Sep 6 2011: Outside Modernism: Robert Graves’ Centenary (Sheffield Thursday No.7, 1996)

This piece was written as an essay length review of two volumes of Robert Graves’ writings published by Carcanet to mark the author’s centenary year in 1995. These were a new Selected Poems edited by Patrick Quinn and a collection of essays, lectures and criticism edited by Paul O’Prey: taken together they offered an opportunity to survey a wider than usual range of Graves’ poetic activity and thought. Since this piece was written the ‘relative neglect’ of Graves in critical terms has, to some extent, resolved itself, partly as a result of these publications. A three volume Complete Poems has also helped. Edited by Beryl Graves, this appeared in the years following this review: the final part was completed in 1999 and a one volume edition became a Penguin Modern Classic in 2003, replacing the very partial Collected Poems (1975) as the standard edition of Graves’ poetry.

The piece that follows, left untitled at the time, is largely unrevised from its original appearance in Sheffield Thursday, a literary magazine that ran for ten issues under the editorship of E.A.Markham at Hallam University.

Robert Graves: Collected Writings On Poetry (ed. Paul O’Prey) Carcanet £35
Robert Graves: Centenary Selected Poems (ed. Patrick Quinn) Carcanet £15.95

The 1995 centenary of Robert Graves’ birth, and the tenth anniversary of his death in 1985, has seen a flurry of media interest and publishing activity. Miranda Seymour’s Robert Graves: Life On The Edge (Doubleday) joined R. P. Graves’ Robert Graves and the White Goddess (Weidenfeld) and a reissue of Martin Seymour-Smith’s Life and Work (Hutchinson, 1982) on the already extensive biography shelves, while a televised ‘Bookmark’ profile supplemented features in most of the broadsheets (1). More often than not, however, the attention has been directed at the oddities of Graves’ personal life, with much emphasis on his complex relationships with women and particularly the ‘muses’ of his later years such as Judith Bledsoe, Margot Callas, Cindy Laracuen and Julia Simonne (2). The overall impression is that Graves’ popular status rests on three counts: his perceived eccentricity, his ‘White Goddess’ theory (presented, usually, as eccentric in itself) and his hugely successful Claudius books. The 1929 autobiography, Goodbye To All That, reinforces this biographical focus, closing, as it does,  with Laura Riding’s suicide attempt during a complex menage with Graves, Nancy Nicholson and Geoffrey Phibbs. In the midst of all this, the poetry begins to resemble background noise.

Neglect, of course, is relative. Graves’ poems have appeared in most of the key anthologies, both canonical and of the period, and the 1975 Collected Poems containing Graves’ final versions of the poems he wished to preserve, remains both widely available and, one gets the impression, read. Yet there’s a real sense in which Graves is neglected, this popular fame having been bought at the expense of much serious critical engagement with his work. In this sense, he remains a marginal figure, mentioned with respect, but usually in passing, in the standard histories of twentieth century poetry. Neil Corcoran’s introduction to his 1993 English Poetry Since 1940 (Longman) is a recent example of this sidelining:

I omit…Robert Graves, whose large lyric output persisted deep into the period and whose prose work The White Goddess (1947) has been…variously influential, but the continuities of whose lengthy career are such as not to demand any separate treatment of his later work in a history of this kind. (Corcoran: p.2)

In other words, Graves’ influence on post-war poetry is assumed to be minimal beyond The White Goddess, and his role in the period assumed to be worth mentioning respectfully but not discussing in greater depth. This kind of assumption leaves Graves in a curious position. His canonical status is taken as read, yet his canonical claims are mostly left unexamined. One of the strongest impressions left by the present Collected Writings On Poetry is that this position would not have troubled Graves himself, who, having little respect for the contemporary ‘scene’, would have felt no reason to covet a central place in it. The Graves presented in this book is primarily the late Graves, his three earliest books, On English Poetry (1922), The Meaning of Dreams (1924) and Poetic Unreason (1925), being edited to a compound essay, and his collaborations with Laura Riding excluded (though apparently set to appear in a separate joint volume at some later date). The early work appears in the versions revised, post-White Goddess, for The Common Asphodel, the remainder being, without exception, written after 1949. Paul O’Prey’s introduction pinpoints some of the value of this material while drawing attention to Graves’ obvious shortcomings as a reliable guide:

