The Years with Laura

By Richard Perceval Graves

Viking. 380 pp. $29.95


Selected Correspondence


By Robert Graves

Edited by Paul O'Prey

Moyer Bell Ltd. 324 pp.

Paperback, $10.95

HAS ANYONE in the 20th century managed to write so many different kinds of books, and to write them so well, as Robert Graves? His early autobiography, Goodbye to All That (1929), stands grimly as the classic memoir of the First World War. I, Claudius (1934) has been called -- by the formidable critic George Steiner, no less -- the best historical novel of our time. And The White Goddess (1948), that quest for the secrets of a pre-Christian Muse who is the source of all true poetry, remains the cult book to end all cult books, one that actually reveals, along with many other oddities, exactly what song the sirens sang and the name Achilles assumed when he hid himself among the women.

Need more proof of Graves's range? A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927), written with Laura Riding (about whom much more shortly), is often credited with kicking off the New Criticism by its intensive analysis of a Shakespeare sonnet. Christopher Isherwood once chose "The Shout" (1928) as one of the dozen or so greatest modern English short stories; its vision of madness is certainly among the most terrifying. The two-volume Greek Myths (1955) and the translations of Suetonius, Apuleius and Lucan remain school standards, despite their idiosyncrasies, while The Reader Over Your Shoulder (written with Alan Hodge) overshadows virtually all other knuckle-rapping guides to the writing of forceful, clear prose. Besides these and a hundred or so other books, Graves (1895-1985) also produced scores of essays, humorous pieces, and historical investigations -- virtually all of them as entertaining as they are erudite.

Still, Robert Graves always counted his prose as little more than a means of subsidizing his poetry. He specialized in short lyrics, most of them about love, like this youthful charmer:

Love without hope, as when the young bird-catcher

Swept off his tall hat to the Squire's own daughter,

So let the imprisoned larks escape and fly

Singing about her head, as she rode by.

With the possible exception of "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," his ode to the White Goddess that opens "There is one story and one story only/That will prove worth your telling," none of Robert Graves's poems is very well known or particularly quotable, yet dozens of them can be read with deep pleasure. Graves practiced a low-keyed but perfectly tuned poetry of wit, passion and sheer loveliness, reminiscent of Robert Frost or e.e. cummings. Poems, he maintained, should be inspired by and written for a single person, and the best should be invocations of the Muse, accounts of her awesome power to grant love or deliver death.

One would think that with so much literary production Graves must have had little time for anything but scribbling away with his steel-nibbed pen. By no means. In fact, this cranky, appealing man of letters led an exceptionally stormy life, and at its heart are his years of thralldom to Laura Riding.

In The Assault Heroic, the first installment of his three-part biography of Graves, Richard Perceval Graves suggested that the theme of his uncle's life was the need to be directed, to be taught and inspired, whether by his mother, an idealized schoolboy chum or a genuinely heroic figure like his close friend T.E. Shaw, aka Lawrence of Arabia. That first volume naturally focused on early family life and the Great War, during which Graves was so badly wounded he was given up for dead (he was eventually able to read his own obituary in the Times). It concluded with an account of Graves's early married life with the feminist painter Nancy Nicholson. The Years with Laura opens in 1926 as the poet, his wife and four children set sail for Egypt where Graves is to take up an appointment as an English teacher at the University of Cairo. With them is a young American named Laura Riding.

In her own right a hauntingly strange writer -- the young Auden called her the "only living philosophical poet" and acknowledged her influence -- Riding was briefly associated with the Southern Fugitives, in particular Allen Tate with whom she had a short affair. (Years later, when asked about Riding, Tate callously remarked that she was all right "from the neck down.") Graves admired her poems and started a correspondence that eventually led to Riding being offered a job as his secretary. As anyone might guess, this was a bad idea. Before long, the two poets were lovers, though Nancy didn't seem to mind much. A rocky marriage slowly turned into a sturdy me'nage a` trois.

From all accounts Riding possessed a charismatic, forceful personality, a superb mind and a psychological acumen that permitted her to bend almost anyone to her will. She attracted both men and women (for a while she wore a medallion with Nancy's picture on it while she was sleeping with Robert). She was constantly coming up with Utopian schemes to change the world, including a dictionary of "exact meanings" upon which she spent most of her life (it has never been published). At times she allowed herself to be regarded as a kind of world-savior, even a god. Robert once remarked, "You have no idea of Laura's holiness."

Before long, though, the menage turned into a menagerie: Riding invited a young Irishman named Geoffrey Phibbs to join the trio. But all too soon Phibbs ran back to his own wife, whom he had left in part because she was having an affair with the polymorphously priapic David Garnett, author of Lady into Fox and Aspects of Love. After a temporary reconciliation broke down, Phibbs sheepishly returned to Riding, but only to announce that he no longer loved her. In despair, Laura sipped some Lysol, tootled "Goodbye, chaps" and leaped out of a fourth-floor window. Robert immediately rushed down the steps; but realizing that his muse must surely be dead, he stopped on the third floor and jumped out a window after her.

