ROBERT GRAVES is alive, and not very well, and living in Majorca--or, as Martin Seymour-Smith insistently spells it in this new biography, Mallorca. Graves, born in 1895, is in fact a very old man both in mind and body. But he's still living, and the reader must wonder why such an intimate biography should be published in his lifetime.
In fact Graves' intimacies have always been conducted in public, ever since the day in 1929 when his then mistress, the brilliant but terrifying American poet Laura Riding, jumped out of a fourth-floor London window in an attempt to undo a particularly knotty emotional tangle. She was followed a few moments later by Graves, from the third floor. Neither was killed. This notorious episode was, as Seymour-Smith reveals, simply the most purple of a series of lurid adventures in human relationships which have punctuated Graves' life. Others include a youthful marriage to an erratic feminist who wanted to be "unmarried" as quickly as possible, and made Graves set up and run a village grocery store at Boars Hill on the outskirts of Oxford (the wife of another poet, John Masefield, bought cleaning powder there, but otherwise there were few customers); a gentlemanly elopement by Graves with the wife of one of his best friends; and, in the latter years, the worship by Graves of a number of young female "Muses" (visitors to his Majorcan home) of increasingly scandalous behavior.
Graves, in other words, has had a more colorful life than most English poets of his generation, and Martin Seymour-Smith (whose earlier works include a brilliant little pamphlet called Bluffer's Guide to Literature) charts it all with sardonic relish, for the most part perfectly combining the roles of sympathetic Boswell with detached critic of the man and his writings. The book is in many ways a very distinguished biography. It dwells, as few biographers have the sense or the good taste to do, lovingly on minor characters simply because they happen to take the author's fancy. For example, of a very minor figure in Graves' life, an alcoholic failed movie producer, Seymour-Smith writies:
"At one point he got back into movies; he made some TV films. But eventually he succumbed to drink. He died, a sweet soul--guilty and alone--in a veterans' hospital in the early sixties. Robert continued to have faith in his negotiating abilities until almost the end."
In fact Seymour-Smith, who first got to know Graves as a schoolboy admirer of his poetry, and subsequently became tutor, on Majorca, to one of Graves' many children, displays a humor all too rare in literary biography. Take for example his swift (and entirely accurate) judgment on the teaching of English literature at Oxford, when Graves became an undergraduate in 1919: "The School of English at Oxford was then fairly bad, although not as bad as it later became . . ." And, of the window-jump by Laura Riding and Graves, whose m,enage had scandalized their area of West London: "The double jump was reported by eager neighbours to the police, who thought that they had an attempted murder--or, with luck, a murder-- on their hands." The biography's only serious fault is a decline into card-indexery, a mass of largely uninteresting detail, in the final chapters. And it is, probably, too long. On the other hand it does quietly establish Graves' considerable importance as a poet.
That importance is quickly confirmed if you look at any reliable anthology covering the period in which Graves wrote. Poems as effortlessly brilliant, and widely differing, as "Sick Love" ("O love, be fed with apples while you may"), the superbly funny "Welsh Incident," "Ogres and Pygmies," and "In Broken Images," show quite clearly that Graves is only one step behind the very greatest poets of his age. There is a moving scene in the biography when he and T.S. Eliot, wary of each other throughout their lives, talk for a moment in Eliot's publishing office, and Eliot praises some lines by Graves in his book The White Goddess ("Circling the circlings of their fish,/ Nuns walk in white and pray . . ."):
"(Eliot) rose from his chair, exclaiming: 'That's certainly real poetry, the real thing! But what does it mean, and how on earth did you do it?'
"Graves, pleased, shrugged his shoulders modestly and muttered: 'Don't know, don't know. It's there. I saw it.' "
He "saw it" for year after year, but in the 1930s and 1940s he was ignored by the English literary mainstream. Seymour-Smith shows why. Graves has always been an outsider, aggressive towards other poets, admiring few and condemning many--including Yeats (both early and late), Pound, and Eliot himself, from The Waste Land onwards. He was also convinced, from the 1920s, of the wrongness of "movements," and even rejected the idea that he himself should "develop" as a poet; he compared his progress to that of a cabbage-white butterfly, with its "Honest idiocy of flight."
All this encouraged other poets and critics to turn their backs on him. Not surprisingly, his b.ete noir was W.H. Auden, leader of the principal movement in English poetry during the '30s, and a firm believer in the need to "develop." Graves dismissed Auden as a plagiarist, largely on account of Auden's stylistic borrowing from Laura Riding in several poems at the end of the 1920s. In fact the similarities between Auden and Graves, both as men and poets, are far more striking than their differences.
Graves' isolation was increased by his years of allegiance to Laura Riding. "Discipleship" would not be too strong a word, for though he was beyond doubt the better poet, she exercised a huge intellectual and emotional influence over him and his work from the late 1920s until the mid 1940s, when she abandoned him for Schuyler Jackson, a would-be man of letters who turned Florida fruit-farmer. Seymour-Smith is at his best on the Graves-and-Riding part of the book, though even his intelligence fails to explain the relationship entirely satisfactorily. Graves, he tells us several times, needed bullying women as Muse-cum- lover, and there was obviously an element of masochism in Graves' tolerance of Riding's abominable treatment of him over the years. But it remains a puzzle why anyone else, apart from Graves, was prepared to put up with the outrageous Riding for even five minutes. In fact several other people allowed her to ruin their lives. It all recalls Auden's equally mysterious tolerance of his outrageous lover Chester Kallman. Both Graves and Auden seem to be examples of the poet-as-victim.
Auden, in a draft of The Orators (1932), sneered at "Robert and Laura spooning in Spain." This could hardly have been farther from the truth. Riding stopped allowing Graves into her bed (or anyone else's) quite early in the affair, and he had to spend something like a decade suffering from sexual frustration. Not surprisingly, this was a bit much even for a poet who, Seymour-Smith assures us, has always been governed by a streak of sexual puritanism. But it produced one of his very best poems, the ode to the phallus entitled "Down, Wanton, Down!"
It is always interesting to discover how poets manage to make a living. Graves resorted to popular fiction. He regarded I, Claudius as a potboiler (or at least Riding made him regard it as a potboiler). In fact it is probably the work of literature by which he will be best remembered. Among the many virtues of Martin Seymour-Smith's book is that it reminds us of the existence of Graves literary work other than Claudius, and sends us back in particular to the poetry.