Born: 24th July 1885 in London, Britain.
Died: 7th December 1985 on Majorca.
British poet, writer, classical academic and critic whose war poems laid the foundation for an acclaimed, albeit troubled, career.
Robert Graves was born into a dynasty of true European heritage, for within his family tree were English, German, Scottish, Danish and Irish nationals. Despite this, the Graves were a typical British Victorian family of the upper-middle classes: strict and somewhat cold, but also loyal and well-educated. Biographies often stress the literary history of Robert's ancestors, for his great uncle - Leopold von Ranke - was a highly accomplished historian, while an eighteen century relative - Richard Graves - wrote The Spiritual Quixote, a novel successful within its era. Robert's father kept this 'tradition' alive by writing poetry.
Robert Graves' Youth
Having attended preparatory schools, Robert went to Charterhouse in 1907 via a scholarship: he disliked many of his fellows, thought even less of his teachers, became a school-boxing champion in two weights (welter and middle) and began writing poetry. He was also academically successful enough to gain a scholarship to St. Johns College in Oxford, where his intended subject was the Classics.
However, Robert was a strong-minded young man with a contentious nature and, driven partly by boredom in his course and partly - as some critics have suggested - by a desire to escape the perceived oppression of his father and to carve his own identity, Graves reacted to the declaration of war (for World War One) by travelling to the nearest place he could find for officer training and signing up. He was on holiday in Wales at the time, and consequently Robert Graves joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, travelling to France as a captain in May 1915.
War and War Poetry
By coincidence, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers contained another captain given to writing poetry, Siegfried Sassoon, and the two soon met, supposedly after Graves found a copy of The Essays of Lionel Johnson on a mess table; recognising the work as that of an 1890's poet, Robert peeked at the inside cover and discovered Sassoon's name. The pair struck up a friendship and Sassoon soon became a major - and some critics would say negative - influence on Graves' early poetic style. Nevertheless there was a war on, and Robert fought in both the Battle of Loos and the Battle of the Somme, where his Fusiliers were reduced to under 400 men. Soon after Graves was hit by shellfire as he waited for reinforcements.
Despite being wounded and evacuated to a hospital, Graves was quite literally dead to the world for a few hours, as the Fusilier's Colonel was told that Robert had died and The Times published his obituary accordingly. The mistake was soon discovered, but Graves' wounds caused a long period of convalescence. It was during this period, 1916 - 1917, that Robert Graves published the three volumes of war poetry which would always earn him a mention alongside people like Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke and his own mentor, Siegfried Sassoon: Over the Brazier, Goliath and David and Fairies and Fusiliers.
Discussions of Graves Great War poetry are numerous, but the main comments regard the absence of anger or indignation over the war and the replacement of Christian images with a growing emphasis on classical mythology. Both are partly explainable in terms Robert's history: having grown up in a partly German family Graves felt more confusion and ambivalence towards the enemy than hate, and it is perhaps inevitable that a classics scholar should replace his crumbling Christian faith with the depth and mystique of ancient mythology.
Graves Returns to the Front
Graves may have suffered severe injuries, but he healed physically and was soon active again. He helped save Siegfried Sassoon from court martial, trained troops and returned - and attempted to stay - at the front lines despite being exempted to do so because of his injuries: legend has it that Robert was threatened with court martial by the Fusilier's surgeon if he didn't return home. Further injuries returned him to Britain before the armistice, where he married Nancy Nicholson.
A Troubled Post-War Life
Although the war finished Graves was left shell-shocked and mentally scarred so, despite taking a position at St. John's College in Oxford and having four children with his wife, Robert became depressed and terribly troubled. Family and financial troubles helped exacerbate Graves' health, and he split from his wife in 1927.