The majority of Graves’ criticism is predominantly concerned with three fundamental issues: the nature and process of poetic ‘inspiration’; the social and moral purposes of poetry, and the poet’s role in society; the professional standards of modern poets. Graves invariably writes from the point of view of a practising poet, rather than that of an academic critic. He found the constraints of formal academic criticism “difficult” and despite his wide reading, his scholarship was frequently careless…The result of this…is an extraordinarily personal, witty and vivid record of a poet struggling to construct a clear sense of his vocation, as well as trying to establish a sense of his place as a poet ill-at-ease in a post-war society undergoing prolonged and radical cultural change. (O’Prey: p.ix)

Seen like this, the book is valuable insofar as it extends our knowledge of Graves himself, the criticism outlining the ideas that enabled the poetry to be written. Despite numerous “unreasonable and reckless attacks” on Yeats (a particular bete noire of Graves’) their affinities are striking, and that the animosity on Graves’ part leaves him “vulnerable to charges of professional jealousy” can hardly be doubted. Like Yeats’ spiritualism, Graves’ idea of the Muse provides an external and eternal source and justification for poetry. Like Yeats’, Graves’ sense of history and tradition is an imaginative construct designed to give access to temporally distant identifications and models. Like Yeats’, Graves’ engagement with tradition is partial and self­justifying, limited to the narrow range of its author’s concerns, yet, within these limits, both deep and productive. Ultimately, Graves’ antipathy to Yeats appears to have been related to the later Yeats’ accommodation with the modernists and the influence of Pound in particular. Pound is ridiculed for his Propertius translations and lack of Latin in ‘Dr. Syntax and Mr Pound’, savaged at every turn in ‘These Be Your Gods, O Israel!’, and granted nothing. That Graves’ refusal to see Pound as anything but a disaster should extend to his influence on Yeats seems entirely consistent if more than a touch short-sighted.

Graves’ version of the English tradition is outlined at length in The Crowning Privilege, originally delivered as The Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1954-5. This examination of ‘professional standards’ in English poetry is a unique blend of illumination, provocation, close-reading and absolute subjectivity, completely at one with Graves the man and perhaps the single best route into his thinking on English poetry. As such, it’s worth looking at in some detail. As with most of Graves’ later theories (including The White Goddess) he begins in the ancient druidic and bardic courts of Wales and Ireland, these being conveniently undocumented and open to speculation of all kinds. For Graves, these speculations are inevitably coloured by idealism, and his reading of the feudal order is one where poetry, religion and magic, kinship and ritual, are all poised in a state of harmonious balance.

His ancient, feudal societies are mythically and poetically ordered, inclined to matriarchy in their symbolism, with poets as their priests, their historians, their entertainers. A similar vision of this remote past arose in the late eighteenth century, when Edward Williams (1747-1826), a radical stonemason and antiquary with a powerful sense of Welsh nationality, almost single-handedly created an ancient history by manufacturing triads, proverbs, a chronicle, an entire system of ancient Welsh metrics and the poets (and their poems) to go with them. Adopting the bardic title Iolo Morganwg, Williams eventually ‘revived’ The Gorsedd Of The Bards Of The Island Of Britain from a passing reference in the mediaeval Welsh Laws and out of this single speculative leap grew the National Eisteddfod, a tradition continuing in Wales to the present day. Graves’ discussions of a similar past, his own excursions into anthropology and ancient history, are always spectacularly erudite, drawing on fascinating and often obscure sources, but, like Williams’, his vision is synthetic, the product less of the scant real evidence as of his own imagination’s mythologising and synthesising powers. That Graves stops short of Williams’ systematic ‘forgeries’ (3) does not make his conception of the ancient past any less artificial, or willed.

