Prose & Poetry - Robert Graves: A Twentieth Century Life

Robert Graves Robert Graves, born a little over a hundred years ago, is one of our century's most versatile and original writers.  Equally at home in poetry, fiction, and many forms of non-fiction, Grave's life serves as an example of continuing self-renewal and his work addresses the most agonizing problems of the twentieth century.

The immense literary production of this writer, scarcely examined by academic scholarship, constitutes one of the great treasures of our time.

I, ClaudiusGraves is probably best known as the author of historical novels.  Especially well known are the so-called Claudius novels (I, Claudius and Claudius the God).

The continuing commercial success of these novels and the popularity of their BBC television adaptation is anything but coincidental.  Both novels, beneath Graves' skilful and erudite creation of quotidian Rome, delve into the central moral, psychological, and political problems of the twentieth century.  Graves' Ancient Rome resembles our own century in its moral disorientation.

Previous values seem to have no relevance and nothing has come along to replace them.  Without the stabilizing effect of clear and coherent values, the world seems to oscillate between anxiety and aggression.

Into this maelstrom, Graves plunges the emperor Claudius who serves as a vehicle to explore our key psychological dilemma: how can an individual of average personal strength possibly survive in such a moral setting?  And how does one not only survive but also make a positive contribution amidst violence and disorder?

Graves also dramatizes the political implications of this moral and psychological situation.  How does a society, whether it be Ancient Rome, Europe in 1945, or the Post-Cold War world in 1995, transform itself in a positive direction?  How can a society overcome its destructive past?  In addition to the two Claudius novels, Graves wrote about a dozen other historical novels.

Each of these uses a historical setting to explore key contemporary problems.  Taken together, these novels make it easy to assert that Robert Graves is the one really consequential historical novelist of the twentieth century.

Graves is not the kind of writer who uses history and literature to write escapist narratives.  On the contrary, his frontal, penetrating studies of contemporary history demonstrate his stature as a committed, politically astute writer.  Between the two European wars, Graves writes cogent, careful books on two of the most important developments of that turbulent period.

The Long Week-endIn The Long Weekend Graves studies social and political developments following the Great War.  This deceptively simple book is constructed with great subtlety.  On one level, it is splendid social history.

Graves draws a lucid, detailed portrait of the social experimentation that was prevalent during the Roaring Twenties.  He couples this portrait with a detailed analysis of political life between the two wars.

Beneath his crisp social and political commentary, Graves probes the central conundrum of the whole period: how does a culture allow itself to slip into yet another war after the horrible bloodletting of the First World War?  Are there forces within European life that lead inevitably to instability and war?  If so, what can be done to neutralize these forces?

Graves shows that he is not limited to a European perspective in his fine book on the Middle East, Lawrence and the Arabs.  Written in translucent English, this book studies not only the events of the Arab Revolt; it also evaluates the geopolitical significance of the Middle East at a time when the glance of most observers was turned elsewhere.  Graves understands perfectly the stake of the European powers in the Middle East.  He also explores the exact significance of T.E. Lawrence.

Refusing to portray the English officer in the conventional, romantic fashion, Graves realizes that the role of Lawrence in the evolution of the Middle East poses a general, very deep question: what is the proper relationship between the West and the countries of the Middle East?  Should it be one of Western leadership?

Or do the Islamic countries have their own independent historical and cultural arc to follow?  Should there be some sort of balance between these two possibilities?  The subsequent history of the twentieth century teaches us that even today we are still learning to be Robert Graves' contemporaries.

Good-bye To All ThatGraves' insight into contemporary life has a clear source - the First World War.  Graves was born in Wimbledon, England in 1895 and grew up in a protected middle-class environment.

He was raised with an unchallenged belief in "God, King, and Country." These complacently accepted beliefs were shattered by Graves' experience as a twenty-year old officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers.  From the early part of the war, Graves fought in the trenches of Northern Europe with determination and valour.  Nevertheless, Graves was not blind to the social realities revealed by the war.

On a daily basis, he had to witness inequalities of his culture's class system.  He had to try to understand the slaughter of his fellow soldiers, his classmates, and his friends.

As the war progressed, he had the opportunity to return to England and Wales on leave.  As he recovered from his ordeal in the trenches, he saw that the civilian population had little notion of the brutality and stupidity of the war.  He also realises that the public was being systematically misled by the politicians and the press.

