The Robert Graves Review


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Focus on Robert Graves and His Contemporaries - Number 10

Robert Graves: A Personal Memoir

B. Hugo

MY brief association with Robert Graves about twenty five years ago, an association that lasted from June 1966 till February 1968, consisted of six letters, one cable, and a visit to Deya, Mallorca, where Graves had been living for many years.

It all began after had completed ny M.A. dissertation on his poetry and then, on the spur of the moment and greatly daring, sent him a copy, despite warnings that one did not do this kind of thing.

Of course, there was an accompanying letter. I was fully prepared to accept that Graves would not respond; even imagined him throwing my dissertation into the Mediterranean——something I myself felt like doing at the time, except that the Apies River or the Vaaldam would have had to suffide. About ten weeks later the fol loving letter arrived (and his having repl ied at all was enough to keep me swollen— headed forever) :

Dear Betty de wet

Thank you: it took over two months to arrive. "Lydian:" refers to the Lydian musical note which the Greeks condemned as effeminate as opposed to the Doric, but is the ord i nary C major scale.

"Dawn B." No longing for death: error, Defiance of death always. The visiting angel promising LIFE after the destruction of the prison. Angel, not hell.

"Death by Dr-urns. i' "Death" is used as in the song "Come die. my Augustus, for I will die too" but not so speci fically sexual. It is to subject myself to ecstasy without care of the consequences .

(In margin J About the war: you must real i ze that we were al l sel f -poisoned by our adrenalin glands stimulated by noise and danger.

"The Last Day of Leave" was written during the 2nd World War: 1 have suppressed it because it telescoped experience

"Down Wanton Down" is a quotation from King Lear: the fool refers to the Cockney wife beat ing the eels on the head when they try to escape from the eel pie.

"The Persian Version," by the way, is historically accurate, historians nov confess.

"Haunted House:" a reminiscence of Limerick, etc. etc. „ I won't weary you by more.

You get a long way, but of course you are hampered critically by not knowing the women to whom the poems are addressed: two wives and four others of different nationalities and natures each of Whom has lent me a different magic.

The qualities Of the poems reflect; these women •s temperaments.

My most recent poems are not yet publ ished, except in

unobta inable limi ted edition; a few of them are so far ahead of the earl ier ones that really you should have the patience to sta tement .

Cohen and Day and Martin S. smith got things all screwed up [Graves refers here to J.M. Cohen (Robert Graves, 01 iver & Boyd,

London, 1960), Douglas Day (Swifter than Reason, OUP, London, 1963) and Martin Seymour—Smith (Robert Graves, Longman, Green & co. , London, 1956) J. r don mind so long as the poems themselves are available.

By the way, "sa ilcloth felt as satin" is what happens under such hal lucinogenic drugs as psilocybin.

Thank you for being a friend. find to my embarrassment that the Oxford Engl ish Dict ionary contains no quotation of the sort Of Moon—relation between man and woman that I have made a commonplace. Did invent it? It looks I ike i t . blush.

Yours s incerelyRobert Graves

( on the back Of the envelope he had scribbled) "On the whole, I should add, you are accurate and perceptive"

The "error" he refers to in his comment on "Davn B. u (his poem "Dawn Bombardment") in the fourth line of his letter vas my statement that, in this parti cular poem, it seemed to me that an escape from war was so fervently desired that even death seemed welcome . I quote the poem in full:

Guns from the sea open aga inst us:

The smoke rocks bodily in the casement And a yell of doom goes up.

We count and bless each new, heavy concussion—— captives awaiting rescue.

Visiting angel of the wild—fire hair

Who in dream reassured us nightly

Where we lay fettered ,

Laugh at us, as we wake——our faces

So tense with hope the tears run down.

My statement, in my dissertation, vas clearly a gross misreading, caused most probably by my having been so enthusiastically committed Eha€ did not see the wood for trees. When Graves says "captives" in this poem, he means just that: prisoners of var. not "captives" Of the war itself. The " guns" that open against them are not enemy guns, as I seemed to have read it, but their own guns attacking the enemy, thus I ikely to free them. The clue lies in common sense, not in fanci ful inversions.

Graves' reference to "Lydian" in the first 1 ine Of his letter comes from his poem "Death by Drums," to which he refers in the eighth line of his letter. This poem is far from easy and mere common sense alone is not likely to yield many answers. In the light of what Graves says about it, it would seem that he regards this poem as a Jove poem first and foremost, and that the references to "drums" and "suicide" function mainly to accentuate different kinds of love.

Here is the poem:

If cried out in anger against music, It was not that I cried

Against the wholesome bitter arsenic Necessary for suicide:

For suicide in the drums • racking riot Where horned mor iscoes wail ing to their bride scare every Lydian songster from the spot.

In the light of Graves' remarks it would appear, then, that the Lydian songsters represent the ordinary (they sing in the "ordinary C major scale") as opposed to the "horned moriscoes wail ing to their bride" who, logically, then represent the extraordinary that "scares" the songsters away. Thus the "death" of the title and the "suicide" referred to in the poem itself both assume symbolic status : a surrender of identity to the "wholesome bitter arsenic" of a different kind of experience: the self is subdued, possibly.

