Martin Seymour-Smith: Robert Graves: His Life and Work; Holt, Rinehart & Winston; New York.

Douglas Archibald: Yeats; Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, NY.

Although the era of “High Modernism” is well in the past, the pantheon of modern literature still seems to many a palace of confusions. The paradoxes and contradictions, the conflicting impulses that informed the art and shaped the modern sensibility are still being assessed by those who would make sense of that sensibility. It may be that the history which finally emerges will simply be a record of confusions: the quest for traditions in a literature marked by experiment and revolt against the past; the impulse to social and political authority in an age of democratic mass culture; the search for order and belief in a culture that sold its soul for the dubious rewards of the scientific Weltanschauung; the difficulty of the art itself. But for those who wish to understand, the lives of the writers themselves, especially when used to gloss their art, offer instructive lessons on those shaping forces that lie under the surface of our publicly shared culture. While it may be true that biography is one of the mortician’s arts, a telltale sign that the embalming process has begun, we must still look to biographies for our most intimate knowledge of history. The best, of course, are the autobiographies that lie in the creations of the artists themselves, intellectual and spiritual records of their physical and existential histories. The best formal biographies, as well, must try to illuminate that more profound lie with the conflicts and often humdrum details of day-to-day existence. If the spate of recent literary biographies is any indication, the taking stock has begun.


In that pantheon mentioned above, few major poets have been so inadequately studied and discussed as Robert Graves, while only a handful of giants have been treated so exhaustively — to excess some, including Graves, would say — as William Butler Yeats. On the face of it, the poets seem to share a common ground. Both were born — Yeats more intimately so —into Anglo-Irish families with some artistic traditions. Both were among the most prolific of modem writers, and both persevered in careers of astonishing longevity. Yeats and Graves shared a hatred of modern science; both found the consequences of scientific philosophy repugnant and, as a result, became soured on orthodox religion to the extent that they found paganlike substitutes in symbolic mythology. Both Yeats and Graves had their eccentricities, to put it mildly, and both suffered — almost willfully — their most embarrassing and notorious humiliations at the hands of women. Both poets sustained a remarkably passionate lyricism in their verse until the ends of their careers, and both were inspired by a mystical concept of the poetic process and of poetry as a higher truth. At this point, though, the comparison breaks down.

As a critic of his fellow poets, Robert Graves has characteristically insisted on his own tastes without regard to fashion. He has, with perverse delight, put himself outside the mainstream of modernist reverences and played critical gadfly to the establishment. For instance, he used the 1954-55 Clark Lectures at Cambridge University to throw his scorn at such modern demigods as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and especially Yeats, for whom he has har­ bored a lifetime of “loathing” as a poet. Yeats, he says, began with “admirable qualities for a beginner” — he had ”wit, industry, a flexible mind, a good ear, and the gift of falling romantically in love” — but while he would have liked to have become a “folk” poet in the manner of the American Vachel Lindsay[!] he “lacked Lindsay’s simple courage.” In the 1920’s, after his exposure to Pound’s ideas on modernist poetry, Yeats emerged, ”well-groomed, cynical, … with a manly voice, florid gestures … a new technique, but nothing to say.” From Graves’s biographer, Martin Seymour-Smith, we learn that barely two weeks after Yeats’s death in January 1939, Graves and some friends “had a lunch ‘in honour of demise of Yeats.'” The reason for the blind animosity is not clear unless Yeats — like Auden — was perceived as untrue to Graves’s ideal, a “fulse poet” whose “poetic truths” were contrived.

Robert Graves was born into a prosperous upper-middle-class background, the sort that has produced so much of the enduring in modem British literature. His progress through public schools and Oxford left some psychological scars but gave him the classical education that lies behind most of his subsequent work The Great War of 1914-1918 provided his rites of passage into manhood for which the British schoolboy playing fields had prepared him, and one of his most popular and enduring books is the “autobiography” written before the age of 35, Goodbye to All That. The wartime adventures were real-he endured the trenches, was gassed and pronounced dead-but the war also threw him into those trenches with others of the generation of 1914, including Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, and Wilfred Owen. After the war, Graves began his serious literary career and — not coincidentally — entered  the  first  of a bizarre series of romantic involvements which reveal much about his writing. Even before he articulated them for himself, he seemed inspired by the ideas of Goddess and Muse as the feminine and moving forces behind culture. The Goddess was the primal, matriarchal object of human worship; the Muse the nymph­ like inspiration for creative labor. Graves often has had trouble separating the two ideals when they appear in fleshly forms, and almost his entire career has developed in response to his various romantic entanglements.