Surprisingly, both survived, though Riding suffered spinal injuries that took years to heal. In the aftermath to this would-be Liebestod, symmetry, if nothing else, required Phibbs to take up with Nancy, which he did. Considerable name-calling followed, in the midst of which Graves nevertheless managed to write Goodbye to All That (in about three months). Soon thereafter, the two poets left England and, following the advice of Gertrude Stein no less, settled on the Mediterranean island of Mallorca, near a village called Deya. Once installed, Laura announced that she had transcended sexual relations.

In the seven years following, Graves wrote his Claudius books, a bitter family comedy called Antigua, Penny, Puce (much savored by poet Philip Larkin), and lots of poetry. He also worked on various projects with Riding -- publications under their Seizin press imprint, political, literary and feminist manifestos, and several failed pot-boilers. Anytime a half-way intelligent couple visited Deya, Riding would try to enroll them in her bizarre phalanstery. The young Jacob Bronowski and his then-girlfriend joined the entourage briefly, as did a future editor of Time magazine, T.S. Matthews, and his wife. Both these couples, however, got away in time. Schuyler and Kit Chapin, friends of Matthews, were not so lucky.

After Franco came to power, Graves and Riding fled Mallorca for London where Alexander Korda was producing a film based on the Claudius books (the never completed "Fool of Rome," starring Charles Laughton). In 1939, though, the pair accepted an invitation to travel to America, where they lodged at the Chapin farm. No one likes to talk about the weeks that followed. In his memoir Jacks or Better Matthews recalls a hothouse atmosphere of increasing tension and dread, as Laura gave some kind of private instruction to Kit Chapin, whose mind gradually collapsed: The mother of four was finally taken away from the farm in a straitjacket and spent much of the next 20 years in mental hospitals. After purging the house of malefic influences, Riding started openly sleeping with Schuyler Chapin and Graves found himself on a boat back to England.

One would think this would be enough insane passion for anyone outside of grand opera. But at this point the 45-year-old poet decided that the woman he truly loved was Beryl Pritchard, the young wife of his friend Alan Hodge. Before long, Beryl was pregnant with Robert's child and Alan was collaborating with him on The Long Weekend: A Social History of England in the 1930s. As Graves once observed, with notable understatement, "Funny life, ain't it?"

The Years with Laura ends in 1940; many of the subsequent high spots of Graves' career are indirectly chronicled in Between Moon and Moon, the second volume of Paul O'Prey's edition of Graves's often superb letters (the first was In Broken Images). During World War II Graves wrote many of his best love poems and began to be haunted, or hag-ridden, by the White Goddess; in 1946 he returned to Mallorca to become, in time, the island's grizzled Prospero. In the 1950s he helped in the rediscovery of hallucinogenic mushrooms, became fascinated with the notion that Jesus survived the Cross, and -- under the ambiguous influence of Idries Shah -- came to admire Sufism. In these years he also grew enamored of four successive young women, incarnations, he felt, of the Goddess. Both O'Prey and Martin Seymour-Smith (in the latter's fine critical biography) vaguely sputter that these affairs were passionate but sexually innocent, with Beryl welcoming the women into the household. But several late poems suggest that Graves did more than worship at their feet. In matters of love, at least, the more things change, the more they stay the same. FOR ANYONE with a taste for literary scandal, books about Robert Graves and Laura Riding are quite unputdownable, though I find that Richard Perceval Graves' fact-filled life lacks sympathy for its subject and simply portrays Riding as an out-and-out witch; other reports credit her with considerable charm and even some humor. (But it is hard to argue with the view that Graves unconsciously used her as a model for Livia, the murderous mastermind of I, Claudius.) I also wonder why Riding hasn't been taken up more fully by women scholars, as she adopted a life of great unconventionality and, in her early years at least, wrote important poetry and some appealing fiction, especially her Progress of Stories. Admittedly, in later years her prose grew increasingly opaque and abstract, as she and Schuyler labored at their pet projects, her great dictionary and his annotated edition of C.M. Doughty's alliterative epic, The Dawn in Britain.

In his peculiar way Graves also attempted to refeminize the world, though he certainly never saw woman as man's equal: She was his superior. "A main theme of Greek myth," he insists, "is the gradual reduction of women from sacred beings to chattels." And behind all the lovely crackpot speculations about secret alphabets, leafy quinces and other bits of Golden-Bough folkore, The White Goddess properly laments "that the feminine has been so trampled as to make life artificial and intolerable for the whole of mankind."

To read late Robert Graves is to enter a strange world, like that of UFO believers, where the most extravagant impossiblities are set forth with Cartesian rigor and a seemingly irrefutable scholarship, all in the name of correcting history, of "getting it right." Still, even if you judge him a nut, the man's sheer liveliness, as thinker and writer, is quite irresistible.

And don't dismiss Graves's antiquarian speculations out of hand. After all, the first two editors who rejected The White Goddess committed suicide soon thereafter, while T.S. Eliot, who accepted it on behalf of Faber and Faber, within the year had received the Order of Merit, won the Nobel Prize, and seen his play, The Cocktail Party, acclaimed a Broadway hit. The goddess, after all, rewards her own.

Michael Dirda is a writer and editor for Book World.