Meeting Robert Graves

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    In the summer of 1970, when driving around Majorca, I stopped for a few days in the remote coastal village of Deyá. I was surprised and delighted to find that Robert Graves held court in the local café every night. The war hero and poet was the author of a memoir, Goodbye to All That, and I, Claudius which, he proudly said, had been used as the code text for the July 1944 plot against Hitler. He was then seventy-five and still a formidably imposing figure – tall, broken-nosed and wild-haired – who strolled imperiously through his demesne in a flowing cape and flat- topped Córdoba hat. I was impressed by his rugged grandeur but irritated by his arrogance and perplexed by his murky theories of Mariolatry among the Arabs. Magisterial, remote and austere, he wanted worshipful and submissive followers.

    Nearly fifty years after the publication of his first successful book, Graves had forgotten that, as a young, shell-shocked ex-soldier, he had been the adoring disciple of T. E. Lawrence, one of the most famous heroes of the Great War, and that Graves’ biography, Lawrence and the Arabs, which helped create the ‘Prince of Mecca’ legend, was mainly written by Lawrence himself. Graves thought that Lawrence had deliberately lost the first draft of Seven Pillars of Wisdom in the Reading train station because he wanted to write from memory and make his book less of a factual history.

    I boldly suggested that his fascinating poem, ‘Children of Darkness’, had been inspired by Lawrence’s perverse idea that children are responsible for their own conception by provoking lust in their parents. But Graves vehemently contradicted me and egoistically insisted, ‘I was never influenced by anyone; I always influenced other writers!’ Despite, or perhaps because of Graves’ denial, I still believed the poem came to Graves through Lawrence. In his notorious Pauline letter of 27 March 1923, written when he was a private in the Tank Corps and living in the crude and lecherous barracks, the illegitimate, guilt-ridden Lawrence expressed the idea that original sin precedes not only birth but also conception:

    But surely the world would be more clean if we were dead or mindless? We are all guilty alike, you know. You wouldn’t exist, I wouldn’t exist, without this carnality. Everything with flesh in its mixture is the achievement of a moment when the lusty thought of Hut 12 has passed to action and conceived: and isn’t it true that the fault of birth rests somewhat on the child? I believe it’s we who led our parents on to bear us, and it’s our unborn children who make our flesh itch. A filthy business all of it.

    By an extraordinary coincidence, my idea was later confirmed by Graves’ unpublished letter to Lawrence in 1922, which a South African collector sent to me. Graves wrote, ‘When biking to All Souls last week, I had started a poem which your last words in the College, about the futility of Being, finished; and also your remarks about parental difficulties, I suppose’. He then quoted the first stanza of the eighteen-line poem, published in Whipperginny the same year as Lawrence’s letter:

    We spurred our parents to the kiss, Though doubtfully they shrank from this – Day had no courage to pursue What lusty dark alone might do: Then we were joined from their caress In heat of midnight, one from two.

    In his Collected Poems, Graves omitted the original epigraph from Luke 16:8 – ‘In their Generation Wiser than the Children of Light’ – which puns on ‘Generation’ and provides a spiritual contrast to the evil Children of Darkness. In Swifter than Reason, Douglas Day observed that Graves’ theme is ‘the guilt which parents feel during the day for their actions in “the lusty dark”’.

    As our conversation continued, Graves alluded in passing to the terrible time he had had with the American poet, Laura Riding. He was currently infatuated with a crop of young literary groupies and carnal muses, patiently tolerated by his increasingly intolerant wife. His oldest daughter increased the tension by interrupting our lively talk about Kipling and insisting that American professors knew absolutely nothing about English literature.

    Graves said he admired Hemingway, with whom he had two odd things in common. The reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated – Graves in the war, Hemingway in his two African plane crashes – and both had publicly proclaimed their resurrection and read their own obituaries. Both men also had disappointed and unstable mistresses who had jumped out of windows and broken their backs. When, as an aspiring author, I asked how Graves had managed to write so many books, he coolly replied, ‘Oh, not that many – just two a year for fifty years’.