It goes without saying, then, that this ‘ideal’, however synthetic in origin, is the yardstick by which Graves measures all subsequent professional standards in English poetry, and it’s easy to see why the human failings of real, historically documented poets should seem such a let-down to Graves in comparison to this imagined ideal. To Graves the ‘worldly’ poet is almost a contradiction in terms, and the involvements of poets in commerce, politics and social climbing are acceptable only insofar as their works are not implicated. Thus Skelton, a poet often lost between the ending of the mediaeval period and the beginnings of the English Renaissance, is given a pivotal position in Graves’ tradition despite his extensive involvement in the politics of the early Tudors, an involvement sufficiently successful to procure himself preferment to the curacy of Diss in Norfolk and a role as tutor to the young Henry VIII.  While there are a number of flattering works on influential members of the Court in Skelton’s body of work, Graves’ technique, generally, is to assume that if he likes the poet, the sentiments were sincere and disinterested, if he doesn’t, that the poet in question betrayed his vocation. When Graves declares that Skelton’s eventual downfall, brought about by a quarrel with Wolsey, was rooted in his poetic rather than his priestly vocation, he is deliberately tilting the scales in Skelton’s favour.

By contrast, both Pope and Milton receive shorter shrift, their every belief and action presumed by Graves to be calculating and negative, their virtues (but for a grudging acknowledgement of Milton’s verse craftsmanship) either dismissed or ignored. One curious effect of Graves’ judgements on the poets as much as the poems is the way it makes him sound, at times, like a kind of mirror-image Terry Eagleton, out to debunk according to deeply-held, rather abstract views of what poetry ought to be, substituting feudal ideals for collective ones, and applying the same kind of logic to his demolitions as Eagleton does to his. Thus, where Chaucer exceeds Gower and Lydgate is not in natural talent but ‘nobility of spirit’ and refusal to use his skill to obtain social preferment, or in the direct service of others. This refusal – Graves insists – ensured the ‘amateur’ Chaucer was favoured by the muse Calliope and her influence shows in Chaucer’s writing. Graves’ muse is highly moral in her outlook, and will not favour those who behave with anything less than absolute moral rectitude:

I have never been able to understand the contention that a poet’s life is irrelevant to his work […] if it means that a poet may be heartless, or insincere and grasping in his personal relations and yet write true poems, I disagree wholeheartedly. (Graves: p.147)

While this begs a number of questions (Villon? Rimbaud? Byron?) it is a position entirely consistent with Graves’ demonisation of Pope, Milton and Pound and one tends to suspect that, had Graves thought them less fallible human beings, their poems might well have received correspondingly more sympathetic treatment. Graves’ exemplars – Skelton, Jonson, Swift – are all, ultimately, presented as both models for, and projections of, Robert Graves himself, and it’s striking how much of the English tradition is dismissed by Graves as ‘untrue’, ‘contrived’ or simply, ‘not real poetry’. Graves praises no poet whose practice fails to resemble his own, and when, in her recent Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection And The Woman Poet (Viking, 1995), Germaine Greer attacks Graves’ conception of poetry in these terms:

It is simply untrue that all, or even most, or even much poetry invokes the muse…most poetry that mentions the muse does so ironically (Greer: p.3)

she may have inadvertently pinpointed the precise reason why Graves refuses to endorse all, or even most, or even much poetry. Certainly, it’s surprising how many poets, who might be supposed to fit Graves’ strictures, remain unmentioned in his criticism. He explicitly disavows the Metaphysicals, for instance, though puts the case in terms that one assumes are deliberately mischievous by loftily declaring it a “brief intermediate phase of so-called ‘Metaphysical’ poetry” that “took Euphistic wit one degree further into nonsense, and so prepared the way for clean-cut French Classicism” (p.150) This is mischievous in a number of ways, not least because he exempts Donne and Marvell from the trend altogether, and, following Samuel Johnson’s rarely applied formula, declares Abraham Cowley its leader. Yet his omissions can be puzzling. George Herbert, a poet one would have thought exemplary in Graves’ terms, despite his Christianity, has no entry in the index of these Collected Writings.

