Robert Graves, 90, the noted British classical scholar, poet and translator who was perhaps best known for his novels "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God," and his classic 1929 autobiography, "Good-bye to All That," died Dec. 7 at his home on the Mediterranean island of Majorca. He had arteriosclerosis.
His "Claudius" novels are brilliant reconstructions of ancient Rome, as seen through the eyes of the Emperor Claudius I. While most historians have portrayed Claudius as a something of a mad dictator, Mr. Graves tells the story of a gentle man who surprised the Roman military establishment that enthroned him and became a wise and competent ruler of a violent society.
Both novels were published in 1934, becoming best-sellers and reaping literary prizes. They gained new generations of readers in the 1970s -- when John Mortimer adapted them to the London stage in 1972 and when the BBC and PBS produced a 13-part television epic based on the works.
But Mr. Graves was not a man for one season. He wrote an estimated 140 books and some 800 shorter works. His literary scope, versatility, and audacity could be breathtaking. He translated works into English from Greek, Latin, German, Spanish and French. Among his more popular translations was the "Twelve Caesars" by Suetonius. He also stirred up hornets nests with two works in which he functioned as cotranslator.
In the early 1950s, he and Talmudic scholar Joshua Podro published "The Nazarene Gospel Restored," a reconstruction of the New Testament, and in 1967, with Omar Ali-Shah, he rendered in blank verse "The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." In addition to the "Claudius" books, his novels included "Sgt. Lamb of the Ninth," the story of a British soldier in the American Revolution, and "Wife to Mr. Milton," which was an unflattering portrait of poet John Milton as "narrated" by the wife. His "King Jesus," published in 1946, brought charges of blasphemy from some shocked Christians who took offense at his fictionalized account.
In the 1960s, he wrote two children's books, "The Big Green Book," which was illustrated by Maurice Sendak, and "Two Wise Children." He also published works of criticism and studies of myths. His "New Collected Poems" was published in this country in 1977. He also published works dealing with the social history of Britain and rare stamps, and rewrote works of both Shakespeare and Dickens.
Yet, he once wrote, "Since the age of 15, poetry has been my ruling passion. Prose has been my livelihood."
He became recognized as a master of English lyric poetry, blending word-perfect diction with sensuous imagery. This poetry was dominated by the theme of man's quest for chaste and romantic love.
In "The White Goddess," his 1948 study of Celtic and Mediterranean mythology, he published his own statement of poetic faith. He argued that all true poetry was written by man to his "white goddess," the muse of his imagination, and that "the main theme of all poetry is, properly, the relations of man and woman" and "the practical impossibility, transcended only by belief in miracle, of absolute love continuing between man and woman."
In "Woman and Tree," a poem first published in the New Yorker in 1956, he wrote of his feelings for the quest:
"To love one woman, or to sit
Always beneath the same small tree,
Argues a certain lack of wit
Two steps from imbecility . . . "
In "Good-bye to All That," he wrote that poetry was "first a cathartic for the poet suffering from some inner conflict, and then as a cathartic for readers in similar conflict."
He continued to write and publish poetry until he was in his late seventies, writing in a shepherd's hut on a lonely hillside. He rolled his own cigarettes, and never learned to drive a car or use a typewriter. "I seem, he once said, "to be the last of the old-fashioned men of letters."
Robert Ranke Graves was born in Wimbledon, England, in July 1895. His father was a Scotch-Irish schools inspector and his mother a member of a learned German family. Mr. Graves attended Charterhouse before enlisting in the British Army during World War I.
A captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Mr. Graves became friends with a fellow officer-poet in the regiment, Siegfried Sassoon. After two years in the trenches, Mr. Graves was wounded in the chest and groin while serving on the Somme in July 1916. His injuries were so extensive that he was reported dead. He read his own obituary, somewhat prematurely, in The Times of London.
While still on active duty, Mr. Graves had three volumes of poetry published. After leaving the Army, he went up to Oxford University to study literature. He graduated in 1926, while afflicted with poverty and recurring visions of horror and flashbacks of his days in the French trenches. His reputation as a writer of the first rank and a degree of financial independence came with the publication of "Good-bye to All That," which told of his war.
While at Oxford, the legendary author and military personage T.E. Lawrence introduced him to Ezra Pound, correctly predicting, "Graves . . . Pound. Pound . . . Graves. You'll dislike each other."
Perhaps Lawrence was of greater service to his friend when he helped secure Mr. Graves a post as professor of English literature at the University of Cairo, where Mr. Graves spent the academic year 1926 to 1927. His students included a future president of Egypt, Gamel Abdul Nasser. By 1929, Mr. Graves was in Majorca, where he was to spend most of the rest of his life, writing poetry for love and prose for money.
His personal life was as epic as nearly any poem. In 1918, he married Nancy Nicholson, the feminist daughter of painter William Nicholson. They had four children, separated after 11 years and later divorced. In 1926, he met the eccentric American poet Laura Riding, who moved in with Mr. Graves and his first wife.
The trio became a foursome when an Irish journalist named Geoffrey Phipps joined in what came to be known as the "Free Love Corner." On April 27, 1929, after an all-night confrontation among the four, Miss Riding drank Lysol and jumped from a fourth-floor window saying, "Goodbye, chaps." Mr. Graves then dove out a third floor window. Both wound up in the hospital, but only Miss Riding, who suffered a spinal injury, was seriously hurt.
In 1939, he married the former Beryle Pritchard, by whom he had four more children, and who survives him.