Robert Graves Biography by Anna Fletcher

Robert Graves Biography by Anna Fletcher

Robert von Ranke Graves

Born: 24 July 1895 in Wimbledon, near London

Died: 7 December 1985 in Deya, Majorca

Son of Alfred Perceval Graves, a celebrated Irish poet and German mother, Amalie von Ranke Graves.

Occupation: British Army Officer, poet, novelist, translator, literary scholar

Robert Graves one of ten siblings raised in a strong moralist family. He was hospitalised in childhood several times for long periods with illnesses including scarlet fever, pneumonia, and measles. The summers of his childhood and adolescence were spent with his family in Harlech, North Wales, where his mother had built a house. He also visited his maternal relations in Germany several times.

In 1909, he won a scholarship at Charterhouse School where he began to write poetry. He also enjoyed boxing and mountaineering which helped him overcome the effects of the bullying he suffered from his peers, due to the German roots of his name. Robert Graves was ostracised by his peers and experienced hostility and suspicion for this throughout his life, especially during his service in the First World War.

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During his time at Charterhouse School, he formed a deep relationship with a younger boy whose correspondence gave him great comfort throughout the war. Graves finished his schooling at St John’s College, Oxford, and in 1914, aged 19, enlisted in the British Army. He soon found himself as an Officer in the trenches of the Western Front, with his poetry books of Yeats and Blake in his possession. Graves later wrote his memoirs of life on the front line in his autobiographical classic Good-bye To All That (1929) which paints a vivid picture of the atrocities of war and its daily sufferings.

Poetry remained highly important to Robert Graves and he continued to write from the trenches. His first book of poetry, Over The Brazier, was published in 1916 after joining the First Battalion and meeting fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon. In April of that year, Graves returned to London on leave to have surgery for his broken nose, a long-standing boxing injury, which compromised his protection from the gas masks. He then spent time in Harlech where he bought a cottage to look forward to after the war, where he planned to write poetry. During this stay at Harlech, he met his future wife, Nancy Nicholson before returning to the front line.

Graves was sent back to the Second Battalion for the Somme Offensive and in July 1916, was seriously wounded by shrapnel while following Battalion orders at a main German battle line, High Wood. He was taken to a field hospital with chest, thigh and hand wounds, while the British Army mistakenly wrote to his mother telling her he had died from his wounds. He was shipped back to England to recover at Queen Alexander’s Hospital before returning to Harlech with Sassoon where suffering with shell-shock,  they struggled to decompress, and increasingly questioned the war rationale. Despite this, they returned to the front line with their priorities to support the men on the ground rather than to kill Germans.

Graves found himself in increasing disagreement with army orders, but followed under duress, with the threat of court martial for any subordination. He continued to promote poetry and published his second collection Fairies and Fusiliers in 1917.

With weakened lungs from the wound, Graves contracted bronchitis and was sent back to Oxford where he spent time with other poets, scholars, and pacifists. At this time, Sassoon had published a statement Finished With War: A Soldier’s Declaration, which he believed represented the thoughts of his comrades. Graves knew that such wilful defiance would bring about a court martial with serious consequences, possibly prison for his friend. Graves intervened and persuaded the War Office to handle the matter at a medical board rather than at a disciplinary hearing. The medical board sent Sassoon to Craiglockhart Hospital, a specialist hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland, for soldiers suffering from shell-shock.

Following this, Robert Graves recognised his own nervous condition was deteriorating. Exhausted from the war and from being in command of a highly demanding training company, he developed an obsessional fear of smell, at the risk of it being gas. However, a medical board announced him fit for service at home and he was posted to Cork, Ireland after marrying Nancy Nicholson in January 1918.

Armistice came at the same time as the news of fellow poet Wilfred Owen’s death in November 1918. Graves’ first child was born in January 1919. Soon after, while still in Ireland, Graves contracted the Spanish Influenza and set about organising his demobilisation papers in order to return to England. He returned home to Harlech and Nancy gave birth to their second child.

After leaving the Army, he took up a place at Oxford University to gain a degree in English Language and Literature, moving his wife and young children with him to Boar’s Hill, near Oxford. Nancy built and ran a shop which they ran together for six months which left Graves neglecting his degree studies and with little time to write. Political tension in Ireland, Russia, and the Near East triggered Graves’ shell-shock, and again, he found himself struggling with the after effects of war.

In 1921, without having sat his final exams, they left Boar Hill for a quiet few years enjoying family life which brought the addition of two more children. Graves took it upon himself to attempt to cure his shell-shock and studied modern psychology books. His poetry collection Whipperginny (1923) shows the influences of his psychological studies. Graves considered seeing a psychiatrist but were worried that treatment for his nervous condition might lead to a loss of power in his writing and that his poetry would become dull as a result.

With his poetry not selling, his only source of income was his war pension so when money became tight, he completed his dissertation to be awarded his Bachelor degree and was able to look for teaching posts. In 1925, Graves was appointed Professor of English Literature at Cairo University. The Graves left for Africa with American poet, Laura Riding in their company, who had joined their household.

They worked closely together on Graves’ writing, and as well as joining their household, Riding joined Graves and Nancy’s relationship, also bringing in Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs when they returned to London after Graves had resigned from the University of Cairo. The four became embroiled in a social scandal which climaxed when Riding threw herself from a fourth floor window when Phibbs had a change of heart and wanted to leave. Graves jumped after her from the floor below but escaped serious injury, unlike Riding. The attempted suicide was followed with suspicion of attempted murder, which saw Riding narrowly miss prosecution.

Riding is considered to be the single most important influence of his poetic career, encouraging him to refocus his voice and themes. In 1929, still traumatised by the war, Graves and Nancy parted ways. Graves and Riding moved to Majorca, where Graves further evolved his theory of poetry, published further collections and historical novels inspired by his mythological interests.

At the onset of the Spanish Civil War, Graves and Riding left Majorca for America but in 1939, Riding left Graves for writer Schulyer Jackson. Robert Graves returned to England and was comforted by his friends, Beryl and Alan Hodge, a historian and journalist. Graves and Beryl fell in love, went on to marry, and have four children together, living in Devon, UK where they stayed for the duration of World War II.

In 1946, the couple returned to Majorca, where Graves went on to publish several novels including The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948), The Greek Myths (1955), and The Crowning Privilege (1955). He continued writing poetry, as well as translating works and producing literary essays.

In 1961, Graves was appointed as Professor of Poetry at Oxford University and received the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 1968. Graves and Beryl lived in Majorca for the rest of his days, suffering from dementia. The house is now a museum.

In his lifetime, Graves published more than 140 books, including 55 collections of poetry, 15 novels, and ten translations. Graves spent his life trying to heal the mental and emotional scars left by the war and is regarded as one of the most significant voices of World War I.

Quotes of Robert Graves:

“To be a poet is a condition rather than a profession.”

“There’s no money in poetry, but then there’s no poetry in money, either.”

“Every English poet should master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them.”

Sources:

Robert Graves (1929) Good-bye To All That, Penguin Books, London

R.P. Hewett (1968) The Choice of Poets, Harrap, London

poetryfoundation.org

britannica.com

spartacus-educational.com

poets.org

FAQ

What is the full name of Robert Graves?

Robert Von Ranke Graves

When was Graves appointed as a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University?

In 1961 Graves was appointed as a Professor of Poetry at Oxford University.

How many book were published by Graves ?

More than 140 books.

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