Thomas Traherne gets a brief, approving mention (more for his personal qualities than his poems) while Richard Crashaw is not mentioned at all. Given Crashaw’s notably ‘feminine’ sensibility and devotion to Marian cults such as that of St Teresa of Avila, it’s surprising that Graves fails to acknowledge these obviously ‘Muse-like’ impulses behind Crashaw’s poetry. One can only assume that Graves’ sense of decorum stopped short of Crashaw’s Catholicism and his poetry’s baroque extravagances. Another poet missing here, whom one might have expected to encounter, is David Jones, whose First World War experiences and mythic, historical and poetic explorations of the Celtic past should – for all Jones’ modernist technique – have interested Graves.

One of the single, most intractable problems created by Graves’ conception of poetry is his interpretation of the Muse herself. For all the matriarchal trappings of his anthropology, and all his praising of “woman at the expense of man” (4) – his poetic tradition is almost exclusively male. True, he includes an essay here on the seventeenth-century Spanish poet Juana de Asbaje (an extraordinary and – in England, at least – rather neglected poet better known as Sor Juana, the subject of a 1990 biography by Octavio Paz) though this rare show of interest in a woman’s writing throws Graves’ problems in this area into sharp relief. The woman poet, when she appears, “may be distinguished by three clear secondary signs: learning, beauty and loneliness” and finds herself impossibly trapped from the beginning:

The case of a woman-poet is a thousand times worse [than a man’s]: since she is herself the Muse, a Goddess without an external power to comfort or guide her, and if she strays even a finger’s breadth from the path of divine instinct, must take violent self-vengeance. (Graves: p.119)

This is the aspect of Graves’ thinking that has been most often attacked, and it’s perhaps appropriate that his centenary year saw the case against him concisely re-stated by Germaine Greer:

The rhetoric of the ‘eternal feminine’ is the obverse of the reality of the actual female. To endow women with angelic status (which doesn’t exist) is to deny them human status (which does) and makes a nonsense of the individual woman’s struggle for achievement. (Greer: p.2)

This seems to me to be unanswerable and the argument goes back at least as far as Virginia Woolf’s debunking of Patmore’s ‘The Angel in the House’ in this century alone. What might appear to complicate this picture in practice is Graves’ working relationship with Laura Riding, and his exaltation of her “bladed mind” (5), his deference to her intelligence. Yet, in fact, we find Graves to be consistent – Laura Riding was not an exception to his rule. Deborah Baker’s biography of Riding, In Extremis (Hamish Hamilton, 1993), makes it clear that, for Graves, Riding represented a more than human figure, in possession of magical, instinctual powers, an impression that Riding did not see fit to contradict:

Graves’ need to possess Riding creatively became as vociferous as his physical desires had been. Still, the extent to which she participated in his various fantasies – Isis, Christ-Woman, Moon Goddess, Lilith, Hecate – cannot be neglected either. Each figure tended to spawn her a succession of ever­ enlarging, more glittering mantles. Even though, one by one, she rejected them and those poems in which they appeared, she also used them to sustain herself creatively and to captivate the essentially male audience surrounding her. (Baker: p.244)

When these games ended, so did Graves’ relationship with Riding. While it can be shown that Graves’ readings of tradition are distorted and subjective, however, it has to be stated in balance that his readings are littered with insights well worth having. He is widely and deeply read, and his practitioner’s perspective is illuminating in ways that formal academicism is not. Figures such as Swift and Skelton are given a weight here rarely accorded to them in standard academic histories, and both are shown to more than bear the scrutiny. A great deal is discussed from the bardic and oral traditions, much of it unfamiliar, and Graves’ comments consistently perform the real function of general criticism: they push the reader back towards the texts themselves.

