Monday, May 19, 2014

Why Robert Graves?

Eric Kennington: Robert Graves (1929)

I suppose that the upcoming anniversary of the outbreak of war in August, 1914 has got me thinking again about the literature of the First World War. Having recently read Harry Rickett's excellent book Strange Meetings: The Lives of the Poets of the Great War (2010), I realised just how little I knew about so many of the writers he mentions. Some, admittedly, sound more interesting as people than poets: Robert Nicholls, for instance. It did get me daydreaming of a systematic re-reading of some of my favourites, though.

Probably first and foremost among these is Robert Graves. Just last year I managed to acquire the missing volumes of his nephew Richard Perceval Graves' rather soupy (but nevertheless indispensable) biographical trilogy about his uncle. I'd read them before, but they did remind just how long and complex - and strange - a time "old Gravy" (to quote Siegfried Sassoon's nickname for him) had of it: all those books, all those projects, all that basking in the sun in the Balearic Islands (or, rather, sitting inside reading and typing in Deyà, Majorca).

In fact it was rereading Sassoon's own (lightly fictionalised) autobiographical trilogy, Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer and Sherston's Progress that got me going again on Graves (whom he calls, in context, "David Cromlech"). They were very different people, and their friendship did not long survive the war - though it was really the advent of Laura Riding, Graves's principal model for the "White Goddess" that clinched it. That, and some rather tactless demands for money on Graves's part ("Why keep a Jewish friend unless you bleed him?" as Sassoon rather chillingly remarked in a verse letter to RG).

George Charles Bereford: Siegfried Sassoon (1915)

Rather than personalities, then, I thought it might be best to concentrate on Graves's undoubted successes, his unequivocal masterpieces, if you like. In my opinion there are (at least) five of them:
  1. Memoir: Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography (1929)
    • Revised edition (1957)
  2. The concensus of opinion now seems to be that the best version of this "early autobiography" to read is the 1929 one, published shortly before Graves's departure for Majorca with his new muse, Laura Riding. The 1957 revision, which is the one I first read myself (and which is most readily available) tends to soften the abrupt and eccentric typography and sentence structures of the original text, althrough it does expand on certain details (notably Graves's relationship with T. E. Lawrence). The awkward truth is that neither version is entirely satisfactory on its own: you really have to read both to appreciate the full force of Graves's imagination in full cry.

    Robert Graves: Good-bye to All That (1929)

  3. Fiction: I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius (1934)
    • Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina (1934)
  4. Ever since this book was dramatised by the BBC in the 1970s, it has needed little introduction (there was an earlier attempt to film it in the 1930s, with Charles Laughton as claudius, but that ended up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately). It remains by far the most convincing and entertaining revisionist history of the early Caesars, despite all the myriad attempts to supplant it since. It's also the most immediately accessible and readable of Graves's historical novels, despite the fascinating material included in many of the others.

    Robert Graves: I, Claudius (1934)

  5. Speculative Non-fiction: The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948)
    • Amended and Enlarged Edition (1961)
  6. It's hard to describe this book accurately without making it sound like the work of a raving lunatic. Graves's speculations take him from the stone age to late antiquity, and include "solutions" to any number of unsolveable riddles and conundrums. It has to be experienced to be believed, but there's no doubt that no-one has ever written a more explosive book on the true nature of the poetic imagination.

    Robert Graves: The White Goddess (1948)

  7. Translation: The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass (1950)
  8. It may seem a little surprising to include a mere translation here, but I do feel that this one stands out from Graves's many solid achievements in this genre. There's something about his deadpan delivery which enables Apuleius' masterpiece to shine out, unimpeded by the clumsy literalism which so many of his other modern translators have clung to. It stays in print for a good reason: because people enjoy it more than any of the rival versions.

    Robert Graves, trans.: The Golden Ass (1950)

  9. Classical Scholarship: The Greek Myths (1955)
    • Revised edition (1960)
  10. The successive editions of this work incorporated more and more of Graves's increasingly out-there conjectures about the ancient Greeks (the contention that "ambrosia" was magic mushrooms, for instance), but for sheer concision and completeness, it's hard to fault this work. It offers multiple versions of most of the stories, together with clear source notes and - admittedly speculative - explanations of some of their stranger features. In other words, it emphasises the dynamic and fluid nature of myth, rather than clinging to a single interpretative paradigm. That's one reason it's still of use 60 years after its first publication.

