To Robert Graves: Thank You For All That!

There’s one way in which Robert Graves is important to me that has nothing to do with Goodbye to All That or any of the other significant contributions he made to literary history, and that’s his role in turning me from a history major into an English major–and thus steering me down the whole professional road I have since followed. I told most of this story once before, in a post I wrote appreciating the important teachers in my life. I had always been a passionate reader but a skeptic about the idea of literary criticism (anyone can read, right? so what is there to study?). History, on the other hand, was about something measurable. But things changed, ultimately in my view of history and the degree to which it too is literary, but first in my attitude towards literary criticism:

one day we had read a poem I really liked (it was Robert Graves’s “The Cool Web“) and I finally put my hand up and ventured some replies to his questions about Graves’s language and how particular words fit the central ideas of the poem. He seemed pleased! My answers were good! I knew what he was talking about! Things started to fall into place. He wasn’t making things up, because I could see them there too, in the poem, and thinking about how the details of form and language built up the whole piece made the poem better, more pleasurable, more exciting to read. It was like something coming into focus, something I (as someone who had always loved to read both fiction and poetry) had always seen, but had never really looked at.

I began contributing more often to class discussion (though I never became particularly voluble as a student–despite being, um, chatty in real life, I always felt both shy and nervous about speaking up), and more significantly I became absorbed by the process of literary analysis and interpretation. My first-year experience motivated me to enter the 2nd-year English pre-Honours program U.B.C. then offered, and in a little twist of fate, the sight poem I was given for my oral exam in it was “The Cool Web.” I felt almost like I was cheating because I knew the poem so well! The exam went well (don’t worry, there was more on it that “The Cool Web,” so it’s not like I coasted completely!) and the next year I started my combined Honours program in English and History, a combination of interests that sustained me through an Honours thesis on Carlyle’s The French Revolution and Middlemarch as ‘novels’ and ‘histories,’ then a Ph.D. thesis on gender and genre in Victorian historical writing…and on to the emphasis I still put on historical contexts and historiographical interests in the texts I teach. (From my fall course evaluations: “Too much history for an English class.” Huh.) I didn’t much like the Graves I met in his autobiography, and I don’t know much about the man himself beyond that, but I will always be glad I happened upon him in that form at that moment. “Who can tell what may be the effects of writing?” George Eliot asks in Middlemarch–and it is amazing, really, to reflect on the difference one poem made in my life.

“The Cool Web” was the poem I chose for today’s Close Reading tutorials, where we are preparing for an annotation assignment due next week. I still find it a wonderfully stimulating (and teachable) poem:  complex and artful enough to be interesting, direct enough to be accessible, and surprisingly moving.

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky, and the drums,
We shall go mad, no doubt, and die that way.

Goodbye to Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

I finished Robert Graves’s autobiography Goodbye to All That tonight. When I wrote about it on the weekend, I was wondering if he would shift gears and begin reflecting on the experiences he recounts. The short answer to that is no. There are dribs and drabs of commentary that, if extended, would have added the kind of layered response I was looking for. For instance, Graves is asked at one point by a local Rector to speak at a War Memorial service:

He suggested that I should read war-poems. But instead of Rupert Brooke on the glorious dead, I read some of the more painful poems by Sassoon and Wilfred Owen about men dying from gas-poisoning, and about buttocks of corpses bulging from the mud. I also suggested that the men who died…were not particularly virtuous or particularly wicked, but just average soldiers, and that the survivors should thank God they were alive, and do their best to avoid wars in the future.

That’s very nearly it, as far as addressing the significance of the war or what he personally carried away from it. Perhaps he has written more about it somewhere else. He wrote poems about it: perhaps he felt that, in them, he had said what he wanted. The thing is, I finished Goodbye to All That with no desire to find out or read more. I just came away from the book not liking him very much–and what that should have to do with anything, I don’t altogether know, but even acknowledging that any autobiography involves the creation of a persona that should not be naively identified with the subject etc. etc., still, this is what he wrote to represent himself, and to me, he comes across as a bit of a jerk. Here’s his example of taking “a stern line,” for example (from the Epilogue, technically, so written later than the rest of the book, but still…). During WWII, while serving as an Air Raid Warden, he is called for a medical examination,

and the policeman brought me a third-class railway-warrant together with an order to appear before a medical board at Exeter. As an officer on the pensioned list, I refused to travel except first class, a privilege to which my rank entitled me. He and I might find ourselves in the same compartment, and it would never do for us two to mix socially.