Graves • poem "The Persian Version" is, of course, one of his better—known ones, in which the Persians see the battle of Marathon as a mere trivial skirmish: they treat with contempt the Greek claim that it was a major victory, or an R ill—starred attempt /TO conquer G reece . It is a clever satire on the political point of view. certainly, historians have not yet corrected the entries on this battle in their reference books!

Graves • remark about his poem "The Haunted House" reminds one of his account in Goodbye To All That of his stay in Limerick, which coincided with the birth of his daughter Jenny. He was then with the Royal Welch Third Battalion. Limerick, he says, n looked like a war— ravaged town. The main streets were pitted with holes I ike shell— craters and many of the bigger houses seemed on the point of collapse. . . nobody built new houses at Limerick now. . . " to Goodbye to All That, penguin, Harmondsworth, pp. 228—29. Graves a Iso talks here about the "shocks of the previous months" and about his wife's difficult time: "it took her years to recover. . . . This was in 1919, just after the Great War. Whether this was the reminiscence he refers to in his letter one does not, of course, know with any certainty, but it does add something to one •s understand ing ot the poem :

"Come, surly fel low, come: a song!

What, fools? Sing to you?

Choose from the clouded tales of wrong And terror I bring to you:

Of a night so torn with cries,

Honest men sleeping

Start awake with rabid eyes,

Bone—chil led, flesh creeping,

Of spirits in the web—hung room

Up above the stable,

Groans, knock ing in the gloom,

The dancing table,

Of demons in the dry well

That Cheep and mutter,

Clanging of an unseen bell

Blood choking the gutter,

Of lust frightful, past belief,

Lurking unforgotten,

Unrestrainable endless grief T n breasts long rotten.

A song? What laughter or what song Can this house remember?

DO flowers and butterfl ies belong To a blind December?

But even without Graves' very brief comment, which prompted me to look up the section in Goodbye TO AII the poem has a haunting qua) i ty that suggests a telescoping of experiences: despite the bi tee rness there is a tone of sadness, captured in the last two I i nes, that tempers the cynicism.

Of course, Graves is right in saying in the next paragraph of his let ter that one is hampered by not knowing the women hi 5 love poems wore addressed to. Nevertheless, the poems stand on their own and I think Graves himself would probably prefer to have it that way. The statement that each Of the in his life lent him a "different magic" is entirely in keeping with the magic that underl ies all of hi s love poems.

Needl ess to say, I blush every time re—read his remark about my lack of patience, but let me add in my own def ence that did, in my dissertation, make it clear that I was deal ing with poems then publ i shed, and that had only some conclus ions to offer - However, Graves was entirely right about my lack of patience in general: it ig my besetting sin.

I also blush about my misreadings of some of his poems, but feel better when Graves talks about respectable critics like Cohen, Day, and Seymour—Smith having got things gcrowod up. Luck as Graves nays; , it does not real matter: the poems themselves are available.

Graves' remark about hallucinogenic drugs prompted me to re-rend the poem in question. entitled “A Measure of Casua I ness” It remains. one of the most mov ing love poemg in Engl ish:

Too fierce the candlelight: your gentle voice

Roars as in dream: my shou Icier—nooks f lower;

A scent of honeysuckle invades the house, And my finger—tips are so love—enhanced That sailcloth feels like satin to them.

Teach me a measure of casualness

Though you stalk into my room like Venus naked.

What Graves gays about the drug psilocybin may explain the phrase "my shoulder—nooks flower," but the poem is so sensitive as a whole that it does not require knowledge of the effects of a drug to add to its statement. The poem speaks of a love that trans forms everything; ps ilocybin is incidental, or "by the way," ag Graves himself says.

After having received this first letter, which took me a while to decipher since it was written on thin paper, in red ink, and on both sides, I waited for about a month (curbing my impatience) before r

repl i ed to thank h in. I assumed that this would be the end of the matter. Then, in December, the second letter, dated 13 December 1966, arrived:

Dear Betty de Wet

Just: back from a gallbladder operation in England fol lowed by a lecture tour in the States: feel ing fine, thanks! "Dawn Bombardment" vas figurative—written in 1938. It referred to the prison in which so many of us live, not merely political ly and socially, but the prison formed by routine habits of life.

The earl iest riddle I heard was as a child in 1900. "Why does Kruger wear thick boots?" Ans. "To keep de Wet off de feet.

No: scientific discussions of poetic love, or even anthropological ones, don't really enl ighten the reader——he or she has to have experienced it. I have written a good many poems secretly forced on me by events

Thank you and good luck!Robert Graves

Again, I wa i ted a while before replying, not vant ing to create the impression that I wanted to start a regular correspondence. BY the t i me I did write again, an overseas tour was on the cards. so I took the opportunity of asking him whether I could come and see him at Mallor•ca in the December Of that year ( The following note, dated 4 April 1967, arrived some time later:

Dear Betty de Wet

I may be lecturing in Austral ia in early December; so please write to me again in October to tell me whether you are coming and I ' ll see if I can get back in time.

