Robert Graves by Jean Moorcroft Wilson review – from war poet to Goodbye to All That

This sober biography includes convincing readings of his poetry, but it takes Graves’s charismatic lover to set the narrative alight

Miranda Seymour opened her 1995 biography of Robert Graves, the last to be published until the present volume, with a word about his standing: in 20th-century poetry, “Robert Graves is to love what Philip Larkin is to mortality”. More than 20 years later, that comparison feels a bit incongruous. Graves’s reputation as a poet has faded considerably, to the extent that he’s now better known as the author of The White Goddess, a “grammar” of the poetic spirit that influenced writers from Ted Hughes to BS Johnson, and a pair of bestselling and critically acclaimed novels about the Emperor Claudius, which were turned into the hit BBC TV series I, Claudius.

If few contemporary readers would place Graves alongside Larkin in the pantheon of 20th-century poets, though, fewer still would name him among the major poets of the first world war. To the extent that he’s associated with that conflict at all, it’s for another prose work, his lively and revealing memoir, Goodbye to All That. So it’s with no small ambition that Jean Moorcroft Wilson – the author of well-received biographies of Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Hamilton Sorley and Edward Thomas – sets out to reassert both the importance of Graves’s poetry and the centrality of the trenches to his life and work.

During his lifetime, Graves “suppressed” (his word) most of the 100 or so poems he wrote about the war, but they have been readily available since the publication of his Complete Poems (2000). They only rarely evoke the detail of life at the front: less direct than those of Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, they tend to approach the horrors of modern warfare via the ambiguities of ancient myth. Moorcock Wilson quotes liberally from them, and makes a good case for their minatory power. But she hasn’t managed to dig up any previously unknown work. What she calls her “most dramatic” discovery – Sassoon’s annotated copy of Goodbye to All That, in which he rails against his former friend’s indiscretions and exaggerations – would be much more dramatic in a biography of Sassoon, since it’s his character the find reveals.

The paucity of fresh material may account for some of the book’s more curious emphases. Graves’s previous biographers have followed their subject’s lead in identifying his mother as the cause of his extreme prudishness (shading into an outright horror of heterosexual relations), which persisted into his mid-20s. German-born Amy Graves was intensely religious and moralistic, so puritanical in her outlook that her children were forbidden to go to the theatre. Moorcroft Wilson wants to treat her more fairly than her predecessors have, but the evidence she musters for the defence isn’t exactly dynamite. Amy was “far from inflexible”, she insists at one point: “Robert remembered persuading her to let them play charades on a Sunday, for example, providing the scenes were all Biblical.”

Moorcroft Wilson is much better when writing about Graves’s adult milieu and is especially good on his relationships with Sassoon and TE Lawrence, which she traces with diligent scholarship and consummate even-handedness. Even so, her immersion in the era can lead to some myopic commentary, such as calling the poet and activist Edward Carpenter a “pioneer of ‘same-sex’ relationships”. (Tell that to the Greeks.) Her treatment of Graves’s prose is rather less convincing than her readings of his poetry. Though she describes him as “one of the greatest imaginations” of the 20th century, she takes him at his word when he writes (in the introduction to his Collected Short Stories) that “pure fiction” was “beyond” his “imaginative range”, and proceeds to treat the stories as corrupted non-fiction – going so far as to tick him off for getting “a number of facts … wrong” in one of them. Her tone is even sharper when she spots inaccuracies in his letters, or in Goodbye to All That. She complains that Graves “was always seduced by his love of a ‘good’ story”, which, given his profession, you’d be forgiven for thinking was an advantage. But the examples she provides of his “cavalier attitude towards the facts” are never very damning, and sometimes exhibit surreal levels of pedantry on her part, as when she reveals that his march to the trenches was a journey of “six miles (he claimed five)”.

Nor does she communicate Graves’s character with much vividness. She talks of his “tactlessness, insensitivity and apparent callousness”, and gives examples, but when she makes a passing reference to his optimism, 200 pages in, it’s the first we’ve heard about it. The lovable, dreamy, childlike figure who emerges from Seymour’s biography – and who makes a memorable cameo in Martin Amis’s memoir Experience – is absent from these pages.

It’s only with the appearance of Laura Riding, three-quarters of the way in, that Moorcroft Wilson’s book comes to life. Charismatic, sexy, manipulative and mercurial, Riding contributes a much-needed blast of energy to the sober narrative. After arriving in Graves’s household in 1926 to work as his assistant, she swiftly seduced him, doing away with his wife Nancy and his sexual hangups in one clean sweep.

The effect can be felt in his work, which from that point on became overwhelmingly concerned with romantic love. Moorcroft Wilson gives an excellent account of the folie à deux that led to the collapse of most of Graves’s friendships, and eventually (in 1929) to Riding hurling herself out of a fourth-floor window, followed by Graves from a window one floor down (he escaped miraculously unscathed; she spent months in hospital, and was lucky to walk again). The trouble is that by placing this combination of sex and violence at the end of her book, where it inevitably feels like the climax of Graves’s story, Moorcroft Wilson scuppers her stated objective of shifting “the emphasis back to … the first world war”.

• Robert Graves is published by Bloomsbury. To order a copy for £21.25 (RRP £25) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


Edmund Gordon

The GuardianTramp

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