Now, I wonder if he’s being ironic at his own expense here, but questions of rank actually come up quite often in the book, right from the early part when he notes that having “paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education” he felt “entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.” In any case, taking a stern line on traveling first class compares badly to the kinds of things Vera Brittain takes a stern line on following her own war experiences. I didn’t much like his discussions of his time teaching in Egypt either, for the same reason: his attitude about both the job and his students is arrogant and dismissive. He quotes, apparently in full, three “diploma essays” from students at the Higher Training College in Cairo where he served as an examiner. It’s true they are mostly ludicrous (on The Character of Lady Macbeth: “The impression on the reader becomes very great and feels with anger”) but the writers are laboring in a second or even third language, after all. Graves’s dry conclusion: “I decided to resign.” He would. Of his assignment to teach literature at Cairo University, he remarks, that the students “professed themselves anxious to master Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Byron in that time. I had no desire to teach Wordsworth and Byron to anyone, and wished to protect Shakespeare from them.” But then he disdains them for considering it “beneath their dignity to admit the existence of ballads in Egypt” because of their class prejudice against the fellaheen.

I commented on the matter-of-fact tone and the unthinking forward movement of the narrative in my previous post, and in the comments, Mike quoted this passage from Graves’s essay “P. S. to Goodbye to  All That“:

I have more or less deliberately mixed in all the ingredients that I know are mixed into popular books. For instance, while I was writing, I reminded myself that people like reading about food and drink, so I searched my memory for the meals that had significance in my life and put them down. And they like reading about murders, so I was careful not to leave out any of the six or seven that I could tell about. Ghosts, of course. There must, in every book of this sort, be at least one ghost story with a possible explanation, and one without any explanation, except that it was a ghost…But the best bet of all is battles, and I had been in two quite good ones–the first conveniently enough a failure, though set off by extreme heroism, the second a success, though a little clouded by irresolution.

I replied that this sounded discouragingly cynical, but once we got out of the war sections, it seemed more and more accurate to me. Graves’s stories of life in the trenches are intrinsically compelling just for being so far from ordinary life, and the bluntness of his style preserves them from any sentimentality and himself from any pretense of heroism. But after that the book is just a chronicle of what happens and who he meets, with particular care taken to drop names and anecdotes: a few pages on visiting with Hardy, notes on his relationship with Sassoon (which had the effect of making me want to reread Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy rather than anything more directly by or about Graves), stories about meeting T. E. Lawrence  (yes, of Arabia). He gets married, and his wife Nancy actually sounds pretty interesting (she’s a committed feminist who refuses to take his surname, just for instance), but we don’t get to know much about her or about why their marriage came apart. They have children but he spends little time with them. They putter around Oxford, open a shop, go out of business, go to Egypt–and the book stops.

The most thought-provoking thing in the book, ultimately, may be this little bit about genre not far from the end:

I made several attempts during these years to rid myself of the poison of war memories by finishing my novel, but had to abandon it – ashamed at having distorted my material with a plot, and yet not sure enough of myself to turn it back into undisguised history, as here.

Brittain too first tried to write about the war in fiction. Both clearly concluded that their way forward was not exactly through “undisguised history” but through memoir, letting themselves into the story and telling it as they experienced it personally. Only Graves doesn’t really bring himself into it: what he thought and felt about it, how it affected him, what he thinks it meant–none of that is in this book. For me, that made it a real disappointment, a much lesser book than it could have been. Is it unfair to think that’s a reflection on Graves? As always, I’m prepared to believe it might reflect on me, bringing the wrong expectations or models to the book he decided to write.

Reading Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That

I’m about half way through Robert Graves’s autobiography Goodbye to All That. My interest in reading it was sparked by Testament of Youth: Brittain points to Graves’s book both as an inspiration for her own memoir of the war and as a kind of counter-example to it, as she wanted her book to tell a very different story about the war, the one she thought was (to some extent inevitably) overshadowed by battlefield accounts.

