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War Graves

Alan Brownjohn is captivated by Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s ‘zestful and absorbing’ biography of Robert Graves

27 September, 2018 — By Alan Brownjohn

Robert Graves. Photo courtesy of the Robert Graves Estate

I’M fairly happy in my own conceit,” confessed Robert Graves in a letter to fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon, “and always surprised to find that anyone likes my work or character.”

That was in 1925 when, after a decade of penniless commitment to the art, Graves could feel that he’d become an “established” poet. It was several years before he began to publish work (in prose) that the public liked a lot; but he then sacrificed wife and children to pursue a love affair that lost him many friends (including Sassoon) who were angered by the way his character had developed.

Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s zestful and absorbing book is the fourth major biography of Graves to be published and the most comprehensive to date. It finishes in 1929 when he is in his mid-30s and is still, she considers, “a curious mixture of over-confidence and lack of it”. She looks forward to writing the second half of a story enriched by material not previously available: a large number of revealing letters to and from family members and friends, the contents of the poet’s own working library, and two recently published autobiographical volumes by Laura Riding, his American poet lover.

She is dedicated to re-emphasising the enduring importance for Graves of his First World War experiences. Although he is frequently listed among the war poets, Graves hardly ever reacted directly as a poet to the brutality and squalor of trench warfare, or, for that matter, the two huge battles he saw and the severe injuries he suffered in one of them.

This leaves Moorcroft Wilson with the task of making a case for a large body of verse that Graves virtually suppressed, poems that approach the subject of the war obliquely, through parallels seen in ancient history or myth, or equate its horror with fears and fantasies remembered from childhood. She provides illuminating coverage not only of a few well-known war poems which will be familiar to Graves’ admirers, but also of others that for a long time remained, as she puts it, “absent from the popular imagination”.

During the war Graves married Nancy Nicolson, daughter of the painter William and sister of the artist Ben, and while they produced four children in rapid succession they lived penuriously in whatever accommodation they could obtain from friends or contacts. The success of Goodbye to All That at least reduced the regular appeals to parents for money to keep them all alive. But other problems had arisen. Graves showed a quirky casualness about factual accuracy in his account of the war – and also about his personal relationships.

The book greatly upset both Edmund Blunden and Sassoon, already offended by Graves’ unflattering opinion of their own work and his views on some features of their private lives. The two collaborated on a “demolition job” on one copy, filling it with hostile comments and corrections and donating it to the British Museum Library. Moorcroft Wilson was delighted to discover another copy, annotated by Sassoon alone, in an American university collection. He has sub-titled it “Mummy’s Bedtime Story Book”.

Laura Riding had come onto the scene in 1926, recommended to Graves by the American poet John Crowe Ransom. It was ostensibly because Ransom thought Graves could help her publish her poems in England, but Graves appears to have been mesmerised by her colourful, seductive personality from the start. Later he would jump after her from a third-floor window when she tried to kill herself by jumping from the fourth floor. She was badly hurt but survived; Robert sustained minor injuries.

Moorcroft Wilson gives a fascinating account of the attempt made by Robert and the immensely tolerant Nancy to operate a threesome with Laura, calling it “a Trinity”. It lasted longer than one would have thought, given that Laura was, as most people agreed “vampiric”, “dangerous” and “a borderline mental case”, despite a “pervasive intelligence” and moments of charm and appeal.

She introduced into the Graves household a good-looking but talent-free Irish poet lover of her own, to whom Moorcroft Wilson patiently devotes more space than he deserves. And eventually, although he had given up his marriage for her, she would abandon Graves. But their long partnership coincided with his becoming acknowledged as the finest love poet of his time. So there is a lot to look forward to in Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s second volume?

Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Goodbye to All That 1895-1929. By Jean Moorcroft Wilson. Bloomsbury Continuum, £25.

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