First World War Poetry Digital Archive

The Robert Graves Collection

‘War was return of earth to ugly earth, / War was foundering of sublimities, / Extinction of each happy art and faith / By which the world had still kept head in air’

Recalling War (l. 31–34)

Robert Graves

Biography

Robert Graves (1895–1985)

Robert Graves was born in 1895 in Wimbledon to Alfred Perceval Graves, a man of letters and school inspector of Anglo-Irish and Scots descent, and Amalia von Ranke, the niece of the great German historian Leopold von Ranke. In his autobiography Goodbye to All That (1929), Graves describes early visits to his German cousins’ estate, and recounts his unhappy years at Charterhouse School, where he first became involved in writing and editing poetry. At school he also won cups for boxing, and over the course of holidays spent at Harlech in North Wales he developed an interest in mountain climbing.

‘When I'm Killed' manuscript

When war was declared in August 1914, Graves enlisted immediately, despite having secured an exhibition to St John’s College, Oxford. This meant that he went straight from school into the Royal Welch Fusiliers. In Goodbye to All That he records his respect for the history of the regiment and its superb discipline, as well as his discomfort at having secured a commission despite his lack of military experience. He served in France from 1915 – he was made a captain in October that year – to 1917. It was there that he began his friendship with the poet Siegfried Sassoon, a fellow-Fusilier.

On 20 July 1916 during the Battle of the Somme – four days before his twenty-first birthday – Graves was struck by a shell fragment, a piece of which passed through his shoulder and chest, seriously injuring his right lung. He was taken to a dressing-station, and next morning was reported to have died. The Times even printed his name in the list of war dead, later correcting this when it became known that he had survived his wounds and was convalescing in England. Damage to his nerves and general health meant that his return to France in 1917 was not for long, and he spent the remainder of the war in various posts in England and Ireland.

During the war he became increasingly involved in his poetry. Encouraged by Edward Marsh, private secretary to Winston Churchill and editor of the Georgian Poetry anthologies, Graves published his first volume, Over the Brazier, in 1916, and Fairies and Fusiliers in 1917. He maintained a regular correspondence with Sassoon, discussing poetry, their regiment and war in general. When, in 1917, Sassoon determined to make a public statement condemning the prolongation of the war, Graves interceded and convinced the military authorities that his friend was suffering from nerves. As a result, instead of a court martial Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital near Edinburgh. Graves visited him, and there they both became friends with the poet Wilfred Owen. In January 1918 Owen attended Robert Graves’s wedding to Nancy Nicholson, daughter of the painter William Nicholson.

Following the Armistice on 11th November 1918, Graves resigned his commission and took up his fellowship at St John's College, where he met T. E. Lawrence, who was then at All Souls College. He and Nancy set up a small grocery in Boars Hill to support their growing family, but the business soon failed. Graves carried on attempting to earn money by his writing. In 1926 he accepted a post at Cairo University, but stayed there for only six months with his wife and their four children. The American poet Laura Riding accompanied them.

In 1929, his marriage having come to an end, Graves left England with Laura Riding and settled in the mountain village of Deià in Majorca, Spain. There they published a variety of books, especially their poetry, through their Seizin Press. Graves’s commercially successful biography of T. E. Lawrence had appeared in 1927. Goodbye to All That (1929), which also proved a bestseller, aroused considerable controversy, and caused a lasting break with Sassoon. In 1934 he published his classic historical novel I Claudius, another bestseller, followed by Claudius the God (1935).

At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 Graves and Riding returned to London, and then moved in 1939 to New Hope, Pennsylvania, where their relationship finally broke down. After returning later that year to England, Graves lived in Devon with Beryl Hodge, wife of Alan Hodge, who collaborated with Graves on various literary projects. In 1946 Graves went back to Majorca with Beryl, and the couple, who had four children, eventually married. Graves published in 1948 The White Goddess, his celebrated ‘historical grammar of poetic myth’ detailing his view of the ‘poetic impulse’; The Greek Myths appeared in 1955. From 1961 to 1965 Graves was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and in 1971 he was made an honorary fellow of St John’s College.

Robert Graves died at the age of 90, and is buried at Deià in the small cemetery overlooking the sea.

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