Robert Graves, whose heart gave out at age 90 Saturday, was buried yesterday in the small fishing village of Deya' on the island of Majorca. In a way he had experienced his own death once before.
As a captain in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, he was badly wounded in the chest and groin during the trench warfare of World War I. On his 21st birthday his family read his obituary in the The Times of London.
"The experience," Graves said, "permanently changed my outlook on life."
Though he was plagued for years by bloody flashbacks that persisted "like an alternate life," Graves embarked on a singular career as a man of letters, producing 140 books of poems, fiction, mythology, history and a volume of autobiography, "Good-bye to All That."
Graves said, without reservation or embarrassment, that he wrote under the inspiration of the Muse, a persistent phenomenon he described in his great grammar of poetic myth "The White Goddess." He was driven by magical sources, an adherence to traditional forms and an idiosyncratic view of the past.
"Graves alone among contemporary poets seems to live, as Coleridge did," wrote critic Peter Davison, "in a world of naked-breasted sirens and reptilian enemies, of substitutions and transformations, in a universe of metaphor."
In an interview 16 years ago with The Paris Review, Graves described the writing of "The White Goddess" more as an act of discovery than the rehashing of given fact: "Suddenly I was answering ancient Welsh and Irish questions that had never been answered, and I didn't know how or why. It terrified me. I thought I was going mad. But those solutions haven't been disproved.
"Then someone sent me an article on the Irish tree alphabet, and the footnote referred to Graves but not to me. It was my grandfather! And I hadn't even known he had investigated such things. I believe in the inheritance of skills and crafts -- the inheritance of memory. They find now that if a snail eats another snail it gets that second snail's memory."
The last few weeks have been cruel to the conservative impulse in literature and to the English language in general.
First came the loss of Philip Larkin, Britain's poet of loneliness. And now Graves, who lived nearly all his life in Deya' in the company of his wife Beryl Pritchard, a few hundred Spanish natives and a vast library of classical literature. Majorca, which was recommended to him by Gertrude Stein, had declared him an adopted son.
The conservatism Larkin and Graves shared was principally esthetic, a terrific impulse to preserve traditional forms. Larkin ruled by acerbic remark, dismissing the radical innovations of Ezra Pound or Charlie Parker or Pablo Picasso with a one-liner and an Anglo sniff.
Graves was an equally unsparing and eccentric presence but a far more comprehensive thinker. He cared deeply about history, albeit an extremely idiosyncratic view of it. His sympathetic vision of the Roman emporer Tiberius Claudius -- the main character in his novel "I, Claudius" -- came as a shock to orthodox classical scholars who had portrayed Claudius as a mad autocrat.
He had an abiding belief in the practical and natural origins of traditional verse forms. In his lecture "Harp, Anvil, Oar," he spoke admiringly of how "Marvan, the 7th-century poet of Connaught, revealed to the professors of the Great Bardic Academy how the poet's harp originated: namely when the wind played on the dried tendons of a stranded whale's skeleton . . . And how metre originated: namely in the alternate beat of two hammers on the anvil."
Graves loved such ideas, even if they were "challengeable" by an orthodox reading of the facts. He loved to assert that "Anglo-Saxon poetry is unrhymed because the noise of rowlocks does not suggest rhyme" or that the rhythms of Greek poetry are "linked to the ecstatic beat of feet around a rough stone altar . . . and the sound of the dactylic drum played by a priestess or a priest."
In poetry Graves believed in the importance of magical inspiration over technique. His description of the White Goddess as the central "monomyth" before the rise of patriarchal society was dismissed by some academics as "unsound." He based his career and art on it.
For Graves, poetry was "a way of thought -- non-intellectual, anti-decorative thought at that -- rather than an art." And he believed in a single subject -- "one story and one story only" -- the love between man and woman.
Among his contemporaries he found satisfaction in the work of Robert Frost and Thomas Hardy, not in the avatars of modernism, Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot.
Graves worked in a kind of tropical isolation away from the "nasty mess" of urban life. His house was surrounded by a lawn of Bermuda grass, a vegetable garden and an orchard with 15 varieties of fruit trees. He worked in a study crammed with books, tobacco tins, porcelain clown heads, African figurines and a piece of wood from a tree in Shakespeare's yard.
Graves worked at exactly one job: He was a professor of English literature for a year at the University of Cairo in the mid-1920s. From then on he worked as an independent writer, supporting his poetry with translations, textbooks and more saleable literary projects such as "I, Claudius" and "Good-bye to All That."
He was, according to Davison, "more purely poet than anyone else alive." Though Graves' reputation as a poet was eclipsed by several of his contemporaries, no one lived more single-mindedly and passionately for his art or more concertedly against the current of fashion and critical dogma.
"The very idea of a public, unless one is writing for money, seems wrong to me," he once said. "Poets don't have an 'audience': they're talking to a single person all the time. What's wrong with someone like Yevtushenko is that he's talking to thousands of people at once. All the so-called 'great artists' were trying to talk to too many people. In a way, they were talking to nobody."
Though he celebrated persistence, he understood that history was marked by the rise and fall of different cultures. He lived far from its political center, but Robert Graves was fundamentally pessimistic about the persistence of contemporary life. The crisis was comprehensive.
"Civilization has got further and further from the so-called 'natural' man who uses all his faculties: perception, invention, improvisation. It's bound to end in the breakdown of society and the cutting down of the human race to manageable size. That's the way things work; they always have. My hope is that a few cultural reservations will be left undisturbed."