Robert Graves: The Edge of Lyric By Robert A. Davis It can come as a surprise to most readers of 20thcentury literature to learn that the term ‘modernist poetry’ was coined by Robert Graves and Laura Riding in their once influential book A Survey of Modernist Poetry, published in 1928. This reaction is attributable not simply to the relative obscurity into which the Graves-Riding volume has sunk, but to a deeper estrangement of its principal author, Robert Graves, from orthodox accounts of modern English writing. To discover that A Survey approaches the poetic output of Yeats, Pound and Eliot with considerable disdain serves to confirm the impression that Graves the poet belongs with a distinctively marginal, indeed antimodernist, tradition of English poetry – defended at best as the ‘Road-not-taken’ strain of public school Georgians and Hardy acolytes whose classdetermined irrelevance to the modern movement was exposed in the mud of Flanders, where most of them passed away. Those few influential voices from among the group who survived the trenches – most especially Siegfried Sassoon, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves himself – continued to occupy an anachronistic niche as the short 20th-century unfolded, respected, perhaps, for the record of their sufferings and their old-fashioned literary talents, but forever eclipsed by the achievements of the AngloAmerican modernism they had failed so signally to understand. This particular version of literary history amused Robert Graves and was the frequent target of his own eccentric literary criticism, most infamously in his mischievous Clarke Lectures of 195455. There he attacked the modernist canon from Yeats to Dylan Thomas, endeavouring to demonstrate its formal betrayal of the traditions of English poetry as these had been forged in the polyglot crucible of medieval and Renaissance imaginative writing and maintained thereafter by all ‘true poets’. To his critics, the prejudice against modernism expressed in Graves’s criticism matched the peculiar profile of his own poetry – valued perhaps for its preservation of some of the finest formal properties of the English lyrical temper, but thematically and aesthetically remote from the major concerns of 20th-century art:
To walk on Hills is to see sights And hear sounds unfamiliar. When in the wind the pine-tree roars, When crags with bleatings echo, When water foams below the fall, Heart records that journey As memorable indeed;
Head reserves opinion, Confused by the wind. (‘To Walk on Hills’) Never without his admirers as a poetic craftsman (particularly among other poets), Graves routinely found himself the object of low-key but sincere approbation from the literary establishment for his dedicated continuation of the essentially lyrical strain in English love poetry. His command of prosody, restrained diction and intimate rendering of the consolations of the natural landscape in scores of poems helped position him as an accomplished if nonetheless curiously outdated literary figure, set in the lineage of Surrey, Wyatt, Herrick, Clare, Hardy and Edward Thomas. That Graves himself prized just these writers in his own tendentious literary criticism at the expense of many of the more conventionally ‘major’ names in English verse reinforced the perception of a poetic personality working in dignified but self-imposed exile from the main sources of vitality in modern English writing. The broad critical perspective on Robert Graves of which this interpretation is a part – maintained to this day in many literary circles – is not wrong, but it does reflect inadequately the sustained engagements of his work with the substantial questions of genre, tradition and influence in English poetry. Far from writing out of a simplistic escape from the modern and its dominant literary styles, Graves employed his exile on the island of Mallorca figuratively as a mode of critique, searching out in the deeper patterns of English poetics both the malaise of the modern and an alternative means of reimagining its chief concerns. The eventual shape of Graves’s response to these concerns undoubtedly favoured the lyrical above all other poetic forms, but only as part of a radical renegotiation of the place of the lyrical voice in the witness to history and within the context of a profound re-examination of the relationship of lyric registers to the larger epic sensibility which, he came to believe, was deeply implicated in the moral catastrophes of modernity. From out of a lifetime of extended reflection and poetic practice, Graves came indirectly to tell a quite different story of the ideal poetic vocation and the genre hierarchies on which he believed it was predicated. At once both innovative and archaic, Graves’s alternative narrative was the ‘one story and one story only’ of what older versions of genre
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theory knew as ‘the pastoral’. Graves’s vision of the pastoral was, however, a renovated and not a nostalgic one, demanding a full-scale reassessment of the aesthetics of literary production and an interrogation of the dominant account of the poetic career held up to poets as definitive of literary excellence and self-understanding from classical times onwards. For Graves, two elevated figures personified the arrogance and self-delusion of this prevailing model of the poetic achievement:Virgil Maro and John Milton. In the work of both Virgil and Milton, according to Graves, is confirmed a version of poetic self-consciousness which comes, as a result of their artistic stature, to function as a template for the highest literary attainment. It is also therefore constitutive of the standard hierarchy of literary forms and of