    Robert Graves: The Greek Myths (1955)

Some would add to this list his bizarre series of speculations about Christianity, culminating in the massive Nazarene Gospel Restored (1954) - and including along the way such eccentric works as My Head! My Head! Being the History of Elisha and the Shulamite Woman; with the History of Moses as Elisha related it, and her Questions put to him (1925), King Jesus (1946), Adam’s Rib and Other Anomalous Elements in the Hebrew Creation Myth: A New View (1955), Jesus in Rome (1957) and Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis (1964).

Robert Graves & Joshua Podro: The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1954)

For me, that's a step too far. But I certainly acknowledge that this was - first to last - one of the subjects which most consistently interested Graves, from the very first poem in his Collected Poems, "In the Wilderness," about Jesus's meeting with the "guileless young scapegoat," to his later works of Biblical reconstruction, many of them written in collaboration with Talmudic scholar Joshua Podro.

But why no poetry? Graves was, after all, a poet first and foremost. I have to say that my enthusiasm for his poetry has waned over the years, though I still like a lot of the pieces included in his own successively winnowed-down volumes of Collected Poems, culminating in the 1975 volume which was the last he personally oversaw.

This has now been supplanted by the three-volume Carcanet edition of his Complete Poems (also available as a single volume, without the apparatus and textual variants). I suppose there would be an argument for including that, too, among the "indispensible" works of Graves. There's a lot there to take in, though, and certainly a lot that he personally repudiated along the way.

Robert Graves: The Complete Poems (2000)

As a supplement to my usual habit of listing all the books which I, personally, own by Robert Graves (and there are many), I thought it might be best to begin by discussing Manchester poetry publisher Carcanet's fifteen-year Robert Graves project.

Beginning with the three volumes of Complete Poems mentioned above, they've reprinted, in handsome, well-edited new editions, the following texts - often in new, definitive versions. I've put in bold the ones that I myself own - or have on order at present:

Robert Graves: Selected Poems, ed. Patrick Quinn (1995)

  1. Selected Poems, ed. Patrick Quinn (1995)

  2. Collected Writings on Poetry, ed. Paul O'Prey (1995)

  3. Complete Short Stories, ed. Lucia Graves (1995)

  4. Complete Poems, Volume I, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1995)

  5. Complete Poems, Volume II, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1997)

  6. The White Goddess, ed. Grevel Lindop (1997)

  7. I, Claudius & Claudius the God, ed. Patrick Quinn (1998)

  8. The Sergeant Lamb Novels, ed. Patrick Quinn (1999)

  9. Complete Poems, Volume III, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1999)

  10. Some Speculations on Literature, History and Religion, ed. Patrick Quinn (2000)

  11. Complete Poems in One Volume, ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward (1999)

  12. Homer's Daughter & The Anger of Achilles, ed. Neil Powell (2001)

  13. Greek Myths, ed. Patrick Quinn (2001)

  14. [with Laura Riding] Essays From 'Epilogue' 1935-1937, ed. Mark Jacobs (2001)

  15. [with Laura Riding] A Survey of Modernist Poetry & A Pamphlet Against Anthologies, ed. Patrick McGuinness and Charles Mundye (2002)

  16. The Story of Marie Powell, Wife to Mr Milton & The Islands of Unwisdom, ed. Simon Brittan (2003)

  17. Antigua, Penny, Puce & They Hanged my Saintly Billy, ed. Ian McCormick (2003)

  18. The Golden Fleece & Seven Days in New Crete, ed. Patrick Quinn (2004)

  19. Count Belisarius & Lawrence and the Arabs, ed. Scott Ashley (2004)

  20. [with Raphael Patai] The Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis, ed. Robert A. Davis (2005)

  21. King Jesus & My Head! My Head!, ed. Robert A. Davis (2006)

  22. {with Alan Hodge] The Long Weekend & The Reader over Your Shoulder (2006)

  23. Goodbye to All That and Other Great War Writings, ed. Steven Trout (2007)

  24. Translating Rome: Apuleius' The Golden Ass; Lucan's Pharsalia; Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars, ed. Robert Cummings (2010)

  25. [with Joshua Podro] The Nazarene Gospel Restored, ed. John Presley (2010)

Robert Graves & Joshua Podro: The Nazarene Gospel Restored (1954 / 2010)

It's a terrfiyingly ambitious project. They've republished all 14 of his historical novels; all his short stories; all of his poetry; a substantial selection of his essays, works of non-fiction and translations; as well as the most substantive of his collaborations with Laura Riding.