Shortly after the war, Graves plunged naively and blindly into marriage with a shallow young artist and feminist who produced four children for him but who seemed to hamstring his other creative drives. In the late 1920’s, though, he encountered the American poet Laura Riding, a strange, grotesque figure who dominates much of Seymour-Smith’s biography, and who is herself the most notorious “event” in Graves’s life. In Seymour-Smith’s account, Riding emerges as an original “American Gothic” whose putative attractions remain invisible. A New Yorker by birth, she had married a professor at the University of Louisville, and then had insinuated herself into the close-knit Vanderbilt Fugitive group of poets, both — and this was no mean feat — as the only Yankee and the only woman to cross that line.

Any discussion of Laura Riding’s career must be handled with some delicacy. For reasons that are inexplicable from either her photographs or her poetry, Riding exercised a magnetic appeal to certain personalities that has given her a legendary stature out of proportion to her artistic achievements. But she cannot be dismissed simply as the archetypal Other Woman. Although married at the time, Riding apparently descended on the Nashville group with all the liberated instincts of a jazz-age flapper, and with her own designs on some of the leading Fugitives. Seymour-Smith frankly discusses an affair with Allen Tate (Tate once described Riding to me as “the most predatory woman” he had ever known), but after the Fugitives disbanded as a formal group she contrived again to insinuate herself most intimately into the life of another writer. Graves was a willing victim.

Riding had entered Graves’s life in 1926 as his secretary to live and travel with Graves, his wife, and his children. She quickly became his muse and collaborator, composing with him the important early Survey of Modernist Poetry and living openly with him on the Spanish island of Mallorca. Their sexual liaison ended abruptly in 1929 when Riding at­ tempted suicide by drinking Lysol and stepping out of a fourth story window, with Graves descending a story to follow her plunge from the third floor. Both survived, although Riding was seriously injured, and their emotional relationship continued until the late 1930’s when she left Graves for the obscure American poet Schyler Jackson. Graves turned to Beryl Hodge, the much younger wife of one of his closest friends, and has lived happily with her in Mallorca, comforted additionally by a succession of young “muses,” since the end of World War II.

The story is as revealing of Graves’s career as it is bizarre in its outline. Aside from the popular historical novels which have been so successfully produced for television, Graves is perhaps best known for his studies in mythology, especially his romanticization of the White Goddess as the archetypal female figure who lies behind creative inspiration and indeed all human productivity. His thesis, which calls for masculine subjection to the female principle, was acted out dramatically in Graves’s own life. From his feminist first wife, through Riding, Beryl, and the nubile inspirations of his late career, he has lived his philosophy, finding both support and domination in his consorts and loves. Graves has always denigrated the art of fiction — even his own novels — and has insisted on his eminence as a poet. If his reputation does ultimately survive as a poet, it will probably rest on a remarkable group of love poems which bear testimony to his worship of the Goddess and her retinue of attendant muses.

So much has been written about the biography and works of Yeats that little detail is necessary here. It will suffice to say that Douglas Archibald’s Yeats is an exemplary application of the biographical method to literary criticism. Unlike Seymour-Smith’s biography of Graves, Archibald’s book is a traditional academic study which deftly uses the facts of Yeats’s life to illuminate the poetry. The influence of his strong, artistic father, the intense milieu of Irish nationalism, his involvement in both the Irish literary renaissance early in the century and later in Irish politics per se, his notorious un­ requited love for the fanatical Irish patriot Maude Gonne, and his ventures into the occult are all admirably described and then revealed in their poetic forms. One particular aspect of his career, though, makes for an interesting comparison to Graves.