the relationship of poetry to political and martial power. In the careers of first the ‘suave hexamatrist’ Virgil and then ‘monstrous’ Milton, a figure of prodigious literary gifts embarks upon a journey in poetic selfunderstanding that begins with entry into the domain of the pastoral, where precocious talents are first discovered and exercised. In Arcadia poetry is sovereign. The city and its gods of mammon and war are left behind, forgotten in the embrace of erotic love, in the ecstatic vision of the sublimity of nature and in the elegiac consolation afforded uniquely by poetry in the face of death. This, according to Graves, is the authentic locus for the practice of poetry: the celebration of its healing ceremonial eros, which reproaches all of the vanities of civilization, assuages all of its discontents, and revivifies the deep sources of human wellbeing through a purified awareness of love and mortality. Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics, Milton’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso and Lycidas belong to this phase of the poetic career and become – rightly in Graves’s view – emblematic of the ancient prestige of the pastoral lyric. In the case of both poets, however, the imaginative claims of the pastoral ideal wither, finally to be overtaken by the lure of fame, martial power and the rewards of service to the patriarchal interests of the civilized order: in Virgil’s case the Empire; in Milton’s the vengeful God of the Old Testament. The lyric modes of the pastoral are abandoned in favour of the sophisticated martial registers of the epic and its glorification of warfare and political might. For Graves, of course, this story of the triumph of epic is also heavily gendered. The desecration of the pastoral is equally the violation of the Mother Goddess and her ethic of love by the upstart sky-gods no longer content to remain her sons and consorts, but bent instead on the elevation of masculine force above all other virtues, requiring the subordination of ‘feminine’ feeling to the calculus of male rationality. Whether in the guise of Apollo or Yahweh, the angry sky-god usurps the rights of the Muse, replacing inspiration with patronage and reducing the pastoral lyric to the
stature of preparatory bucolic idyll, mere prelude to the exaltation of a morbidly heroic warrior ethic of violence and sacrifice. In many respects, the pattern of Graves’s own self-dramatised poetic pilgrimage can be read as an extended contest with this authorised version of literary history and genre division. A peculiar interaction of the pressures of heredity and environment first drew Graves personally into the aesthetics of the pastoral realm. The infantile anxieties induced by his complex parentage and nightmare experience of public school drove him, initially, into that ambiguous pastoral of childhood, the nursery, with its ‘... funny muddling mazes,/Each rounded off into a lovely song’ (‘The Poet in the Nursery’) where fear and flight dwelt in uneasy proximity. His attachment to the themes and imagery of nursery pastoral made Graves, for a time, the perfect Georgian poet, but the horrors of trench warfare exhausted the resources of his juvenile Arcadia and sent shadows looming large and ominous across the landscape of the idealised England into which his injured psyche first fled: The fruit between my lips to clotted blood Was transubstantiate, and the pale rose Smelt sickly, till it seemed through a swift tearflood That dead men blossomed in the garden-close. (‘The Morning Before the Battle’) Aggression, destruction, the malevolence of tormented natural elements too frequently invade the pastoral retreat from the adjoining epic conflagration in Flanders for it to function effectively as the soldier’s sanctuary: It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking, Lolling and letting reason nod, With ugly, serious people thinking Prayer-chains for a forgiving God. But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying With furious zeal like madmen praying. (‘A Boy in Church’) It ought to be observed more systematically that the recourse to pastoral values, however inadequately formulated, was a more widespread response to the experience of the Great War than is commonly recognised. Edmund Blunden renewed himself for the fight by donning the robes of the artless shepherd. More importantly, the lapidary words of Wilfred Owen’s famous preface to the unpublished volume of verse he intended to call English Elegies (‘... not about heroes ... nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power ...’) represent a direct moral rejection of the epic sensibility because of its perceived complicity in the worst outrages of
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warfare. If experience of the war prompted in many of his literary contemporaries a deep revulsion at their martial and imperial heritage, for Graves himself it began a revision of the archetypal poetic career and the artistic values which had traditionally underpinned it. Growing antipathy towards the conflict, and increased alienation from the civilisation that had instigated it, were pressures intense enough to bring about a subtle restructuring of the aesthetics of the body of pastoral verse Graves was writing during and shortly after the war. ‘... sunny cornland where/Babes lie tickling, and where tall white horses/Draw the plough leisurely in quiet courses’ yielded to the darkly symbolic landscapes of Graves first genuinely important lyric, ‘Rocky Acres’:
This is a wild land, country of my choice, With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare. Seldom in these acres is heard any voice But the voice of cold water that runs here and there ...