I'd really like to own the entire set, but one must be sensible - and, after all, I have most of the others in their original editions. The only serious deficiency in my own collection is their new edition of The Nazarene Gospel Restored (with significant revisions and additions). It seems to have gone out of print almost as soon as it was published. They do list it as "reprinting" on their website, though, so I do have hopes of being able to purchase it soon at a non-prohibitive price.

Mati Klarwein: Robert Graves (1957)

Robert Ranke Graves


  1. Graves, Robert. Over the Brazier. 1916. Poetry Reprint Series, 1. London: St. James Press / New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1975.

  2. Graves, Robert. Poems 1926 to 1930. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1931.

  3. Graves, Robert. Collected Poems 1965. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1965.

  4. Graves, Robert. Poems 1968-1970. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1970.

  5. Graves, Robert. Poems: Abridged for Dolls and Princes. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1971.

  6. Graves, Robert. Collected Poems 1975. London: Cassell, 1975.

  7. Graves, Robert. Complete Poems, Volume 1. Ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward. Manchester & Paris: Carcanet & Alyscamp Press, 1995.

  8. Graves, Robert. Complete Poems, Volume 2. Ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 1997.

  9. Graves, Robert. The Complete Poems in One Volume. Ed. Beryl Graves & Dunstan Ward. 2000. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.
  10. I have the two remaining volumes of Complete Poems on order, but haven't received them yet. Volume I is certainly impressively scholarly (if a little overwhelming), though.


  11. [Graves, Robert. My Head! My Head! Being the History of Elisha and the Shulamite Woman; with the History of Moses as Elisha related it, and her Questions put to him. London: Martin Secker, 1925.]

  12. Graves, Robert. I, Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius. 1934. London: Arthur Barker Limited, 1936.

  13. Graves, Robert. Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina. 1934. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1947.

  14. Graves, Robert. ‘Antigua, Penny, Puce’. 1936. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968.

  15. Graves, Robert. Count Belisarius. 1938. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954.

  16. Graves, Robert. Sergeant Lamb’s America: A Novel. 1940. Vintage Books. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. / Random House, Inc., 1962.

  17. Graves, Robert. Proceed, Sergeant Lamb. 1941. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1946.

  18. Graves, Robert. Wife to Mr Milton: The Story of Marie Powell. 1943. Chicago: Academy Chicago Limited, , 1979.

  19. Graves, Robert. The Golden Fleece. 1944. Pocket Library. London: Cassell & Co., Ltd., 1951.

  20. Graves, Robert. The Golden Fleece. 1944. London: Hutchinson & Co (Publishers) Ltd., 1983.

  21. Graves, Robert. King Jesus. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1946.

  22. Graves, Robert. King Jesus. 1946. London: Hutchinson & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1983.

  23. Graves, Robert. Seven Days in New Crete: A Novel. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1949.

  24. Graves, Robert. Seven Days in New Crete. 1949. Introduction by Martin Seymour-Smith. Twentieth-Century Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

  25. Graves, Robert. The Isles of Unwisdom. London: Readers Union / Cassell & Company Ltd., 1952.

  26. Graves, Robert. Homer's Daughter. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1955.

  27. Graves, Robert. They Hanged My Saintly Billy. 1957. A Grey Arrow. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1962.

  28. Graves, Robert. ‘Antigua, Penny, Puce’ and They Hanged My Saintly Billy. 1936 & 1957. Ed. Ian McCormick. Robert Graves Programme. Ed. Patrick J. M. Quinn. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2003.

  29. Graves, Robert. The Big Green Book. Illustrated by Maurice Sendak. 1962. A Young Puffin. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  30. Graves, Robert. The Siege and Fall of Troy: Retold for Young People. Illustrated by C. Walter Hodges. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1962.

  31. Graves, Robert. Collected Short Stories. 1964. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965.

  32. Graves, Robert. Complete Short Stories. Ed. Lucia Graves. 1995. London: Penguin, 2008.
  33. I think there are a few more children's books, and an early novel written in collaboration with Laura Riding - No Decency Left (1932), not to mention his "re-written" version of Dickens, The Real David Copperfield (1933), to collect, but otherwise I think that's all his published writing in this form.


  34. Graves, Robert. Poetic Unreason and Other Studies. London: Cecil Palmer, 1925.

  35. Graves, Robert. English and Scottish Ballads. 1927. Heinemann Educational Books Ltd. 1957. London: Heinemann, 1969.

  36. Graves, Robert. Lars Porsena, Or The Future of Swearing and Improper Language. 1927. London: Martin Brian & O'Keeffe Ltd., 1972.

