Robert Graves is an author I have barely read – until recently just his translation of The Golden Ass (1951) – but I have acquired the illusion that I know a lot about him because of all the magazine articles I have read about him. Reviews of Graves biographies, and biographies of the many other famous people in his life, and who knows what else. I knew that Graves had been severely injured in World War I – details in the memoir Good-Bye to All That (1928), which I have not read – but it had never sunk in that he got his start as a writer as a war poet.
His first two chapbooks, Over the Brazier and Goliath and David, are from 1916, the same year Graves suffered an injury at the Battle of the Somme. Most of the poems appear again in his first book, Fairies and Fusiliers (1917). That odd title is accurate, even in its ordering. Poems about the experience men at war, gritty but ironic, slide over towards poems about a magic-tinged childhood, where if fairies and fauns are not quite real it is easy enough to imagine that they are. Then the poems slide back to the trenches, simultaneously real but unreal.
The perfect example in a single poem is “Sorley’s Weather.” Charles Sorley was a young poet killed in action in 1915. His only book was published in 1916:
When outside the icy rain
Comes leaping helter-skelter,
Shall I tie my restive brain
Snugly under shelter?
Shall I make a gentle song
Here in my ﬁrelit study,
When outside the winds blow strong
And the lanes are muddy?
With old wine and drowsy meats
Am I to ﬁll my belly?
Shall I glutton here with Keats?
Shall I drink with Shelley?
Tobacco’s pleasant, ﬁrelight’s good:
Poetry makes both better.
Clay is wet and so is mud,
Winter rains are wetter.
Yet rest there, Shelley, on the sill,
For though the winds come frorely,
I’m away to the rain-blown hill
And the ghost of Sorley.
The archaic “frorely” just means “coldly.” The narrator is not a child, but he has written something close to a child’s poem about the comforts of reading poetry on a stormy night. But the reader, the narrating reader, is also taken back to a different setting of mud, rain, and wind. Perhaps the “rain-blown hill” in France is the reality of the speaker, and the study the fantasy. They co-exist, somehow.
The next poem, “The Cottage,” repeats the idea more bluntly. The poet is in a place where “Snug inside I sit and rhyme,” yet nothing, no weather or flowers or “magic keep me safe to rhyme,” since “Death is waiting by.” The act of writing a poem during war is classically pastoral. Death is in Arcadia, even; Death is everywhere.
Near the end of the collection, Graves again writes about reading poetry in “The Poet in the Nursery.” He is a child, although a poet himself, “the youngest poet,” who finds a book “full of poetry” in a library while the “ancient poet” wrestles with his own work – “rhymes were beastly things and never there.”
The book was full of funny muddling mazes,
Each rounded off into a lovely song,
And most extraordinary and monstrous phrases
Knotted with rhymes like a slave-driver’s thong.
And metre twisting like a chain of daisies
With great big splendid words a sentence long.
No hint of the war here. Perhaps this celebration of the joy of poetry dates to some time before it.
This is, for all its necessary ugliness, a lovely book.