ROBERT GRAVES: Life on the Edge by Miranda Seymour

ROBERT GRAVES: Life on the Edge

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A competent but unimaginative life of the bardic English classicist, novelist, and poet. ""I could fall in love with my big toe if I wanted to,"" declared the contradictory Graves (1895-1985), notorious puritan and inveterate womanizer who held court for years at his home on the Spanish island of Majorca and is best known for his meditations on woman as muse in The White Goddess (1948), et al. Seymour, a novelist and biographer (Ottoline Morrell, 1993, etc.), chronicles the long-lived writer's conquests and his literary achievements with scruple and without sensationalism. The most fascinating of the tales in her account is his long extramarital involvement, during a protracted lull in his first marriage to Nancy Nicholson, with the American poet Laura Riding. Though Seymour conscientiously refrains from overplaying Riding's significance, the woman takes over the book by sheer force of her oddity, ambition, and passion. (The bizarre story of Riding's suicide attempt and recovery are sufficient to inspire a stranger-than-usual Hal Hartley movie.) Graves himself could have benefited, though, from further inspection. His literary and social iconoclasm (he deplored the accomplishments of nearly all his poet peers; his socks, rarely worn, never matched) seem ultimately too charming here. And Seymour's psychologizing is more conventional than convincing. (Yes, Graves suffered under the excesses of a tyrannically virtuous Victorian mother, but didn't most of his generation? Why was his fate singular?) Additional detail about his WW I experiences would have been helpful since their influence was decisive, destructive, and long-lasting. But Seymour dutifully sorts through reams of gossip for their ounce of fact and soundly assesses Graves's work along with his romantic indiscretions. At a time when the biographical form is inspiring much-needed experimentation, Seymour's straightforward approach seems old-fashioned, although sturdy.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
Page count: 384pp
Publisher: Henry Holt