Graves translates his disillusionment into one of our century's best autobiographies, Good-bye to All That.  The book's title refers to Graves' development during and after the war.  In order to overcome both the physical and psychological wounds incurred during the war, Graves had to thoroughly understand and distance himself from the values of his culture.

Graves succeeds where his fictional character Claudius failed: rather than becoming enmeshed and overpowered by a pernicious culture, Robert Graves discovers a probing, questioning, and psychologically positive stance toward Western values and culture. 

Moreover, he expresses his personal victories in a spare, controlled prose that is especially appropriate for examining the violent face of twentieth century life.  Shorn of all sentimentality and fanaticism, Graves depicts with great accuracy the brutality of trench warfare and describes with great dignity the long-term psychological damage to the people who endured some of the twentieth century's worst moments.

If Misha Glenny can describe events in the former Yugoslavia with quiet power and V.S. Naipaul is capable of lucid analysis of the Third World, it is due, at least in part, to the stylistic innovations of Robert Graves in Good-bye to All That.

Graves considered himself first and foremost a poet, but his poetry is never distinct from his experience of the maelstrom of twentieth century life.  Graves early success as a poet derives from his skill at dissecting and expressing his own wartime traumas.

As Patrick Quinn has shown in his recent study of Grave's early poetry, it is through poetry that Graves attempts to overcome the nightmares, hallucinations, and tortured memories of death in the trenches of Northern Europe.  Graves manages to embed in his poetry his struggle to overcome the anguish and discomfort that resulted from his war experience.

Later in life, Graves' conception of poetry would change, but his understanding of the poetic task would always be conditioned by his experience in the Great War.  A poet is, according to Graves, one who uses all the resources of language and his own talent to articulate man's overcoming of the cruel face of one's historical period.

In order to do this, the poet must chart new, or at least healthier, values.  These values must be based on respect for the earth, other people, and the heritage of all the world's cultures.

Certain men at certain times serve as a kind of planetary conscience.  At the end of the Second World War, Graves is such a man.  He struggles with the twin forces lacerating all thoughtful people in 1945.  On the one hand, the past weighed heavily on everyone - including Graves.

He has just lost his beloved, promising son David and shared in the general consternation at a Europe in ruins.  On the other hand, it was necessary to look to the future, to create new institutions and ideals, and to find the emotional resources to overcome years of bitter war.

The Twelve CaesarsFrom the vantage point of his home in Deya, Mallorca, Graves undertakes this difficult double task.  Personally, Graves embarks on years of a very tranquil marriage and the raising of four children with his second wife, Beryl.

Professionally, he undertakes a comprehensive examination of the roots of Western religion and mythology.  Although this examination takes the form of very erudite, closely reasoned books, Graves never strays from his central questions: why has the West been condemned to cycles of devastating war?  Are there healthier values on which we might base our lives?

At a time when so many European writers and philosophers were exploring themes of despair and exhaustion, the simplicity of life in Deya and daily contact with the culture of the Mediterranean allowed Graves to retain his focus on the truly crucial questions of the twentieth century.

The Greek MythsThe first pillar of Graves' re-examination of Western culture finds its most complete expression in The Greek Myths.

This book does a great service to all those who are intent on better understanding the ambiguous - at once creative and destructive - evolution of the various Western societies.  In the first place, this two-volume work organizes in a systematic way the salient material from the classical tradition.

This immense systematization makes it possible for readers, regardless of their formal training in the classics, to evaluate the stories of Greece's gods, heroes, and demons.  In addition, Graves shows to what extent Greek mythology is related to the development of Greek civilization.

The Greek myths and accounts of the creation of life are transformed from amusing, rather quaint stories to expressions of a culture in a tense struggle with both itself and its neighbours.  In particular, Graves shows how religious developments are related to matriarchal and patriarch social organization and religious beliefs. 

As usual, Graves is doing many things simultaneously.  He is helping us understand a crucial moment in Western history.  In addition, he is exploring the roots of our sense of gender and sexuality.

At base, he is bringing into focus the very foundations of our sense of personal identity.  Although his perspective is historical and scholarly, Graves is in fact working through crucial twentieth concerns.  What forces have led us from a natural lifestyle to our mechanized, industrial culture?  What are the roots of the inferior political and psychological position of women?  What are the deepest roots of the twentieth century propensity to war?

