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.”
In the last respect, and possibly the first, Graves got what he wanted. Good-bye to All That was a best seller—it made money—and its breezy ironies pissed off enough of his old friends, literary peers, schoolmates, and brothers-in-arms that some kind of private cultural severance was achieved. Forgetfulness, however, came a little harder; the war would be thought of again and again. “Guns from the sea open against us,” begins “Dawn Bombardment,” a poem Graves wrote decades later, with the sensation of something pressed or carved into the brain. “The smoke rocks bodily in the casemate / And a yell of doom goes up.”
Part of Moorcroft Wilson’s aim, in this first half of a projected two-volume biography, Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895–1929), is to fix Graves in the immortal company of English war poets, alongside Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon. Her introduction puzzles over the fact that his wartime verse remains “absent from the popular imagination.” There is a reason for this: Graves, who served in France as an officer with the Royal Welch Fusiliers, was—as a war poet—not the finished article. He was a keen-eyed and precociously skillful apprentice. Of the work cited or quoted by Moorcroft Wilson, only “A Dead Boche,” written in 1918 about an encounter with the corpse of a German soldier, gets close to the stinging visionary immediacy of Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” or Rosenberg’s “Break of Day in the Trenches.”
And “A Dead Boche” is a flawed poem. “To you who’d read my songs of War,” runs the first verse, jauntily and dispensably, “And only hear of blood and fame / I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before) / ‘War’s hell!’” But the second stanza is a magnificently shocking zoom-in: “He scowled and stunk / With clothes and face a sodden green, / Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired, / Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.” The German is vital in his deadness—bulgingly, almost allegorically dead, a kind of zombie Ozymandias in Francis Bacon colors. This is war poetry indeed: poetry as the highest form of journalism.
Moorcroft Wilson’s absorption in detail makes her a slightly rhythmless storyteller, but by the end of her long and very thorough book we feel satisfyingly well acquainted with its courageous, obtuse, devoted, fragile, durable, and maddening subject. Postwar, Graves would go on to develop an elaborate (and, for the poets who subscribed to it, energizing) mythos concerning the divine femininity of the poetry-force: the White Goddess. He wrote a book with that title, and a poem too: “All saints revile her, and all sober men / Ruled by the God Apollo’s golden mean.”
But Graves himself—novelist, scholar, man of letters—was confusingly Apollonian. His poetry contains no wild-man gnashings or shamanistic flights; much of it is intellectual and argumentative, and his best poems are exquisitely wrought lyrics. “A conditioning in the Protestant morality of the English governing classes,” he reflected in an epilogue to Good-bye to All That, “though qualified by mixed blood, a rebellious nature and an overriding poetic obsession, is not easily outgrown.” The possessed lover launching himself out of windows, in other words, was also the disciplined journeyman writer who could bang out a best seller in 11 weeks.
Too generous, I would argue, to Graves’s war poetry, Moorcroft Wilson is rather quiet on the literary value of his war prose—the tense, peculiar brilliance of Good-bye to All That. She focuses instead on the circumstances of the book’s composition, and on the scandal it produced. But how to describe its imaginative effect? The effort not to go crazy has something to do with it. Graves, in the trenches, is at his limit; madness is throbbing in front of him like the northern lights, but he is maintaining a wavering and flickeringly witty control.
In one proto-Catch-22 scene from Good-bye to All That, waiting with his men to go over the top at the Battle of Loos—waiting for the order, poised “on the fire-step from four to nine o’clock, with fixed bayonets”—he finds that his mind is empty of everything except a certain popular song, an absurd mechanical refrain about mince pies: S’nice S’mince Spie, S’nice S’mince Spie ... I don’t like ham, lamb, or jam, and I don’t like roly-poly. In another, he gazes omnipotently upon a different German soldier—a live one, this time. “While sniping from a knoll in the support line, where we had a concealed loop-hole, I saw a German, about 700 yards away, through my telescopic sights. He was taking a bath in the German third line. I disliked the idea of shooting a naked man, so I handed the rifle to the sergeant with me ... He got him.” It’s as perfect as a poem, in its way, and utterly modern: the distance, the alienated fascination, the strange delicacy, the power of life and death.