It is bracing to be reminded by Jean Moorcroft Wilson’s new biography of Robert Graves that the rugged poet/all-rounder wrote Good-bye to All That, his lucid and mordantly sane autobiographical account of soldiering in the First World War, while recovering from a double suicide attempt. On April 27, 1929, Laura Riding, Graves’s fellow poet and dragon-muse, had defenestrated herself from the fourth floor of his flat. Graves had followed her seconds later by means of a window on the third.
Did they really want to kill themselves, these two? Riding, a fearless artistic innovator and legendary thrower of fits, was upset that the four-person ménage or love quadrangle she had hoped to bring into being was not working out, owing to the intransigence of one of its corners, an Irishman named Geoffrey Phibbs. (Moorcroft Wilson attributes her jump to “a mixture of frustration and pique.”) Graves, who literally worshipped Riding, wanted to go wherever she was going. The unhappy pair landed on, or in, an expanse of concrete. Riding fractured her skull, pelvis, and spine. Graves, characteristically, appears to have bounced.
At any rate he was unharmed, back on his feet with slapstick speed, and working at a furious rate, during Riding’s subsequent three-month hospitalization, on the war memoir he said he’d never write. By the end of July he had a first draft. “The objects of this autobiography, written at the age of 33,” he spikily informed the reader, “are simple enough: an opportunity for a formal good-bye to you and to you and to you and to me and to all that; forgetfulness, because once all this has been settled in my mind and written down and published it need never be thought about again; money.”