ROBERT GRAVES: His Life and Works by Martin Seymour-Smith
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ROBERT GRAVES: His Life and Works

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Seymour-Smith calls Graves ""the foremost English-language love poet of this century--and probably of the two preceding ones, too."" He has been Graves' friend for nearly 40 years; Graves' ""confidences"" are a major source of this biography; and Mrs. Graves ""went over every word of the final draft of this book with me."" Still, though this long, detailed life-and-work does indeed display the biases and limitations of an authorized biography, Seymour-Smith (Poets Through Their Letters, 1969) is scholarly and (usually) shrewd enough to provide both Graves-lovers and Graves-haters with lots of ammunition. Son of a poetic father and a fiercely puritanical mother, Robert was ""odd man out"" at prep school--in conflict between his independent/sexual nature and ""maternally induced"" morality: ""His poetry arose directly from this urgent need to reconcile the opposing forces. . . ."" Determined to be a poet, despising the System, terrified of homosexuality (but ""never homosexual,"" S-S repeatedly insists), Graves chose WW I enlistment over Oxford, was shaken by France, quickly (virginally) began a loveless marriage with strident feminist Nancy. . . but was a few years later in the thrall of an even stronger Goddess: American-Jewish poet/guru Laura Riding, who freed his creativity, soon denied him sex, and--in a series of adulterous triangles and quartets--helped the ever-willing Graves to have a hellish time of it. (S-S contends, unconvincingly, that Graves' adoration ""was not subservience. . . it was protectiveness."") Meanwhile, Graves won celebrity with the hastily-written Goodbye to All That, was always short of cash, caricatured himself and his awful situation in I, Claudius (an intended ""potboiler""), produced ""tense"" poetry. And then, discovering sympathetic Beryl (a collaborator's wife) just about the time that Laura found a masterful man in Schuyler Jackson, he embarked on a ""serene"" period--fathering four more children, living on Mallorca, writing his best love poems. . . and The White Goddess--which Seymour-Smith defends against an array of criticisms. (""Though Graves' postulated matriarchy never existed, it none the less stands for something that poets and others yearn for."") The defense of Graves' position in 20th-century poetry, however, is less persuasive. And Seymour-Smith sometimes works too hard at giving poetic/philosophical dignity to Graves' obsessive involvements--especially his attachment to four ""Muses"" (young women) over the past 30 years, with ""no objection"" from wife Beryl. But alert readers will know when to wonder about the critical judgments or the inconsistent psychological portrait here--and will be able to enjoy Seymour-Smith's painstaking reconstructions of those literary-world scandals, his stylish (if occasionally snide) sketches of Graves' contemporaries, and his intriguing wrestlings with the unique, complex Graves persona.

Pub Date: Feb. 7th, 1982
Publisher: Holt, Rinehart & Winston