He is also a skilled if quixotic debunker of the overrated and complacent. In a section titled ‘A Favourite Cat Drowned’, he offers detailed and very entertaining hatchet-jobs on poems selected from Arthur Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book of English Verse, , including close textual criticism of such poems as Herrick’s ‘Gather Ye Rosebuds’, Landor’s ‘Rose Aylmer’, Gray’s ‘On A Favourite Cat, Drowned In A Tub Of Gold Fishes’ and Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’. Each of Graves’ demolitions is persuasive even if the rewritten versions he supplies are usually less so. Often, though, he lapses into an almost comical pedantry, as when he discusses Lamb’s ‘The Old Familiar Faces’ (“All, all are gone…”):

Lamb certainly could not complain of having been deserted by all his childhood friends; his sister, Mary, and Coleridge who had been at school with him at Christ’s Hospital, remained very close to him until his death… (Graves: p.433)

One suspects that the literalism and obtuseness of some of these comments is wilful and intended to provoke; his comments on Landor’s ‘Rose Aylmer’ are either a masterpiece of deadpan irony or a perfect example of Graves’ intuitive scholarship overreaching itself. On the rather flimsy evidence that Lady Jane Grey’s tutor was named John Aylmer, Graves decides that the Rose Aylmer of the title and the historical Jane Grey are one and the same. He then proceeds to castigate Landor for substituting “a name lacking in the true genealogical bouquet” and provides a ‘corrected’ rewrite in fairly excruciating doggerel entitled ‘On Admiring A Miniature of Lady Jane Grey’:

By Aylmer tutored in the arts
To be a very sage;
Yet smiling sovereign of all hearts,
And rose of her rude age.

(Graves: p.430)

This kind of certainty, rooted often in tenuous links and speculations, makes one suspect that Graves’ essay ‘Translating The Rubaiyat’, an answer to the critics of his own translation of Khayyam’s poems, is not quite as authoritative as it first appears. How seriously can one take Graves’ scholarship elsewhere when, on the first page, he declares “I incline to the Muslim side, being descended, like many other Britons, including Her Majesty the Queen, from the Prophet Mohammed” (p.519) then writes, barely a paragraph later:

My occasional intuitions of Khayyam’s hidden meanings were prompted less by former contrastive studies of Hebrew and Gnostic mysticism than by a sense of kinship with Medieval Irish poets who (as scholars now recognise) came under strong Sufic influence as early as the eighth and ninth centuries. (Graves: p.520)

There are at least three leaps of faith required of the reader here: that Graves’ kinship with Medieval Irish poets is an accurate one, uncoloured by his habitual idealism; that the strong Sufic influences (recognised by unnamed scholars) are actual, and if so, significant; and that any of this has much relevance to Omar Khayyam’s ‘Rubaiyat’. Yet it’s only fair to point out that this kind of dubious scholarship, whilst being a constant point of vulnerability in Graves’ criticism, only reaches these levels of presumption in the later essays. ‘Translating The Rubaiyat‘ dates from 1969, a time when Graves’ symptoms of an Alzheimer’s-like illness began to manifest themselves in earnest. Within little more than five years, Graves would no longer be writing at all.

To turn from Graves’ criticism to Patrick Quinn’s Centenary Selected Poems is to find oneself on firmer ground. If Graves’ poetic imagination makes his scholarship both fascinating and problematic, in his poems it moves in its natural element. The Collected Poems of 1975, the last of many, incorporated versions much revised from their original appearances and it is difficult to trace in it any real pattern of development in Graves’ poetry. In one sense, all of Graves’ available poetry has been late poetry, the earlier work either revised, suppressed, or simply absorbed into the larger body of work. John Carey is not the only critic to have mentioned the “rhythmic flatness and stilted diction of the late love poetry” (Sunday Times,2/7/95) nor was Randall Jarrell alone in thinking that almost all Graves’ alterations “tightened or sharpened a poetic image or metaphor” (Yale Review, 1956). Yet while these statements may appear to contradict each other as judgements on Graves’ late revisions, in fact they do not. The 1975 edition of Graves’ Collected Poems is, as Quinn says in his introduction, full of poems that are “the end products of Graves’ obsession with revision…polished as smoothly as poems can be”. He continues: “Graves’ revisions, which admittedly often have the effect of improving technically a line or an image, sometimes delicately alter the tone of the poem in an essential way” (Quinn: p.x).

