Robert von Ranke Graves, born July 24, 1895, grew up in Wimbledon, England; as a result of his experiences and injuries in the trenches of the Western Front in World War I, he chose to leave England and seek a rural way of life. In 1929 Graves moved to the small mountain village of Deya, Mallorca, which was his home until his death on December 7, 1985.
Graves is best known as the author of historical novels. His I, Claudius (1934), produced as a BBC television series in the 1970s, and its sequel Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina (1956) made his name a household word. Yet Graves was a twentieth-century Renaissance man: his body of work includes poetry (Graves viewed himself as a poet first and foremost), more than a dozen historical novels, autobiography, studies of mythology and ethnography, writing guides, translation, social commentary, literary criticism. Graves's autobiography Good-Bye to All That (1929) is one of the most influential memoirs to come out of World War I. His Greek Myths (1955) remains a basic text in comparative literature studies. Generations of aspiring poets have sought guidance in The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (1948).
As a writer of historical novels, Graves believed that one possible version of an event should be privileged above another, not necessarily because it can be proven true via the historian's tools, but because it is truer in spirit. In his 1938 poem “The Devil's Advice to Story-Tellers” he argues that “Nice contradiction between fact and fact/Will make the whole read human and exact” (ll. 21–2). Graves himself contended that the border between autobiography and fiction is not always clear; in Good-Bye to All That he notes: “The memoirs of a man who went through some of the worst experiences of trench-warfare are not truthful if they do not contain a high proportion of falsities” (1929, p. vi). Graves's novels may be said to reflect a blurring of boundaries between fiction, autobiography, and historiography.
Prior to the composition of I, Claudius Graves posited the project as an “interpretive biography,” according to a 1929 diary entry. Graves biographer Miranda Seymour notes that he was first drawn to the character of a possible hero or heroine by sensing the presence of a mystery. How, for example, could one explain Claudius's metamorphosis from a mild, kindly man into a bloody-minded tyrant? (1996, 214). This was the pattern for Graves's composition of historical novels: upon sensing the presence of a historical puzzle, he would immerse himself in all available writings from and about the personage and period. (Indeed, the fact-checker employed by Graves to search out classical errors in the manuscript of I, Claudius found almost none.) Having studied the personage and period as only a polymath can, Graves then felt justified in creating a character and telling his or her story via solving the mystery that had originally awakened his interest.
In his depiction of Claudius and of Belisarius (Count Belisarius, 1954) Graves clearly aimed to revise earlier historiography. Seneca, Stoic philosopher and politician (4 BCE-65 CE), had satirized the deification of Claudius. While the sixth-century Byzantine historian Procopius had effectively destroyed Belisarius's reputation as a military leader in the eyes of his contemporaries, Winston Churchill is said to have studied Graves's Belisarius as a source of strategy during World War II.
Graves's experience of trench warfare on the Western Front during the Great War permanently impaired his health and shaped his view of current and historical events for the rest of his life: he did not believe that the injury and death of millions of young people in the “war to end all wars” had been justified. Yet Graves was proud of his regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, and retained a lifelong admiration for and love of combat soldiers, those who bear the brunt of the fighting bravely and uncomplainingly. Graves's evocation of military life in his novels is convincing, whether in the story of Belisarius or of a British soldier in the American Revolutionary War. As were all of Graves's novels, Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth (1940) and Proceed, Sergeant Lamb (1941) were based upon copious reading of history and literature.
In The White Goddess Graves explicated a theory of poetics according to which the source of true poetry, that is “Muse poetry,” is the relationship of the poet with a woman in whom the Goddess currently resides – she who is mother, lover, and layer-out, and thus presides over birth, love, and death. This theme, central to his poetic practice, shapes two of his better-known novels. Wife to Mr. Milton: The Story of Marie Powell (1944) tells of the life and times of John Milton during the English Civil War period from the viewpoint, not of the bard, but rather of his first wife. King Jesus (1947), based on a plethora of pre-Christian and biblical sources, is a controversial retelling of Jesus's life and death, in which the conflict between patriarchal power and ancient matriarchal traditions is played out; with Jesus's death, the victory of the patriarchal tradition is said to be complete.
Among the general public, Robert Graves's readers perceive his novels as convincing, unorthodox, and a “good read.” Scholars number his historical novels among the most erudite representatives of this genre composed during the twentieth century.
SEE ALSO: Historical Fiction (BIF); Modernist Fiction (BIF); World War I in Fiction (BIF)
- Aspects of the Novel. London: Arnold. (1969).
- The Great War and Modern Memory. New York: Oxford University Press. (2000).
- Good-bye to All That: An Autobiography. London: Jonathan Cape. (Rev. edn. New York: Doubleday, 1957.). (1929).
- I, Claudius. London: Barker. (1934).
- Sergeant Lamb of rthe Ninth. London: Methuen. (1940).
- Proceed, Sergeant Lamb. London: Methuen. (1941).
- Wife to Mr. Milton: The Story of Marie Powell. New York: Creative Age. (1944).
- King Jesus. London: Cassell. (1947).
- The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth. London: Faber. (1948).
- Count Belisarius. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (1954).
- The Greek Myths. London: Penguin. (1955).
- Claudius the God and His Wife Messalina. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (1956).
- Mammon and the Black Goddess. London: Cassell. (1965).
- The Complete Poems (ed. Graves, B. ; Ward, D. ). Manchester: Carcanet. (2000).
- Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895–1926. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. (1986).
- Klein, H., (ed.) (1976). The First World War in Fiction: A Collection of Critical Essays. London: Macmillan.
- Robert Graves: Life on the Edge. London: Doubleday. (1996).
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