So far, Goodbye to All That definitely is a very different book, as much because of Graves’s different tone and personality as because of the difference in their experiences. I’ve been trying to figure out just what makes it sound so different from Testament of Youth. One factor, I think, is that in the early parts, Graves has quite a wry and engaging sense of humor. For all that I found Brittain’s voice compelling, I don’t recall ever finding her funny, and in fact the extent to which she takes herself seriously is probably the least attractive thing about her books–though I also, perhaps paradoxically, respect her intellectual seriousness very much. Graves writes with more ease, somehow: he sounds very confident and direct, and the narrative has a lot of forward momentum. There’s not much reflection on broader contexts or issues (again, so far), which helps things move along briskly–but it’s odd to find that we are now well into the war (and deep into the trenches) and Graves really hasn’t said anything about the war as a larger event–about why it was being fought and how he felt about that, about its effect on his generation or society more generally, about any of the things Brittain (who often writes with a retrospective cast) sees as motivating her story. Testament of Youth is very much a reflective book about the effects of the war on a generation. Goodbye to All That just carries us along with Graves, who doesn’t give the impression that he himself thought deeply about the war at all before or during it, and who isn’t infusing his account of it with whatever he might have come to think about it later. As a result, the war seems doubly meaningless, both in itself and as the subject of his book, and there’s a way in which that seems appropriate given how chaotic, haphazard, and insane it seems to have been to those fighting it.

Here’s a little bit from the description of his first major action, near Bethune in 1915:

No orders could come through because the shell in the signals dugout at battalion headquarters had cut communication not only between companies and battalion, but between battalion and division. The officers in the front trench had to decide on immediate action; so two companies of the Middlesex, instead of waiting for the intense bombardment which would follow the advertised forty minutes of gas [much of which had spread back into the British lines], charged at once and got as far as the German wire – which our artillery had not yet cut. So far it had been treated only with shrapnel, which had no effect on it; the barbed-wire needed high-explosive, and plenty of it. The Germans shot the Middlesex men down. One platoon is said to have found a gap and gotten into the German trench. But there were no survivors of the platoon to confirm this. The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders went over, also, on the Middlesex left; but two companies, instead of charging at once, rushed back out of the gas-filled assault trench to the support line, and attacked from there. It will be recalled that the trench system had been pushed forward nearer the enemy in preparation for the battle. These companies were therefore attacking from the old front line, but the barbed-wire entanglements protecting it had not been removed, so that the Highlanders got caught and machine-gunned between their own assault and support lines. The other two companies were equally unsuccessful.

The account of their work that night bringing in the wounded and dead is as harrowing as you’d expect. “The Germans behaved generously,” Graves remarks, not firing on them “though we kept on until it was nearly dawn.” He reports that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders “had seven hundred casualties, including fourteen officers killed out of the sixteen who went over; the Middlesex, five hundred and fifty casualties, including eleven officers killed.” The tone is similarly matter-of-fact throughout, sometimes with a degree of detachment that is disconcerting: “I found no excitement in patrolling, no horror in the continual experience of death.” Will he eventually say something about the emotional and psychological experience of the scenes he depicts with such precision? One night he goes out on patrol in No Man’s Land; while crawling through the mud and barbed wire, he recalls, “I snatched my fingers in horror from where I had planted them on the slimy body of an old corpse.” How do you just move on from this, as he does? Literally, of course, he had to, but he’s moving through a landscape in which craters are inhabited by “the corpses of men who had been wounded and crept in there to die. Some were skeletons, picked clean by the rats.” I’m very curious to see if or how he moves from description to reflection.

Robert Graves, I, Claudius: Telling and Showing

I, Claudius is the complete antithesis of the shallowly sentimental historical fiction I’ve been reviewing and complaining about recently. There’s something almost ruthless about Graves’s approach as a historical novelist: he simply refuses to pander to his readers with rhetorical flourishes, dramatic scene setting, even dialogue. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, rolls by with hardly any relief from long unbroken blocks of text. We are carried along not by emotion (except, occasionally, suspense) but by morbid fascination and curiosity about what happens next. And to make matters worse, or better (depending on what kind of reader you are) our curiosity is impeded by the sheer voluminousness of the information he gives us, starting with the endless citation of names, all very much like one another–there’s Agrippa and Agrippina and Agrippinilla, Livia and Livilla, Gaius, Gallus, Gemellus, at least two each of Nero and Drusus and Drusilla…and these are only a few among the most prominent or more lasting characters, as nearly every anecdote includes a roll call of more and more. Events pile on one another in the same relentless fashion:  ascensions to – then falls from – power, children, marriages, affairs, rapes, murders, wars, accidents, deaths, brutalities and obscenities, and the very occasional tenderness. The effect is of a crowded and rapidly moving procession to which we, through Claudius, are passive, sometimes bemused, often horrified, spectators.