In other words, in eliminating his own flaws Graves may have made himself a less interesting, if technically superior poet. Quinn draws attention to ‘A Pier-Glass’ in this context, and a comparison between the version in Quinn, from the Athenaeum of 1920, and the final version in Graves’ 1975 Collected Poems is instructive. Graves’ revisions number only two; the deletion of a dedication to T. E. Lawrence (“who helped me with it”) and the cutting of the poem’s last 25 lines to close, just over halfway through the Athenaeum version, with the following lines:

                                Ah, mirror, for Christ’s love
Give me one token that there still abides
Remote, beyond this island mystery
So be it only this side of Hope, somewhere,
In streams, on sun-warm mountain pasturage,
True life, natural breath; not this phantasma.

(Graves: p.23)

To this point, the poem is recognisably Keatsian in manner, a kind of lyric ‘Isabella’ filtered through Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’ and ‘Lady of Shalott’. As “A ghost, while yet in woman’s flesh and blood” wanders the corridors of a gothic mansion (“a huge bed of state/shrouded with rusty curtains drooped awry”; “a ravelled bell-pull … /To summon me from attic glooms above/Service of elder ghosts”) she finds herself drawn compulsively to a room where:

A sullen pier-glass cracked from side to side
Scorns to present the face as do new mirrors
With a lying flush, but shows it melancholy
And pale, as faces grow that look in mirrors.

(Graves: p.23)

Graves saves the poem from mere pastiche by the coolness of his diction and his orchestration of imagery towards a genuinely haunting effect. Yet the poem remains comfortably within the bounds of late Romanticism, the woman’s closing, rhetorical plea for “True life, natural breath” remains rhetorical. Her longing to escape “this phantasma” of passivity and living death will continue, one feels, indefinitely, certainly beyond her physical death, which will merely make her the ghost she already resembles. In the Athenaeum version of 1920, reprinted by Quinn, this opening leads into more disturbing territory. The late-Romantic tones of the early section melt into an almost Jacobean dramatisation of murderous thoughts and enigmatic, hallucinatory imagery. The poem remains unresolved, but leaves the reader unsettled as the revised version emphatically does not:

A rumour, scarcely yet to be reckoned sound
But a pulse quicker or slower, then I know
My plea is granted; death prevails not yet.
For bees have swarmed behind in a close pane
Pent up between the glass and the outer wall.
The combs are founded, the queen rules her court,
Bee-serjeants posted at the entrance chink
Are sampling each returning honey-cargo
With scrutinising mouth and commentary,
Slow appropriation, quick dissatisfaction.
Disquieting rhythm, that leads me home at last
From labyrinthine wandering…

The poem continues:

                                      How went the question,
A paltry question set on the elements
Of love and the wronged lover’s obligation?
Kill or forgive? Still does the bed ooze blood?
Let it drip down till every floor-plank rot!
Yet shall I answer, challenging the judgement:
‘Kill, strike the blow again, spite what shall come.’
‘Kill, strike, again, again’, the bees in chorus hum.

(Graves: p.23/4)

The editing-out of this does far more than “delicately alter the tone of the poem in an essential way”, it removes much of the power, and neuters its capacity to disturb. Given the date, and Graves’ neuraesthenia, it seems simple enough to guess at both the source of the poem’s potency and Graves’ reasons for suppressing it. Another poem reprinted by Quinn, this time not revised but wholly suppressed, is ‘The Nape Of The Neck’, and again, Graves’ reasons for this appear to be personal rather than critical. The poem, dating from June 1927, is one of the first Graves wrote after his meeting with Laura Riding (6) and besides being an effective and delicately-wrought play of affectionate conceits, it also supplied the title for Riding’s 1927 collection of poems, The Close Chaplet:

To speak of the hollow nape where the close chaplet
Of thought is bound, the loose ends lying neat
In two strands downward, where the shoulders open
Casual and strong below, awaiting their burden,
And the long spine begins its downward journey;
The hair curtains this postern silkily,
This secret stairway by which thought will come
More personally, with a closer welcome,
Than through the latticed eyes or portalled ears…

(Graves: p.55)