  37. Graves, Robert. Lawrence and the Arabs. Illustrations ed. Eric Kennington. Maps by Herry Perry. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1927.

  38. Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography. 1929. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929.

  39. Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That. 1929. Rev. ed. 1957. Penguin Modern Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

  40. Graves, Robert. Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography. 1929. Ed. Richard Perceval Graves. Providence, RI & Oxford, UK: Berghahn Books, 1995.

  41. Graves, Robert, & Alan Hodge. The Long Weekend: a Social History of Great Britain, 1918-1939. 1940. London: Readers’ Union Limited, 1941.

  42. Graves, Robert, & Alan Hodge. The Reader Over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1943.

  43. Graves, Robert. The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. 1948. Amended and Enlarged Edition. 1961. London: Faber, 1977.

  44. Graves, Robert. The Common Asphodel: Essays on Poets and Poetry, 1922-1949. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1949.

  45. Graves, Robert. Occupation: Writer. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1951.

  46. Graves, Robert, & Joshua Podro. The Nazarene Gospel Restored. London: Cassell & Company Limited, 1953.

  47. Graves, Robert. Adam’s Rib and Other Anomalous Elements in the Hebrew Creation Myth: A New View. With Wood Engravings by James Metcalf. 1955. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958.

  48. Graves, Robert. The Crowning Privilege: The Clark Lectures 1954-55; Also Various Essays on Poetry and Sixteen New Poems. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1955.

  49. Graves, Robert. The Crowning Privilege: Collected Essays on Poetry. 1955. A Pelican Book. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1959.

  50. Graves, Robert. Greek Myths. 1955. Rev. ed. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1958.

  51. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. 1955. Rev. ed. 1958. Rev. ed. 1960. Pelican Books. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  52. Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. 2 vols. 1955. Rev. ed. 1958. Rev. ed. 1960. Introduction by Kenneth McLeish. Illustrations by Grahame Baker. 1996. London: The Folio Society, 2000.

  53. Graves, Robert. Steps: Stories; Talks; Essays; Poems; Studies in History. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1958.

  54. Graves, Robert, & Raphael Patai. Hebrew Myths: The Book of Genesis. 1964. An Arena book. London: Arrow Books Limited, 1989.

  55. Graves, Robert. Mammon and the Black Goddess. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1965.

  56. Graves, Robert. The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects. 1969. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1970.

  57. Graves, Robert. Difficult Questions, Easy Answers. London: Cassell & Company Ltd., 1972.

  58. Graves, Robert. Collected Writings on Poetry. Ed. Paul O'Prey. Robert Graves Programme. Ed. Patrick J. M. Quinn. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited / Paris: Alyscamps Press, 1995.

  59. Graves, Robert. Some Speculations on Literature, History and Religion. Ed. Patrick Quinn. Robert Graves Programme. Ed. Patrick J. M. Quinn. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2000.

  60. Graves, Robert, & Laura Riding. Essays From 'Epilogue' 1935-1937. Ed. Mark Jacobs. Manchester: Carcanet Press Limited, 2001.
  61. This is the hardest genre of Graves-iana to collect - he wrote so many books of essays and miscellaneous non-fiction, sometimes with different titles (and even different contents) for the UK and US editions. As you can see, I have been fairly assiduous, but there are still many gaps in my holdings.


  62. Apuleius, Lucius. The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Trans. Robert Graves. Penguin Classics. 1950. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1950.

  63. Apuleius, Lucius. The Transformations of Lucius, Otherwise Known as The Golden Ass. Trans. Robert Graves. 1950. Rev. Michael Grant. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

  64. Alarcón, Pedro Antonio de. The Infant with the Globe. Trans. Robert Graves. Trianon Press Limited. London: Faber, 1955.

  65. Galvan, Manuel de Jesus. The Cross and the Sword. 1882. Trans. Robert Graves. Foreword by Max Henríquez Ureña. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1956.

  66. Sand, George. Winter in Majorca. 1855. Trans. Robert Graves. With José Quadrado's Refutation of George Sand. Mallorca: Valldemosa Edition, 1956.

  67. Lucan. Pharsalia: Dramatic Incidents of the Civil Wars. Trans. Robert Graves. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1956.

  68. Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars. Trans. Robert Graves. 1957. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962.

