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The Early Poetry of Robert Graves

The Early Poetry of Robert Graves
The Goddess Beckons

In this study of Graves's early poetry, Frank Kersnowski explores how his war neurosis opened a door into the unconscious for Graves and led him to reject the essential components of the Western idea of reality: reason and predictability.

Series: Literary Modernism Series, Thomas F. Staley, series editor

July 2002
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192 pages | 6 x 9 | 5 b&w photos |

Like many men of his generation, poet Robert Graves was indelibly marked by his experience of trench warfare in World War I. The horrific battles in which he fought and his guilt over surviving when so many perished left Graves shell-shocked and disoriented, desperately seeking a way to bridge the rupture between his conventional upbringing and the uncertainties of postwar British society.

In this study of Graves's early poetry, Frank Kersnowski explores how his war neurosis opened a door into the unconscious for Graves and led him to reject the essential components of the Western idea of reality—reason and predictability. In particular, Kersnowski traces the emergence in Graves's early poems of a figure he later called "The White Goddess," a being at once terrifying and glorious, who sustains life and inspires poetry. Drawing on interviews with Graves's family, as well as unpublished correspondence and drafts of poems, Kersnowski argues that Graves actually experienced the White Goddess as a real being and that his life as a poet was driven by the purpose of celebrating and explaining this deity and her matriarchy.

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Chapter 1. The Lunatic, the Lover, and the Poet
  • Chapter 2. The Lunatic: War
  • Chapter 3. The Lunatic: After the War
  • Chapter 4. The Lover in the Nursery
  • Chapter 5. The Lover
  • Chapter 6. The Poet
  • Afterword
  • Works Cited
  • Index

Frank L. Kersnowski is Professor of English at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He was personally acquainted with Robert Graves and is the editor of Conversations with Robert Graves, as well as a member of the Robert Graves Society. His research has focused on twentieth-century British and Irish literature, about which he has published several books and numerous articles.


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Robert Graves lived an exciting life. Before he was twenty, he was an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Before he was thirty, he had fought in the Great War with honor, was familiar with the most important political and literary figures of his time, and had written poetry and critical studies that had brought him fame if not money. Then, in the midst of personal scandal, he abandoned England and moved to a rural village on Mallorca, one of the Balearic Islands. Forced to leave by the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, he was rootless until he returned in 1950. By then he had written historical novels of great distinction and popularity, and had contributed two phrases to Bartlett's Book of Familiar Quotations: "Good-Bye To All That" and "The White Goddess." He had renewed his friendship with T. S. Eliot, who published The White Goddess. He had also gained the animosity of Ezra Pound, which he returned in kind. W. H. Auden had become an admirer; Graves would follow him as Oxford Professor of Poetry. From the time of his return to Mallorca until his death, Graves constantly received the adulation of visitors both unknown and known to all the world. Schemes were offered to him by financiers, media moguls, and crooks. He raised two families of four children each, intriguing and consequential families. His writing might never have gone beyond memoirs and a fictionalized life. His own everyday life (exciting as it was) only entered his writing in the most oblique ways. That life has so fascinated his critics that they have worried at it for years, virtually to the exclusion of the writings. Yet no one would be interested in Robert Graves if he had not been among those who shaped twentieth-century literature.

What follows here is a study of the birth and development of Graves's poetic self and talent, which were inseparable and often not evident in the day-to-day life made public by his biographers. Graves very early made his poetry into an experience of its own, one informed by his psychological and spiritual discoveries. These began with the experience of World War I and his wounds, not only those which almost killed him but also those which caused what he called his "war neurosis." Such disorientation, hauntings, and compulsiveness were recorded by innumerable writers and artists, from Hemingway and cummings to Sassoon and Graves among the Allies. Their opponents told similar tales of being estranged from life without war while being terrified by war, of being brave and afraid. What makes these writers different from one another is not their experiences, but their reactions to those experiences.

For Graves, the trauma inflicted by war opened a door into the unconscious. Though not an exceptional occurrence, since World War I gave birth to the widespread practice of modern psychiatry, what Graves found within made unusual sense of what was without: love, passion, violence, unpredictability. His writing, especially the poetry, records and celebrates his accommodating such powers. In so doing, he rejected the essential components of the Western idea of reality: reason and predictability, the heritage of Aristotle and the glory that was Greece. Unpredictability, especially, he made a characteristic of the White Goddess, deifying what he could not control.

The void was filled by his respect for his own life as it was given to him by woman or by a woman, initially his wife Nancy Nicholson. He made her responsible for his health and sanity. In time, he would see both himself and his devotion to a woman as necessary for his spiritual awareness and, unquestionably, for his poetry. Woman as muse was representative of an awesome and almost indescribable power. The spirit that informs his early poetry is the unfamiliar, the other. In the forties, he gave the spirit a name, "the White Goddess," though in a poem published in 1924, "A History," he called this spirit "the death-white Fay." Graves saw the feminine as the fundamental force in life, both in his personal life and in the life of the culture. He would claim matriarchy as the basic form of society, the goddess as the all-powerful deity, and his life as poet and scholar driven by the purpose of celebrating and explaining the matriarchy and its deity.

Perhaps Graves's biography could be written from such a perspective, but it has not been. The tracking and equating of the details of his life with his spiritual commitment would strain any scholar's talent and the credibility of any reader. Though one could, without difficulty, show the effects of his worship in all his serious relationships with women, too much of interest would be omitted, including his friendships with Edward Marsh, Winston Churchill, T. E. Lawrence, and John Buchan, to mention a few. But without his worship of the Goddess, both Graves and his writing would have lacked direction and force.

In this study I examine the growth of Graves's spiritual and poetic awareness from his first volume, Over the Brazier, to Poems (1914-1926). During this discrete time, his course as poet and lover was set. Though he would respond to many changes in his life and to many new forces, he would hold to the poetic he established at this time: English, mystical, and Romantic. He did not come forth full-blown from the head of the Goddess, however, but grew slowly into his awareness, and part of the problem in understanding his development is to be able to treat discursively what seems an inseparable whole: emotion, intellect, and spirit all tangled together like a bag full of fish hooks. To pick out one is to draw out many. So I have dumped the bag onto my desk and separated the pieces. In this I was fortunate to have as guide Shakespeare's Theseus, who was also troubled by the similarities between lunatics, lovers, and poets. The story I tell is of a young man driven so mad by the moon that he made her into the heavenly body by which he steered his life. Yet only his poetry tells the tale.

All parts of Graves's life were touched by this story that, later, he would say is the only one worth telling. To place Graves in context, I offer selective, not comprehensive, biographical information, lest his exciting everyday life supplant the spiritual tale. Thus, I have restricted myself, when possible, to his relationships with people central to his poetic life. I have chosen Edward Marsh, Siegfried Sassoon, and Nancy Nicholson, his closest confidants. I have looked closely at selected poems in manuscript to let the explication tell the tale by significant example rather than by repetition. I have looked at the first published versions of the poems, not his revisions. He revised constantly, changing poems in structure and content to agree with his own changing poetic. And, finally, I have looked at the still shocking reality of his poetry.


“No one has read the poems from Over the Brazier to Whipperginny before with this complex conception of what war-neurosis means to Graves’ development, nor with this sensitively developed context of biography, poetry, critical writing, and intellectual background. . . . This is really masterful literary criticism—no jargon, no ideology, just firm, secure knowledge and discriminating taste.”
John W. Presley, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs, SUNY Oswego


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