A sensitive rendering of the poet’s formative years.
As Wilson (Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras: A Biography, 2015, etc.) acknowledges, Graves (1895-1985) has been the subject of several well-regarded biographies. She justifies her new examination of his youth, war experiences, and early career on the basis of material recently available, including published letters to a fellow soldier, eight unpublished letters to one of his sisters, and his lover Laura Riding’s autobiographical writings. Despite these sources, however, this biography offers a familiar, if finely nuanced, portrait of Graves, his family, and his scandalous relationship with the mercurial Riding. The author sees World War I as “the defining experience of his life,” praising his war poems as “unsurpassed in their variety, ranging from the brutally realistic and harrowing to the allegorical,” marked by “technical brilliance.” Although Graves destroyed most of those poems—deeming them “journalistic”—Wilson claims that they are “among the best to come out of that war.” But the poet’s youthful “adherence to the traditional forms and metres, together with his belief in rhyme,” may have contributed to his later assessment on aesthetic grounds. Graves’ service was typical for upper-class young men who enlisted: They were eager for the adventure and soon shocked at the reality. Battle experiences, the deaths of many friends, and a severe wounding left him suffering fears and terrors for years afterward. Wilson examines Graves’ platonic male attractions and his relief—proving to himself that he was solidly heterosexual—when he decided to marry. Children quickly followed, and the “relatively spoilt,” naïve, and impractical couple found themselves repeatedly in financial straits, turning to their parents for help. Graves’ life was upended by Riding, who thrived in “a world of violent emotions.” The author vividly recounts the chaos, “near hysteria,” and “bizarre and dramatic events” that she created and Graves’ willing complicity. He eventually left his wife and children to live with Laura until, 10 years later, she left him.
A sympathetic perspective on Graves’ eventful life.