree in a primordial war of the word. Himself the subject of more books than most authors can reasonably hope to write, Graves sucked his full measure of marrow from the twentieth century’s gory bones. Poet, novelist, translator, classicist, and folklorist-manque, he had more genres than he had wives. Grievously wounded as a young officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, he became one of those Great War poets whose poetry, as friend Wilfred Owen put it, was war’s pity. Having watched the new era’s machinery churn both poets and yeomen to red froth with efficiency and perfect lack of prejudice, he wanted no part of urban civilization; instead, he brought his lovers and friends (and their lovers, whom he tended to take as wives) to the island redoubt of Majorca, where — close to the seasonal refrains of agricultural life — he worked with daunting seriousness and infuriating industry to prick out intoxicating, seductive patterns from poetry and human history. His memoir of war and poetry became the image of an age; his account of the deep magical history of words spawned an esoteric goddess cult; his versions of the Greek myths challenge and enchant to this day. But in his own time he was chiefly (and richly) celebrated for I, Claudius, his passionate and richly-figured novel of ancient Rome’s Julian dynasty. There are a couple of ways to fashion historical fictions: one can weave a single thread of narrative into the riotous tapestry of settled history; or one can take the whole rag-bag of the past, choose hanks and skeins to suit one’s purposes, and knit them into a new-old world. More from compulsion than intent, this was the method Graves chose — the poet’s way, as he would put it — the working of a worldmaking word-glamor both fey and deep-foundationed.

ALSO BORN THIS DATE: Lord Dunsany

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