Compared to the abstracted coolness of much of the later love-poetry this is exemplary in its warmth, and it seems a shame that it found itself, presumably, too much attached to old feelings for Graves’ taste after the breakdown of the relationship that prompted it. It would be wrong, however, to give the impression that this Centenary Selected focuses exclusively on variant readings and works suppressed by Graves in later life. This may be one of the main reasons for the book’s existence, but it also represents much of the best work of the familiar Graves, though, crucially, set into the context of Graves’ development. The unrevised variant texts of some well-known poems, and the addition of many poems not known at all, places those poems that Graves did not revise – works, often, with claims to classic status – into a chronologically-ordered pattern of poetic discovery on Graves’ part. Some of these are surely among the finest lyrics of the twentieth century: ‘To Juan At The Winter Solstice’, ‘The Cool Web’, ‘The Straw’, ‘On Portents’; the beautifully cadenced ‘To Sleep’, with its clear echoes of Philip Sidney’s Astrophel and Stella:

The mind’s eye sees as the heart mirrors:
Loving in part, I did not see you whole,
Grew flesh-enraged that I could not conjure
A whole you to attend my fever-fit…

(Graves: p.104)

and the compelling playfulness of ‘Warning to Children’:

Children, if you dare to think
All the many largeness, smallness,
Fewness of this single only
Endless world in which you say
You live, you think of things like this…

(Graves: p.60)

This combination of unfamiliar works and developmental contexts arising from Patrick Quinn’s editing of the material gives an opportunity to see Graves’ poetry ‘in process’, as it were, an opportunity manifestly denied by the 1975 Collected Poems. This, in itself, makes Graves a more interesting, if technically less perfected poet. The flaws revealed are often bound up with strengths later disowned, and all the variants and restorations to Graves’ canon uncover a more engaged and unsettling poet than the late revisions indicated: it is, at times, as though a marble mask has been cracked open to reveal the skin beneath. Carcanet’s projected, three-volume Complete Poems, being supervised by Beryl Graves, will hopefully continue the process begun here by Patrick Quinn. It may even be the catalyst needed to see Graves’ poetry reassessed.

That such a reassessment is overdue is an issue that brings me back to Neil Corcoran’s comments in English Poetry Since 1940. While he cites the influence of The White Goddess on both Ted Hughes’ and Peter Redgrove’s working practices at various times, the lack of engagement with Graves’ poems leaves the issues surrounding their reception and influence tantalisingly open. To take one example, there appears to be a strong case for looking at Graves’ role in the changes to Heaney’s poetry after North. Field Work is a book that seems to be suffused with Graves’ influence, and while more space would be needed to examine this speculative proposal than I have here, Heaney’s choice of Graves’ ‘The Straw’ when invited to choose a classic poem of the twentieth century for Poetry Review (Vol 84/No 3, 1994) seems revealing and appropriate:

The way the straw works in this poem – like a bare wire conducting a live current – is also the way the poem works. The lines are perfectly unadorned yet intensely charged, at once formal and frantic… I have believed – believed in – this poem since I read it. (Heaney: PR 84/3)

Comments, surely, that are equally applicable to Heaney’s ‘The Harvest Bow’ and much else in his writing from Field Work onwards, up to, and including, The Spirit Level. If proved, this alone could significantly alter critical complacency about Graves’ poetry, but it may be that the climate is changing unprompted: the present vogue among poets and critics for Classical Greek and Latin literatures, for updatings of mythology and rewritings of the roots of European tradition, places Graves’ poems back in the main current. The issues are complex, but for that reason their exploration may be long overdue.

Notes:

1: Bookmark: I, Graves (BBC2, 29/12/95). John Carey; The Years of Living Dangerously (Sunday Times, 2/7/95).

2: John de St Jorre: The Poet, His Muses (Guardian Weekend, 24/6/95).

3: Gwyn Jones; “as a poet it now begins to look as though the only pockets he ever picked were his own. It is hard to deny him the title of genius”, Oxford Book of Welsh Verse in English, (OUP, 1977) (p.295).

4: ‘A Slice of Wedding Cake’, Collected Poems (Cassell, 1975) (p.192).

5: ‘On Portents’, ibid, (p.76).

6: Deborah Baker: In Extremis, The Life of Laura Riding (Hamish Hamilton, 1993) (pp.127-128).

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