24 July 1895
7 December 1985 (aged 90)
Robert Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) was an English poet, translator and novelist. During his long life, he produced more than 140 works. He was the son of the Anglo-Irish writer Alfred Perceval Graves and Amalie von Ranke, a niece of historian Leopold von Ranke. He was the brother of the author Charles Patrick Graves and half-brother of Philip Graves.
Graves' poems, together with his translations and innovative interpretations of the Greek Myths, his memoir of his early life, including his role in the First World War, Good-bye to All That, and his historical study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess, have never been out of print.
He earned his living from writing, particularly popular historical novels such as I, Claudius; King Jesus; The Golden Fleece; and Count Belisarius. He also was a prominent translator of Classical Latin and Ancient Greek texts; his versions of The Twelve Caesars and The Golden Ass remain popular today for their clarity and entertaining style. Graves was awarded the 1934 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for both I, Claudius and Claudius the God.
Born in Wimbledon, the son of an English father and German aristocratic mother, Graves received his early education at King's College School and Copthorne Prep School, Wimbledon and Charterhouse School and won an exhibition (a form of scholarship) to St John's College, Oxford.
First World War
At the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Graves enlisted almost immediately, taking a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over the Brazier, in 1916. He developed an early reputation as a war poet, and was one of the first to write realistic poems about his experience of front line conflict. In later years he omitted his war poems from his collections, on the grounds that they were too obviously "part of the war poetry boom". At the Battle of the Somme he was so badly wounded by a shell-fragment through the lung that he was expected to die, and indeed was officially reported as died of wounds. He gradually recovered, however, and apart from a brief spell back in France, he spent the remainder of the war in England.
One of Graves's very close friends at this time was the poet Siegfried Sassoon, who like Graves was an officer in the RWF. In 1917 Sassoon tried to rebel against the war by making a public anti-war statement. Graves, who feared Sassoon could face a court martial, intervened with the military authorities and persuaded them that he was suffering from shell shock, and to treat him accordingly. As a result Sassoon was sent to Craiglockhart, the military hospital near Edinburgh, where he was treated by Dr. W. H. R. Rivers and met fellow patient Wilfred Owen. Graves also suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia as it was sometimes called, although he was never hospitalised for it.
The friendship between Graves and Sassoon was documented in Graves' letters and biographies, and the story is fictionalised in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. The intensity of their early relationship is demonstrated in Graves's collection Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which contains a plethora of poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon himself remarked upon a "heavy sexual element" within it, an observation supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves also became friends with Wilfred Owen, whose talent he recognised. Owen attended Graves's wedding to Nancy Nicholson in 1918, presenting him, as Graves recalled, "a set of twelve Apostle spoons, the thirteenth, he joked, had been shot for cowardice".
Following his marriage and the end of the First World War, Graves belatedly took up his place at St John's College, Oxford. He later attempted to make a living by running a small shop, but the business soon failed. In 1926 he took up a post at Cairo University, accompanied by his wife, their children, and the poet Laura Riding. He returned to London briefly, where he split up with his wife under highly emotional circumstances (at one point Riding attempted suicide) before leaving to live with Riding in Deià, Majorca. There they continued to publish letterpress books under the rubric of the Seizin Press, founded and edited the literary journal, Epilogue; he also wrote two successful academic books together: A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928); both had great influence on modern literary criticism, particularly new criticism.
In 1927, he also published Lawrence and the Arabs, a commercially successful bio of T. E. Lawrence. Good-bye to All That (1929, revised by him and republished in 1957) proved a success but cost him many of his friends, notably Siegfried Sassoon. In 1934 he published his most commercially successful work, I, Claudius. Using classical sources he constructed a complex and compelling tale of the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, a tale extended in the sequel Claudius the God (1935). Another historical novel by Graves, Count Belisarius (1938), recounts the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius.
Graves and Riding left Majorca in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, they moved to the United States, taking lodging in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Their volatile relationship was described in non-fiction by Richard Perceval Graves in Robert Graves: 1927–1940: the Years with Laura, and T.S. Matthews's Jacks or Better (1977). It was also the basis for Miranda Seymour's novel The Summer of '39 (1998).
After returning to England, Graves began a relationship with Beryl Hodge, then the wife of Alan Hodge, his collaborator on The Long Week-End (1941) and The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943; republished in 1947 as The Use and Abuse of the English Language). In 1946 he and his new wife Beryl re-established a home in Deià, Majorca. The house is now a museum. 1946 also saw the publication of the historical novel, King Jesus. He published The White Goddess in 1948 which gave rise to a form of, wholly invented, celtic astrology subsequently adopted by New Agers. He turned to science fiction with Seven Days in New Crete (1949), and in 1953 he published The Nazarene Gospel Restored with Joshua Podro.
In 1955, he published The Greek Myths, containing translations and interpretations. His translations are well respected and continue to dominate the English-language market for mythography. Some of his unconventional interpretations and etymologies are dismissed by classicists, but have provoked more research into the topics he raised. Graves in turn dismissed the reactions of classical scholars, arguing that by definition they lacked the poetic capacity to forensically examine mythology. He published a volume of short stories, Catacrok! Mostly Stories, Mostly Funny, in 1956. In 1961 he became Professor of Poetry at Oxford, a post he held until 1966.
In 1967, Robert Graves published, together with Omar Ali-Shah, a new translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The translation quickly became controversial; Graves was attacked for trying to break the spell of famed passages in Edward FitzGerald's Victorian translation, and L. P. Elwell-Sutton, an Orientalist at Edinburgh University, maintained that the manuscript used by Ali-Shah and Graves – which Ali-Shah and his brother Idries Shah claimed had been in their family for 800 years – was a forgery. The translation was a critical disaster, and Graves' reputation suffered severely due to what the public perceived as his gullibility in falling for the Shah brothers' deception.
From the 1960s until his death, Robert Graves frequently exchanged letters with Spike Milligan. Many of their letters to each other are collected in the book, Dear Robert, Dear Spike.
On 11 November 1985, Graves was among 16 Great War poets commemorated on a slate stone unveiled in Westminster Abbey's Poet's Corner. The inscription on the stone was written by friend and fellow Great War poet Wilfred Owen. It reads: "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity." Of the 16 poets, Graves was the only one still living at the time of the commemoration ceremony.
Graves died in December 1985, aged 90, at Deià following a long illness and gradual mental degeneration. He and Beryl are buried in the small churchyard on a hill in Deia
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