Yours very s incerelyRobert Graves

It was only after had actually met him that I was told by I people that he was notoriously unwilling to grant interviews, and no qualms about being rude to people who asked for interv 1 must have been the proverbial fool who rushed in. . . .

On 26 April I wrote him the following letter, which J have in my possession because he returned it to me with his reply scribbled at top:

Dear Mr Graves

Thank you for your letter. Travel agents have their own pecul iar logic. TO fly in "one direction" means to them MadridLondon—Frankfurt—Rome ( Fly ing Crooked?) [The reference in parentheses is to his poem entitled "Flying Crooked" l . If you are now likely to be away in early December I could arrange now to start our tour in Rome and fly in the "other" direction, which means that we will arrive in Madrid shortly before our return to SA- Would the 13th or 14th suit you? apologize for involving you in correspondence once again, but would not I ike to miss an opportunity Of meet ing you, and bookings have to be made in advance.

SincerelyBetty de Wet

What he had scribbled at the top. dated May, was the following:rol I owi

In great haste. I '11 be in Australia Oct 15 till early

December. Back for Christmas and then expect to visit Rugsia in

February. So write me at Christmas with your address in case things get changed Forgive scrawl!

YoursRobert Graves

I must have written to him again between May and November of that yoar, because in late November I rece ived the fol lowing note, dated 16 November:

Dear Betty de Wet

So far ag T know I shal l be here al l January, at lease I havo made no plans to go el sewhere. So tell me when you got to Par ig whether you' ll be coming along and J tel l you if have to be away for any reason not known now.

YoursRobert. Graves

T sent him a cable from• Paris to confirm arrangements, and rece i vod the fol lowing reply:

Fino will be hero Graves

When I arrived, Mrs. Graves received me most graciously and asked me not to stay for too long, since her husband was in bed with ' f lu and she d id not want him to be exhausted. She ushered me upstairs to his bedroom. and T found myself face to face With Robert Graves .

We spoke about South Africa—— inevitably about my job, about h is recent translation of the Rube.iyya! in col laboration with Omar Al i — Shah (of which he gave me a copy, inscribed "Affectionately, Robort") and he read me a poem he was then composing ( "Semi —Detached i') said that he had J i ked me from my letters (a remark that st i Il pleases me!) and then, after about thirty minutes, I got. up dut 1 ful ly and suggested that I leave so as not to ti re h i m. His reply was: "Nonsense. Sit down. Nothing tires me," so, I stayed tor another hour, chatting about his poems, about the White Goddess, and about A' rica. He wanted to know more about the Black people of Africa and gout h Africa, but it wag not the political situation that interc•stml him, it vas their customs, bel iefs, and general out JOOk on I i fe.

Natural ly, since I am not an expert in these matters, I could only tell him what I knew. He seemed d isappointed when told h im that most of the Black people knew came from patriarchal societies. I patriarchal societies, he believed were "wrong: this vas what vas wrong v ith Christianity too. This led to a discussion of the White Goddess, in general terms, not, that is that he added anyth ing that is not dealt v ith in his book on the subject. What fascinated me vas the way he talked about what is nowadays referred to as "Mr. Graves ' White Goddess" in an entirely matter—of—fact way: she was, simply, the "infinitely variable theme" of his poetry. of his life.

I had not taken a camera with me, neither had I taken a tape— recorder. The thought had s imply never even occurred to me: it wag not that kind of visit. It vas enough for me that he had been will ing to meet me.

My impressions of Robert Graves, the man? How can I presume to assess h i m? I can only say that the hour-and-a-half spent there seemed very short. I did not feel that I was in the company of a stranger; there were no awkward pauses, no artificial attempts to make conversation. He did most of the talking, naturally. Robert Graves the poet was the same person as Robert Graves the man: the voice was entirely consistent throughout.

Graves himself says, in his book entitled The crowninq privileqe:

Who has ever successfully disguised his character in what he wrote? I have never been able to understand the contention that a poet's life is irrelevant to his work—unless this means merely. . . that. . . membership of a reputable club. or an orthodox love—life, are not a sine qua non of i iterary eminence. If it means that a poet may be heartless or insincere or grasping in his personal relations and yet write true poems, I disagree wholeheartedly ( 33 )

I wrote to Robert Graves again in January 1968, thank ing him for having allowed me to visit him, and received the following letter t da ted February 1968 :

Dear Betty

Thanks a lot for the Mebos recipe. I use our new greenhouse for the dry ing. My deep respects to your Aunt. Yes, there 's not a single light—hearted joke in the whole Bible, only a few nasty jeers, and none in the hymns or I i turgy. Mohammed at least made them, however wrily.

Were you here while I was writing “semi-detached?” I 'Il send it to you when it's printed somewhere-—have no copy. It was lovely meeting you too

YoursRobert Graves

I replied to this letter, but did not follow up my request for a copy of "Semi—netached. I did not want to be regarded as a nuisance. I also sent him a card on his birthday, and a Christmas card, but I did not hear from him again. I did not feel could pers i St after all, he had given me more of his time and attention than I had ever expected .

Betty Hugo

Department Of English University of Pretoria Pretoria, R. S.A.

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