Robert Graves was one of the most prolific and controversial writers of the twentieth century: poet, novelist, literary critic, biographer, lecturer, translator of ancient texts, and popularizer of mythology. Poetry was his constant love; he claimed to have written his novels only to make money. Some of his work shocked historians and theologians, and he probably influenced the feminist movement, indirectly at least, with his enthusiasm for the ancient Triple Goddess of the moon, the earth, and the underworld. A popular film was based on his biographical Lawrence and the Arabs, and a successful miniseries was written for television based on his two historical novels about the Roman emperor Claudius.
Graves was born to Alfred Graves and Amalie von Ranke Graves. Alfred Graves was a Gaelic scholar, an inspector of schools in London, and a writer of poetry of a conventional sort. Amalie Graves was related to the German historian Leopold von Ranke. In early childhood the Graves children sometimes visited relatives in Germany, including their aunt the baroness von Aufsess, who lived in a medieval castle in the Bavarian Alps. These fascinating environs no doubt influenced the boy’s early romantic poetry. The German connection, however, became a social embarrassment to him before World War I. During his school days at Charterhouse, a preparatory school, he began to insist that he was Irish like his father and paternal grandfather.
When the war started the nineteen-year-old Graves joined the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and went to France. In his autobiography, Goodbye to All That: An Autobiography, he provides one of the best descriptions of trench warfare to come out of World War I. Graves was severely wounded, both physically and emotionally, by the war. His experiences and his friendship with another poet on the front, Siegfried Sassoon, altered his poetic outlook. Graves never became a “war poet,” as Sassoon did, but his poetry was deeply affected by his neurasthenia, popularly called shell shock.
During this period Graves believed that poetry served a psychologically therapeutic function in allowing a writer to work through mental and emotional conflicts. He later repudiated this function of poetry and actively denied psychological explanations of his literary work. His protests were not entirely convincing to some critics, however, for some of his best poetry–in The Pier-Glass, for example–employs gothic effects that mirrored his turbulent psyche.
In 1918 Graves married Nancy Nicholson, a young painter, socialist, and vehement feminist. Although Graves generally agreed with his wife’s view of male domination, her extreme preoccupation with sexism eventually contributed to the deterioration of their relationship. Graves and his wife met many prominent English writers, including John Masefield, Bertrand Russell, John Galsworthy, H. G. Wells, A. A. Milne, T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Edith Sitwell, and T. E. Lawrence, who gave Graves four chapters of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926), a history of the Arabian revolt in which Lawrence had participated. Graves’s Lawrence and the Arabs recounted Lawrence’s Arabian exploits.
By far the most influential friend was the American poet Laura Riding. Graves faced a melodramatic domestic crisis in 1929 when Riding jumped from a fourth-story window and broke her back. Miraculously, she recovered, and Graves left his wife and spent the next ten years with Riding. She had a profound effect on his poetry, urging him to think more clearly, to pursue verbal precision, and to forgo the more emotional effects he had used when he viewed poetry as psychologically therapeutic. Graves and Riding settled in Deyá, Majorca, which remained Graves’s home for the rest of his life. After Riding left Graves in 1939 for the American poet Schuyler Jackson, Graves married Beryl Hodge.
In the 1930’s Graves began writing his series of historical novels, of which the best are considered to be I, Claudius, Count Belisarius, and King Jesus. The last-named is the most controversial application of Graves’s theory that the Mediterranean peoples were initially worshipers of the Triple Goddess, whereas male gods were originally sons, consorts, and ritual sacrifices to the goddess. Graves explored this theory in the critical volume The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, and from that point on the goddess mythology inspired much of Graves’s poetry as well as his continued research into mythology.