By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Robert Graves (1895-1985) is now probably best-remembered for two prose works: his 1929 memoir Goodbye to All That, about his experience fighting in the First World War, and his 1934 novel I, Claudius, set in ancient Rome. But Graves was also a highly influential poet – and theorist of poetry – whose work in this field influenced a raft of poets, including Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, both of whom thought highly of Graves’s ‘grammar of poetic myth, The White Goddess.
What, then, of Graves’s own poetry? Although he was their contemporary, Robert Graves worked apart from the modernists, and in form and subject matter he was, on the whole, more traditional. But his poetry has an intensity of thought and feeling and displays a mastery of form that mean he is well worth reading. In this post, we select and introduce ten of Graves’s best poems.
1. ‘Two Fusiliers’.
Graves’s first collection of poems, Fairies and Fusiliers, appeared in 1918, when he was still in his early twenties. This poem provided the volume with half its title: it is spoken by a pair of fusiliers who have been forever joined and bonded in macabre friendship through death, after they were killed in the war.
The poem is one of Graves’s first published responses to the First World War, and acts as a prefiguring of his more famous prose work, Goodbye to All That.
2. ‘The Cool Web’.
One of Graves’s most popular poems, ‘The Cool Web’ is about the web of language which humans are uniquely capable of using: weaving a web of words, we can describe a whole host of experiences and sensations. As so often with Graves, the emphasis is on childhood development and experience: a feature which, among others, points up the influence of Romanticism on Graves’s artistic worldview.
3. ‘Double Red Daisies’.
In the First World War, during the Battle of the Somme, Robert Graves was declared dead. He was, thankfully, still alive, and went on to live until 1985. After the end of the war, Graves published Fairies and Fusiliers, a collection of poems written during the war.
This light poem about red daisies is songlike, childlike, and a world away from the grim and tragic horrors symbolised by the red poppies of No Man’s Land.
4. ‘Flying Crooked’.
Taking the species of butterfly known as the ‘cabbage white’ as its subject, this poem by Robert Graves is really an extended metaphor for human activity: just because the cabbage white cannot fly straight, unlike the more graceful swift, this doesn’t make the lowly butterfly ‘wrong’ or imperfect. There’s something to be said for ‘flying crooked’, for being different…
5. ‘A Boy in Church’.
This poem (as the title suggests) is about a child sitting through a church service; like Emily Dickinson’s poem, it’s a poem about the true ‘church’ being found amongst the world of nature, or in the mind, rather than in the bricks and mortar and bells and whistles of the actual physical church.
6. ‘The Kiss’.
Opening with a stanza-long question about what it feels like to have your heart in your mouth when you love someone and long to kiss them, ‘The Kiss’ then proceeds to take a morbid turn, as the aptly named Graves associates this kiss not with love and life but with a dearth, and then death. This kiss is the kiss of death.
7. ‘A Frosty Night’.
Graves’s fondness for traditional forms and clear, straightforward poetic language which allowed him to connect immediately with his readers means it should come as little surprise that he excelled at the ballad: a narrative poem written in quatrains, telling a story and having its roots in oral culture. This poem has a simple subject: a mother interrogating her daughter Alice, asking what is wrong with her …
8. ‘The Beach’.
This short poem comprises two stanzas, the first of which considers children playing at the beach and the second of which shifts to the salty sea-dogs who tell the children of their extensive experience of the sea.
9. ‘A Child’s Nightmare’.
This poem should unsettle the most devoted cat-lover, with its description of some strange purring creature, a ‘hideous nightmare thing’, that would loom over the speaker’s bed when he was a small child, purring and uttering the one word, ‘Cat!’
10. ‘The God Called Poetry’.
As Graves’s 1948 theory of poetry The White Goddess can attest, Graves took poetry seriously and viewed it with a mystical awe, approaching the divine.
And in this poem, he uses his simple, plain language and easy rhymes to sing poetry’s praises: it is thanks to poetry that man can soar higher than he otherwise could. But poetry, like a god, is capable of both sublime creation and terrible, monstrous destruction; this poem explores this tension.