  69. Suetonius Tranquillus, Gaius. The Twelve Caesars: An Illustrated Edition. Trans. Robert Graves. 1957. Rev. Michael Grant. Ed. Sabine McCormack. 1979. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982.

  70. Graves, Robert, trans. The Anger of Achilles: Homer’s Iliad. London: Cassell, 1960.

  71. Graves, Robert, & Omar Ali-Shah, trans. The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayaam: A New Translation with Critical Commentaries. 1967. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.

  72. Graves, Robert. The Song of Songs: Text and Commentary. Illustrated by Hans Erni. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., Publisher, 1973.
  73. The only translation I'm aware of lacking is Georg Schwarz's Almost Forgotten Germany (1936). There may well be others I don't know about, though. There's a good deal of translation in some of the books on mythology.


  74. Richards, Frank. Old Soldiers Never Die. 1933. Uckfield, East Sussex: The Naval & Military Press, Ltd., 2009.

  75. Richards, Frank. Old Soldier Sahib. Introduction by Robert Graves. 1936. Uckfield, East Sussex: The Naval & Military Press, Ltd., 2009.
  76. Graves is alleged to have done a good deal of editing work on both of these books of war memoirs by "Frank Richards" (born Francis Philip Woodruff).


  77. Seymour-Smith, Martin. Robert Graves: His Life and Work. 1982. Abacus. London: Sphere Books Ltd., 1983.

  78. Graves, Robert. In Broken Images: Selected Letters 1914-1946. Ed. Paul O'Prey. London: Hutchinson, 1982.

  79. Graves, Robert. Between Moon and Moon: Selected Letters 1946-1972. Ed. Paul O'Prey. London: Hutchinson, 1984.

  80. Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926. London: George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Limited, 1986.

  81. Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves: The Years with Laura, 1926-1940. Viking. New York: Penguin Books USA Inc., 1990.

  82. Graves, Richard Perceval. Robert Graves and the White Goddess, 1940-1985. 1995. Phoenix Giant. London: Orion Books Ltd., 1998.

  83. Seymour, Miranda. Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. 1995. Doubleday. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd., 1996.
  84. Probably the best of these biographies is Miranda Seymour's - there's no getting over the completeness and detail of Richard Perceval Graves' rather family-centred version of his uncle's life, though. Martin Seymour-Smith's is well written but (I'm told) unreliable on details. Probably the letters give the best sense of the man himself.


Richard said...

Good as usual. I have some of those books and read something of Graves in a biog of Laura Riding. Like many books I have to say I never finished that although it is good I just seem to drift off so to speak. I have those books (paper back) of the myths and Goodbye to All that in a battered Penguin. Leicester was very keen on that book, but I have never got further than page one, again not because it wasn't interesting, I liked it - partly I think I really didn't want to read about war.

I did read some time back most of the books by Pat Barker on Sassoon, Owen and the psychiatrist or psychologist Rivers. They are a great series.

I have a (Penguin - they are very easy to find) of Graves's translation of The Golden Ass - one can go through life not doing many things but to not read that is close to criminal...

Of course there were the I Claudius and the other thing on TV (a very good series). For those times the film 'Caligula' is very good if rather, well, you have to see it: complete with Richard Strauss's great and ominous music from his opera 'Romeo and Juliet'!

I just peered into at Baker's bio of Ryder 'In Extremis' and she sent so many letters to Len Lye at one stage (about a libretto she was doing for him for something) he had to neither receive or send anymore to her. Graves was just the chap to be with Ryder with his huge frame and his cape and so on!

But you might even do something about Laura Ryder also: some of her poems are great but others are abstract strange (which isn't a always a bad thing) - I think the best were those influenced by Stein - but I once read a couple really strange but interesting stories by her...

It was a good thing that such as Graves learned Greek and other languages in those English schools as it means they were able to tackle the Greek stories etc, albeit idiosyncratically in his case.

Malcolm Southan said...

Have just read your 2014 “blog” on Graves. Why aren’t you more famous Jack? This was the most effective filleting of Gravesiana I have read. Only reservation…Not quite sure you are right re the poems, but it’s driving me back to re-read them. Best, Malcolm Southan

Dr Jack Ross said...

Very kind of you to say, Malcolm. To be honest, I think you're probably right about the poems. At the time, seven years ago, I was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of the Complete Poems trilogy, but since I wrote the above I've had a chance to read the standalone volume of Graves's War Poems (2016) - which includes a whole unpublished book, rejected at the time - and this has underlined for me just how very accomplished he was as a war poet, as well as the wry love poet we already knew.