Friday, February 3, 2017

Robert Graves discreetly blends Love, Fear and Hate and Childish Toys in Country Sentiment

In 1920 Robert Graves was still a young poet, not the baffling omni-author he later became.  Country Sentiment was his third book, if I am counting correctly.  It is a mix of children’s verse, or children’s verse for adults, with some war poems.  In his previous books the two modes were jumbled together, but this time the war poems go in their own section, “Retrospect.”

The final poem is titled “A First Review”:

Love, Fear and Hate and Childish Toys
    Are here discreetly blent;
Admire, you ladies, read you boys,
            My Country Sentiment.

He is mocking me for reading his book.  Wait, I can’t skip the third stanza:

Then Tom, a hard and bloody chap,
    Though much beloved by me,
“Robert, have done with nursery pap,
    Write like a man,” says he.

Graves is mocking me by name!

But I would never such I thing.  I enjoy the nursery pap, although Walter de la Mare is better at it.  My only serious objection is to a “moon / June” rhyme in the first poem, “A Frosty Night.”  Was that not already a much-mocked pop song cliché in 1920?

That poem, like many in the book, are off-kilter dialogues between a parent and child, where one or another introduces an uncanny touch.  In “Dicky,” the poor boy in the title, walking home, encounters a dead man, walking about.  Dicky’s wise mother advises him to play it cool around the dead.

Do not sigh or fear, Dicky,
    How is it right
To grudge the dead their ghostly dark
    And wan moonlight?

Good advice, right?  Graves is always good with a ballad:

One moonlight night a ship drove in,
    A ghost ship from the west,
Drifting with bare mast and lone tiller,
    Like a mermaid drest
In long green weed and barnacles:
    She beached and came to rest.  (from “The Alice Jean”)

That is a good way to begin a story.  The story that follows is pretty good, living up to the beginning about as well as it can in our skeptical age.

The war poems, in effect, become a kind of children’s poem, or vice versa, another way to tell stories about the dead and the many ways they return.  The most explicit attempt is “Haunted,” a more generalized version of a story Graves retells in Good-Bye To All That (1929), when Graves and some fellow soldiers saw, they were sure, a comrade who had been recently killed:

I met you suddenly down the street,
Strangers assume your phantom faces,
You grin at me from daylight places,
Dead, long dead, I’m ashamed to greet
Dead men down the morning street.

The Robert Graves-to-be, the mythologist, occasionally appears, as in the sinister “Outlaws,” about the creepiest of the fairy folk, old gods shrunken by lack of worshippers:

Proud gods, humbled, sunk so low,
    Living with ghosts and ghouls,
And ghosts of ghosts and last year’s snow
   And dead toadstools.

Ideas to develop after Graves says good-bye to England and the war.


  1. It's been a very long time since I've taken Graves' Collected Poems down off the shelf, but that I will do that tonight, thanks. The sheer originality and variety of the subjects he takes on are dazzling, as is the diversity of registers in which he writes.

  2. I think I need to get a Collected Poems. Sixty years of poems! I have almost run out of public domain Graves poems. Just two books left.