Rather like Nietzsche and Heidegger, but with more serious scholarship and without their jargon and boring, shrill tone, Graves is attempting to see behind European rationalism and industrialism.  He is helping us to ask very informed questions about our psychological and religious well-springs.

The second important cornerstone of Graves' examination of the sources of Western values comes to fruition in The Hebrew Myths.  This book parallels, mutatis mutandis, his book on the Greeks.  Once again Graves deepens our understanding of an important historical period and, at the same time, leads us toward a more sensitive and intelligent apprehension of our own values.

Specifically, Graves performs astute analyses on all the main themes and characters of the Old Testament.  He examines the creation and fall of man, the motif of the Garden of Eden, the relationship of Adam and Eve.  In each of these instances, he emphasizes the power of the Judaic notion of the divine.  Unlike the Greek myths, the Hebrew 'hero' is not of divine origin; he is totally human, and only the election of God allows him to rise above normal events.

The power of the divine alerts us to the fragility and dependence of our human condition and leads us towards a less arrogant, more tolerant attitude toward others.  Graves analyzes this vulnerability for its own sake and as a lesson to the power-obsessed, narcissistic twentieth century.

King JesusPerhaps the most thorough and original facet of the work of Graves' last forty years concerns Christianity.  It is of especial importance for Graves to come to terms with the very centre of modern Europe's moral stance toward life.

After all, if Europe is primarily a Christian region and if Europe seems doomed to be at war with itself, isn't Christianity somehow at fault?  Or have we somehow lost the sense of what Christianity really is?  Graves approach to these questions is at once scholarly and artistic.  In the novel King Jesus Graves attempts nothing less than the reconstruction of the atmosphere and ideologies which generated the historical Jesus.

With a gifted novelist's sense of dramatization, Graves shows the turbulent confrontation of Jews, Romans, and recently converted Christians in the Ancient World.  Graves is also concerned to establish one of Christianity's most problematic lines of demarcation - the exact, spiritual difference between Judaism and Christianity. 

All this has an important purpose: to help us understand the nature of original Christian values without the additions and the cultural prejudices of two millennia of historical development.  And it is this heroic, seemingly impossible, attempt to rediscover both the strengths and limitations of original Christianity that informs the thousand pages of The New Nazarene Gospel Restored.

Once again Graves uses scholarship to provide twentieth century readers with access to the most important spiritual documents of their tradition, thus freeing them to learn personally from their key texts, rather than being at the intellectual mercy of institutions and authorities of all kinds.

If Graves is one of the twentieth century's greatest writers, it is because he understands in unparalleled fashion the importance and uses of human freedom.  Graves teaches us that freedom is freedom to read without, as he often calls it, the gloss of stifling authority.

Finally, in some of the most moving prose of Robert Graves, the sixty-five year old writer extends his interests into a realm for which neither his training nor education prepared him - the writings of mystical Islam.

In order to express the essential characteristic of human life, Graves consults holy Sufic texts and meditates on the word baraka.  He believed that this word, and by implication the culture from which it comes, possessed a unified understanding of something that had been lost in the West.

Gathering together the Elizabethan notion of virtue as blessedness, the idea of "loving care for life", and what Graves calls the "glow of care", baraka helps Graves make sense of that which has been so often abandoned in the twentieth century - the absolute respect for life in all its forms.

Graves' writing is universal: he addresses problems that are not only European but also those of the whole planet.  Graves is admirably accessible in a way that has been almost lost in the late twentieth century.  No academic jargon or tiring allusions obscure either his line of reasoning or poetic intensity.

Thus, we become aware in an almost unmediated way of Graves' sense of life.  Moreover, Graves' unrivalled versatility, embracing almost every type of writing, allows him to reach out to and communicate with people of greatly differing sensibilities and cultural backgrounds.

Above all, throughout his sixty-five year career as a professional writer, Robert Graves addresses the essential problems of the twentieth century: how do we overcome a heritage of violence?  How do individuals who have been touched by this violence rehabilitate themselves?  How do societies build new, healthier structures on a fragile, unhealthy foundation?

Graves manages not only to pose these questions in poetic, discursive, and fictional fashion; he also attempts to supply us with thought provoking answers to them.  We needn't agree with these answers to see that his effort, personal dignity, and psychological penetration point the way to a more positive future for every person on this earth.  We need to read Robert Graves.  We have much to learn from him.

Article contributed by Richard Schumaker

A "box barrage" was an artillery bombardment centred upon a small area.

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Prose & Poetry