The greatness of Robert Graves, one of the outstanding poetic voices of the 20th century, was forged in the first world war
"I write poems for poets, and satires or grotesques for wits. For people in general I write prose, and am content that they should be unaware that I do anything else. To write poems for other than poets is wasteful." This is Robert Graves in 1945, with the characteristic blend of arrogance and self-effacement that later led him to proclaim his own status as "minor" while simultaneously damning every "major" poet on the block. He is right in one sense too, since such bestselling works as I, Claudius or Goodbye to All That are probably more widely known than anything else he ever wrote. But it's also fair to say he didn't make life easy for his poetry-reading fans. Graves progressively edited out of the eight different Collected Poems published during his lifetime work that might be considered a "digression". By the time of the last Collected in 1975, such "digressions" accounted for around two-thirds of the poetry he published between 1916 and 1960. He thereby excluded many of his best-known and best-loved poems and most of his first world war poems.
The time is ripe for a new Selected that both brings Graves back to his readership and introduces him to a new one. Graves, one of the outstanding poetic voices of the 20th century, is loved by more "people in general" than he gave himself credit for, and he finds himself in good hands here, served better by Michael Longley than he might have served himself. "Blow on a dead man's embers," Graves writes in "To Bring the Dead to Life", "And a live flame will start." Graves was, as Longley tells us in the introduction, "one of [his] heroes"; he and Derek Mahon, while undergraduates at Trinity College, Dublin in the early 1960s, "read his poems aloud to each other, counting the beats with our hands and scattering cigarette ash into the gully of the 1959 Collected Poems". "[T]he poems we loved then," he continues, "are the heartbeat of this selection." In a critically astute yet intimate introduction, Longley implicitly affirms, through his own understanding and absorption of the earlier poet, the vibrancy and importance of Graves's monumental achievement for the several generations of poets who have followed him – from Auden, Dylan Thomas and Larkin through to Hughes, Heaney and Longley himself.
This finely judged selection from an almost dauntingly large oeuvre of around 1,000 poems includes a number of the Great war poems that proved so fruitful for Owen's development as well as Sassoon's. In "A Dead Boche" the "cure for lust of blood" has a graphic physicality that pre-dates Owen's own exposé of the horrors of war – a "dead Boche … Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired, / Dribbling black blood from nose and beard". These poems remind us that Graves's aesthetic was forged in the battlefields, where he "died" and was resurrected in 1916, that the experience of war determined the kind of poet and writer he was to be, even the extraordinary life he lived. "By wire and wood and stake we're bound," he writes of himself and Sassoon in "Two Fusiliers", "By Fricourt and by Festubert, / By whipping rain, by the sun's glare, / By all the misery and loud sound, / By a Spring day, / By Picard clay." If the technical quality of these early poems is occasionally uneven (compared with the flawless lyrics of his middle years), their power, and poignancy, is undiminished by the passage of time.
Interviewed in 1971, Graves said of the first world war: "You can't communicate noise. Noise never stopped for one moment – ever." Although capable of a higher-volume rhetorical flourish, as in "Rocky Acres" with its "first land that rose from Chaos and the Flood", Graves's lyrics often favour restraint over excess. His inventive, rhythmical syntax renders his poems utterly distinct: "She, then, like snow in a dark night / Fell secretly … ("Like Snow"). His nursery-rhyme poems, such as "Allie", affirm his mastery of the art that conceals art: "Allie, call the birds in, / the birds from the sky! / Allie calls, Allie sings, / Down they all fly." The love poems of his middle years possess a "measured quietude", in Yeats's phrase, that holds itself intact against the dark forces lurking beneath their smoothly crafted surface: "Be witness that on waking, this mid-winter, / I found her hand in mine laid closely / Who shall watch out the spring with me. / We stared in silence all around us / But found no winter anywhere to see" ("Mid-Winter Waking").
In "To Juan at the Winter Solstice", Graves writes: "There is one story and one story only / That will prove worth your telling." That story is one of service and sacrifice to the goddess, explored at length in his extraordinary prose work The White Goddess (1948) and encapsulated here with an eerie beauty in suffering: "Water to water, ark again to ark, / From woman back to woman: / So each new victim treads unfalteringly / The never altered circuit of his fate." In the poems of his last writing years, Graves repeated that one story too often, even if personally finding a necessary refuge – sanctuary even – in the mythology of his white and black goddesses. But, as this selection makes abundantly clear, he tells far more than "one story only"; and without the multi-faceted and contradictory Graves – war poet, love poet, muse poet, satirist, classicist, romantic, lyric perfectionist and mischief-maker – the story of modern poetry itself is incomplete.