This is a novel (more properly, a history) so full of incident, none independently more engrossing or significant than the others, that it is at once too easy and very difficult to find an exemplary passage. This one will do:

The close of the year was marked by the banishment of Julilla on the charge of promiscuous adultery – just like her mother Julia – to Tremerus, a small island off the coast of Apulia. The real reason for her banishment was that she was just about to bear another child, which if it were a boy would be a great-grandson of Augustus, and unrelated to Livia; Livia was taking no risks now. Julilla had one son already, but he was a delicate, timorous, slack-twisted fellow and could be disgreagrded. Æmilius himself provided Livia with grounds for the accusation. He had quarrelled with Julilla and now charged her in the presence of their daughter Æmilia with trying to father another man’s child on him. He named Decimus, a nobleman of the Silanus family, as the adulterer. Æmilia, who was clever enough to realize that her own life and safety depended on keeping in Livia’s good books, went straight to her and told what she had heard. Livia made her repeat the story in Augustus’s presence. Augustus then summoned Æmilius and asked whether it ws true that he was not the father of Julilla’s child. It did not occur to Æmilius that Æmilia could have betrayed her mother and himself, so he assumed that the intimacy which he suspected between Julilla and Decimus was a matter of common scandal. He therefore held by his accusation, though it was founded rather on jealousy than on knowledge. Augustus took the child as soon as it was born and had it exposed on the mountainside. Decimus went into voluntary exile and several other men accused of having been Julilla’s lovers at one time or another followed him: among them was the poet Ovid whom Augustus, curiously enough, made the principal scapegoat as having also written (many years before) The Art of Love. It was this poem, Augustus said, that had debauched his granddaughter’s mind. He ordered all copies of it found to be burned.

To paraphrase SNL, it goes on like this for 300 more pages. Probably 80% of the novel tells us what happens in just this kind of direct expository fashion. Graves’s prose is lucid and emphatic, energetic but without elaboration, very nearly without anything identifiable as a personal style, or even a personality, which is particularly strange and unexpected because the entire narrative is first-person narration, by Claudius himself.

Claudius is a bit player in most of the action he recounts, a witness more than a participant. He speaks as an outsider and aspires to a historian’s objectivity and detail: this accounts for the cool, persistent tone of the narrative. Yet we are learning more about him than we think, as we read along, and that’s the other 20% of the book: just by this aspiration to honesty, he distinguishes himself from the self-seeking liars and schemers who populate his world and the novel, and his self-deprecation – repeated and amplified by the scornful way he is dismissed as foolish and insignificant by almost everyone around him – does express his personality, as does his relegation of himself to the sidelines. Tacitly, implicitly, through the story he tells, Claudius shows us the man he is. For Claudius, of course, is no fool – as even Livia, his deliciously ruthless and conniving grandmother eventually sees. “Do you want to live a long busy life, with honour at the end of it?” inquires the historian Pollio, after a surprising encounter with young Claudius in the Apollo Library. “Then exaggerate your limp, stammer deliberately, sham sickness frequently, let your wits wander, jerk your head and twitch with your hands on all public or semi-public occasions. If you could see as much as I can see, you would know that this was your only hope of safety and eventual heroism.” This is precisely Claudius’s strategy, though to call it a ‘strategy’ is to impute to him more self-directed cunning and self-control than he allows himself in his own text. Still, we realize, as he does, that he survives because he represents no threat, issues no challenges, raises no defenses. All around him, men and women die horribly by sword or poison, starvation or torture, while Claudius lives on. He survives even the reign of his brilliantly psychotic nephew Caligula, who believes himself to have apotheosized into a God and amuses himself by, among other things, appearing as Venus “in a long gauzy silk robe with face painted, a red wig, padded bosom and high-heeled slippers,” or by organizing a brothel in the Palace at which his sisters Agrippinilla and Lesbia prostitute themselves. Caligula’s sister Drusilla, whom he loves as his wife, has died by this time – “I am certain in my own mind that Caligula killed her,” Claudius remarks, “but I have no proof” – but perhaps the most infamous scene in the remarkable BBC adaptation, in which Caligula (memorably played by John Hurt) aborts and devours her child by him, is not in Graves’s novel, unless I somehow missed it! The delightfully bizarre story of Caligula’s great battle with Neptune, however, and his victor’s bounty of sea shells, is here in full.

There’s nothing heroic about Claudius’s survival: he stands by helpless and dismayed as those he loved were banished, betrayed, and murdered; when he does interfere or help, he evades punishment only because he is considered too pathetic to be held responsible; he panders to those in power, particularly Caligula. Yet what is a man of some basic decency to do in a world so thoroughly corrupt? What Graves doesn’t do that I think another kind of historical novelist might have done is engage this moral problem directly, making it an explicit theme rather than a lurking practical question. Doing so would have required making Claudius a philosopher rather than a chronicler, though, and Claudius (and / or Graves) is a historian above all.