Like the younger poet, Yeats was repelled by the emergence of science as the predominant philosophy of his world. And although comparatively unlearned (most of Yeats’s esoteric knowledge derived from wildly self-indulgent and undisciplined reading), he also turned to mythology as a panacea for his philosophical complaint. In his Autobiography Yeats discusses the problem of his peculiar need for some intellectual authority, and in so doing touches the heart of the philosophical and spiritual dilemma that both informs and plagues much of our greatest art:

I was unlike others of my generation in one thing only. I am very religious, and deprived by Huxley and Tindall, whom I detested, of the simple-minded religion of my childhood, I had made a new religion, almost an infallible church of poetic tradition, of a fardel of stories, and of personages, and of emotions, inseparable from their first expression, passed on from generation to generation by poets and painters, with some help from philosophers and theologians. I wished for a world where I could discover this tradition perpetually … I had even created a dogma.

Yeats is describing here his need for belief, and his solutions — the “fardel of stories,” etc. — are the early “Mythologies” drawn from Celtic lore, the bizarre occultism, and the complex symbolism which he elaborated in his curious prose work A Vision and then used as the symbolic foundation for some of his greatest poems: “Leda and the Swan,” ‘Two Songs from a Play,” the ”Byzantium” poems, and the apocalyptic classic “The Second Coming.” Cleanth Brooks has called A Vision “one of the most remark­ able books of the last hundred years …. the most ambitious attempt made by any poet of our time to set up a ‘myth.'” To Seymour-Smith, who apparently shares Graves’s prejudice, it is “extra unsophisticated … vulgar … clearly not the work of an educated and informed man ….an embarrassment to Yeats’s admirers.” But while more accessible to readers, Graves’s White Goddess is, by Seymour-Smith’s own admission, based on dubious scholarship and can be taken seriously only as a “gigantic metaphor.” As if that were not the effect of Yeats’s myth. A comparison of poems inspired or derived from both books suggests that A Vision, however frustrating, is something other than an embarrassment. And of course both books must be read in the perspective of the poetic protest against the mechanistic, scientific impulse of the age.

Any account of these two biographies must consider their separate aims. Seymour-Smith has written an intimate biography of a close friend, and his book is aimed at a general reading public. Graves’s life has been long and uncommonly full; it is the stuff of novels, but Seymour-Smith does not write that kind of compelling narrative. The development of his story is clumsy, and the style is often deadly amateurish. By contrast, Archibald’s academic study, while aimed at a narrower audience, is efficient and reads neatly. The book is clearly instructive about the poems. Criticism must be made about one point: Archibald’s embarrassment by “the problem of Yeats’s politics,” the distrust of democracy and the attraction to authority which led Yeats into a flirtation with fascism from which he later withdrew. It is interesting to observe sophisticated critics, who are drawn naturally to the most powerful and seminal authors of the modern period, squirm when faced with the phenomenon of those authors’ conservatism. That pantheon of modem literature I previously alluded to includes not only Yeats but Pound, Eliot, Faulkner, the Fugitives, and many others who have been castigated, dismissed, or abused for their conservative bent. Instead of complaining or apologizing, some astute critic may eventually grab the other horn of the dilemma and ask whether the conservative impulse — however extreme in some cases — may not be a source of actual strength and inspiration behind the best of the innovative and rebellious art of the age. That act of daring could open up a whole new theater of critical warfare.

Seymour-Smith’s faults as a critic are more glaring: he is sometimes careless with facts, and this throws his critical judgments into question. Many of the errors are trivial. But such carelessness has marred his work before and supports the caution about his criticism I have suggested. One of his most extreme claims for Graves is his eminence as “the foremost love poet of this century — and possibly the two preceding ones too.” He adds that Graves continued to “produce a plethora of fervent and hot-blooded love poetry until he was eighty: something no other poet has done or tried to do.” Well, in this comparison, the author is technically correct because Yeats died at the age of 74. But many critics have commented on the passion and lyrical beauty of Yeats’s late work. One poem written only short months before the death of that “Wild Old Wicked Man” hints that he had not yet outlived his passions:


‘In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.’

-Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics?

Yet here’s a travelled man that knows

What he talks about,

And there’s a politician

That has read and thought

And maybe what they say is true

Of war and war’s alarms,

But O that I were young again

And held her in my arms.

Robert Graves, I believe, should be happy to have written that poem, at any time. cc