The country of Graves’s choice was no longer the sequestered grove of childhood fancy and wartime escapism, but a landscape overshadowed by memories of violence and the omniscient gaze of the anonymous predator. Many of Graves’s poems of this post-war period are haunted by a nostalgia for a realm of being in which the feudal, the archaic and the prehistoric are associated with the instinctual and the automatic, with a brutal realm of primary responses which, as in the brief poem ‘Outlaws’, is identified with the most ancient and abiding recesses of the psyche. Here ‘Old gods, almost dead, malign’ stalk the boundaries of rational consciousness, liminal figures who menace the stability of the pastoral by recalling its oncefluent intercourse with the chthonic terrors of the wilderness, night, prehistory and the distant reaches of the unconscious mind, where ‘These aged gods of power and lust/Cling to life yet’. The fascination of this territory lies in the challenges it makes to the vain claims of technological civilisation, and the access it affords to a vast fund of mythological motifs where poetry, power and religion converge. In a very meaningful sense, then, it can be argued that the immense ritual belief-system in the light of which, Graves later insisted, his poems were to be interpreted, can be seen as, fundamentally, a
pastoral myth – and a pastoral myth set at odds with the rival claims of an exhausted and discredited epic tradition. From his experience of cultural crisis and personal trauma, Graves emerged with a reworked pastoral vision in which the threat of epic violence has been transcended and the self confirmed in the difficult demands of its own solitude and isolation. It is from this stance that the shape of Graves’s mature work starts to emerge, beginning with his favourite, obsessive image: that of a man walking alone on hills: To go in no direction Surely as carelessly, Walking on the hills alone, I never found easy. (‘In no Direction’) With his emigration to Mallorca as its biographical expression – defiantly emblazoned in the typically pastoral maxim Graves has placed above his front door, ‘Here is escape then Hercules from empire’ – Graves’s exile took him to a place where his inner conflicts, and the pursuit of reconciliation, could be dramatised in a confrontation with nature; nature, it must be observed, preferred as a wild infinity, rather than an orderly-bounded vista. Here poetic anxiety and guilt of survival could each be subsumed into an enlarged myth of pastoral love, the coherence of which derived from the increasingly ritualised relationships between the poet and a visionary procession of lovers:
Weather we knew, not seasons in the city Where, seasonless, orange and orchid shone Knew it by heavy overcoat or light, Framed love in later terminologies Than here, where we report how weight of snow, Or weight of fruit, tears branches from the tree. (‘Language of the Seasons’)
By transforming an untamed landscape into its central metaphor for the intractable awareness of the affective self, Graves’s version of the pastoral initiates an ironic reversal of the paradigm of the Virgilian or Miltonic poetic career. Recoiling in pain and horror from his own personal martial experience recorded in Goodbye To All That, Graves flees the domain of the
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city and its gods of technology and war, and seeks a new background for his poetry in the rejuvenated pastoral of his Mallorcan oasis, making of his exile an oppositional ethical and artistic stance destined to be more than mere prelude or respite. The setting for the development of his creative talents remains the scene of his life’s work, where an ancient mythology of love is revived in the figure of a barbaric Lunar Muse who animates the natural world and takes up all of the poet’s offerings of love and suffering:
The seven years’ curse is ended now That drove me forth from this kind land, From mulberry-bough and apple-bough And gummy twigs the west wind shakes, To drink the brine from crusted lakes And grit my teeth on sand.
