In 1940, Stephen Spender, one of the great poets of the age, reviewed “No More Ghosts, Selected Poems” by Robert Graves. He found Graves to be a frustrating poet, capable of directness and power but also of too much restraint and self-awareness. “Fundamentally Graves is more genuinely and truthfully an individual than are many of his contemporaries, less of the literary man,” thought Spender, “though excessive prose-writing has probably not helped the flow of his metres.” Indeed, he found in the poems thoughts perhaps better expressed in prose. At his best, however, Graves’s “powerful will and intellect” made him “the equal of Eliot, or Auden, or later Yeats”.
It is excellent that this selection should have been made of Robert Graves’s always remarkable, often beautiful, often arid, cantankerous, difficult and forbidding, poems. His sturdy craftsmanship, the concentration of his thought, make Graves’s poems extremely individual, and it is perhaps their uncompromising qualities that make them all too neglected. In an early poem, “Rocky Acres”, Graves gives us a picture that remarkably resembles the effect of his own poems:
“This is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without care.”
The reader of his Collected Poems may well quail before this craggy landscape, but having acclimatised himself by this Sesame Book, he will certainly acquire a taste for Graves’s poetry, which is distinct and pure and peculiar like a wine, more acrid than what WB Yeats called “Graves Supérieur”. Graves himself insists on quality and texture, regarding poets as objects, in fact as fish or apples:
“Any honest housewife would sort them out,
Having a nose for fish, an eye for apples.”
Because they have such distinctive and tangible qualities, these poems should positively be read – the reviewer’s first task is to say, “Read this book,” or “Don’t read it.”
As a poet, Graves is so much himself that it is not much use comparing him with other contemporary poets. Nevertheless, some of his contemporaries owe much to him: Norman Cameron, obviously, and WH Auden, who has cribbed a bit from:
“Whose griefs are melancholy
Whose flowers are oafish,
Whose waters, silly,
Whose birds, raffish,
Whose fish, fish.”
Fundamentally Graves is more genuinely and truthfully an individual than are many of his contemporaries, less of the literary man, though excessive prose-writing has probably not helped the flow of his metres. However, he is somewhat warped and weather-beaten and a vein of spitefulness runs through much of his work, especially when he touches on that holy subject that poets are well advised, surely, to avoid – “the poet.”
The reader of Graves’s poems can hardly fail to be struck by the contrast between the almost childish simplicity of the early poems and the cerebration of the later ones. In his first poems, Graves is attracted by childish and folk forms – the ballad, the nursery rhyme, rugged Skeltonics. In his later work, the thought and imagery are often as complicated as that of “metaphysical” poetry, and they have a relentless willed quality, as though Mr Graves was determined not to let himself or the reader off lightly. There is a lack of accidents, of spontaneity, of improvisation.
Many of these poems seem to have a prose meaning behind them that has deliberately been translated into poetry. They are not inevitable. They are nearly always about subjects that might be expressed in other ways but which happen to have been put into poetry. After reading a poem by Graves one feels inclined to ask, “What is it about?” and then to restate it to oneself in prose. Some of the poems here, such as “The Laureate”, and “The Devil’s Advice to Storytellers”, might equally be written as notes in But It Still Goes On, notes on Poet Laureates and advice to prospective novelists written down when Graves was himself writing a novel. But this criticism would equally apply to much German poetry and to some poems of John Donne and other metaphysical writers. The fact is that the contemporary dogma that a poem can only say something which it says in that particular way is an overstatement. There is also a poetry of sprichworte, proverbs and morals, which is really a terse way of expressing prose sentiments.
One poem, “In Procession”, consists of a procession of thoughts which occur to Mr Graves when he is half asleep. The opening is promising, but then he expresses his own disappointment on awakening to find that he cannot get back to the state of semi-consciousness:
“Oh, then, when I wake,
Could I courage take
To renew my speech,
Could I stretch and reach
The flowers and the ripe fruit…
Could I rip a silken shred
From the banner tossed ahead”… etc.
The prosaic literary quality of these images illustrates the most frequent cause of weakness in his poems – the failure to get beneath that which is willed and thought out to that which is spontaneous and unexpected and living and involuntary. This awareness undoubtedly exists in the earlier poems, but it is repressed later on, as though Graves was not quite satisfied in finding himself too simple a person.
Nevertheless, perhaps the creaking of the machine is worth it, because when his later poems do come off they have a distinction of diction which is beautiful and memorable:
“Be assured, the Dragon is not dead
But once more from the pools of peace
Shall rear his fabulous green head.”
“Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.”
The two poems that open with these lines have an impersonality, an exactness of statement, a finality, which makes them as exciting as the best of TS Eliot, or Auden, or later Yeats. I have read them many times during the past ten years, and do not tire of them. It is a pity that there is something in Mr Graves’s powerful will and intellect that obstructs him from writing always with such a naturalness and freedom.