With 1917 potentially poised for success at the Oscars, it feels like a good moment to look at the work of a WWI poet, namely that of Robert Graves. Now, I didn’t read his Selected Poems (Faber & Faber, edited by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley) because of the film. If anything, it’s the other way around: I saw 1917 because I am teaching Graves’s poetry this semester to an upper-level class of English majors, and I was curious as to how well the film supplemented the poetry of Robert Graves, who fought in the war (mostly in France) from 1914-1916, when he was badly wounded in the Battle of the Somme; from then on, he served in domestic posts until 1918, when he was discharged while undergoing a bout of the Spanish influenza.
The Selected Poems covers more than Graves’s war poetry, but the war touches everything. He was good friends with fellow poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, and their varied experiences of the war are clearly visible in Graves’s work. Like Owen, whose “Parable of the Old Man and the Young” retold the Old Testament sacrifice of Isaac from a new angle, Graves retold the story of David and Goliath through the lens of the Great War, in which the Philistine giant brutally slays the young hero:
(God’s eyes are dim, His ears are shut.)
One cruel backhand sabre-cut—
“I’m hit! I’m killed!” young David cries,
Throws blindly forward, chokes … and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.
This rewriting of a familiar biblical story points at another tendency in Graves’s work: namely, that if the old myths or ideals are no longer sufficient, then new ones must be found to replace them. He turns, thus, to various sources: classical Greek and Latin literature, Celtic myth, and fairytales, in place of a god whom he does, indeed, find silent and uncaring. For instance, he translates for himself the Song of Amergin from the Irish Mythological Cycle:
I am the womb: of every holt,
I am the blaze: on every hill,
I am the queen: of every hive,
I am the shield: for every head,
I am the tomb: of every hope.
This blend of bleakness and yearning often characterizes Graves’s poems, which remain stubbornly formal in defiance of other trends of the 20th century. It is startling to realize that he was a contemporary of T. S. Eliot, whose Waste Land defied so many poetic conventions and provoked so much ire, and it can be tempting to see Graves as operating in deliberate rejection of Modernism’s demands to make it new and break or reject old forms: his work is stubbornly formal, though it rarely feels antiquated or Victorian. And yet there are profound and poignant parallels between the work of both poets. Eliot laments the “unreal city” of post-WWI London, and paints it as a place in which the living numbly move around as though already dead. Meanwhile, Graves gives us his haunting “Letter from Wales,” in which a soldier writes to a friend, asking if in fact they both died in the war, and it is their unreal, ghostly doppelgängers who now move among the living:
Somewhere in the neighbourhood of Albert,
When you took a rifle bullet through the skull
Just after breakfast on a mad patrol.
But still you kept up the same stale pretence
As children do in nursery battle-games,
‘No, I’m not dead. Look, I’m not even wounded.’
And I admit I followed your example,
Though nothing much happened that time in France.
I died at Hove after the Armistice,
Pneumonia, with the doctor’s full consent….
What I’m asking really isn’t ‘Who am I?’
Or ‘Who are you?’ (you see my difficulty?)
But a stage before that, ‘How am I to put
The question that I’m asking you to answer?’
Even Graves’s poems about love, or the power of language, seem haunted by this question: How am I to put / The question that I’m asking you to answer? The war leaves him questioning perpetually, which is perhaps why he was a bit of a cad in his personal life, marrying twice but conducting numerous affairs, or why he questioned old orthodoxies to the extent of speculating in a novel that Homer’s Odyssey was in fact written by a woman.
I loved reading these poems, some of which were familiar, and some of which were new. It certainly helps that they are offered up in this lovely slim volume in the standard house style of Faber & Faber, whose covers and interiors are always cleanly and beautifully designed, presenting the work to its best advantage. But also, perhaps it was because Graves remains uncertain in these poems about the extent to which language can express or seal reality, and yet he continues also continues to write, bringing us, like himself, to either “a new confusion of [our] understanding” or “a new understanding of [our] confusion.” In this regard, these poems–whose crisp, clean forms make them approachable and easy to slide into–are suited to the uncertainty of the present day, and our own yearnings for certainty and meaning in a world that we suspect is corrupt. How am I to put the question that I’m asking you to answer? I’m not sure, but Graves reminds me that I know there is a question there, and perhaps if I can articulate it, I’ll stumble into something–even if it’s something I fear to know.