The perspective revealed by ‘Return’ in a significant respect completes Graves’s individuation and inversion of the inherited pastoral aesthetic. Exile is interpreted not as temporary withdrawal, but as release, and, in consequence, the polarity of the city and the country, the epic and the lyrical, is reversed, rendering the values of Arcadia a constant reproach to the destructive failures of a bankrupt civilisation built upon rationality and power. Whether as symbolic landscape or as imagined history, Graves’s pastoral assumes an individualising force through the conciliatory eros of poetic love. ‘Pale at first and cold’, the experience of love passes over the pastoral terrain in ‘The Finding of Love’, as a ‘blaze’ of energy, at once both purging and quickening the scene, the imagery of the poem modulating from gloom to light and from cold to heat. Poetic love is presented as an overpowering force cognate with the life-giving properties of spring and nature’s seasonal self-renewal. Under its influence, the pastoral landscape rises to a fresh vitality, ‘With end to grief,/With joy in steadfastness’. The emergence in this poetic space of the story Graves was to term ‘the single poetic theme of life and death’, and accorded manifesto-like expression in The White Goddess, draws substantially upon the resources and the imaginative traditions of Arcadia. Its narrative structure is derived from the seasonal and cyclic patterns of pastoral myth, with which both the fluctuations of poetic inspiration and the capricious fortunes of love are compared. Images of snow, springtime, winter, animals, birds and the moon spangle the poems, valorised by the insights and sentiments to which Graves so frequently returns. The consistency of the imagery over dozens of poems is such that an organised symbolic system of associations and perceptions can be seen gathering shape and form in the lyrical texture of the verse. The ‘tyrannous queen above/Sole mover of their fate’, of ‘Full Moon’ becomes a Lunar ‘Queen Famine’ in ‘A Love Story’, and the poet is both her lover and servant. The beloved whose embrace restores springtime and inspiration in ‘Mid-Winter Waking’, yet whose departure appears motiveless, unreasonable comes to be regarded with a devotion bordering on religious reverence in poems such as ‘Like Snow’ and ‘She Tells Her Love While Half Asleep’. The critic Alan Carter
has compared the static formality of Graves’s best love poetry to a Book of Hours. If the juxtaposition of lyric and epic is placed at its centre, however, it is perhaps more accurately described as a Shepherd’s Calendar, dedicated to woman as the Centre, and striving to restore to the exchanges of heterosexual love a ceremonial gravity of purpose and meaning set upon neutralising the allure of epic. Arcadia, it transpires, affords the poet the ideal symbolic landscape in which to invest his verse with the unity of form most commonly associated with myth. The pastoral lyric replaces epic as the poetry of myth. To many modern readers, shaped by the Virgilian principles Graves sought to throw off, it may seem that the formality of pastoral writing is too stilted, too operatic a genre to accommodate the expansive rhetoric of myth with the fluency normally reserved for the epic. The gods appear strangely absent from the best traditions of European love lyric of which Graves’s poetry can rightly claim to be a part. Nevertheless, the coherence of Graves’s pursuit of the Muse invites his readers to a final synthesis of poetry with the satisfactions of myth, free from the bloodlust of epic. For behind the pastoral traditions of the principal mythic celebrants of the mysteries of pastoral love, behind Orpheus and Dionysus and Adonis, and even their Semitic forebear, Tammuz, lie those ancient Sumerian laments for the shepherd-god Dumuzi, chosen one of the Mother Goddess Inanna. The ur-myth of the pastoral – a haunting echo of Graves’ single poetic theme – tells the story of the passionate love affair and eventual marriage of the Great Goddess Inanna to the shepherd-poet Dumuzi; his tragic death, descent into the underworld and final rescue by Inanna. It suggests, ultimately, that the primary task of the pastoral imagination may be defined as a remembering of, and return to, the source. The goal of this immense feat of pastoral reconciliation is to place the experience of sympathy, connectedness, destiny, shared love and suffering at the centre of human subjectivity, and to unmask all those bogus values of orthodox poetics and epic heroism which threaten it.
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