When I picture Robert Graves he’s a broken-nosed hero poet, boxer, emperor, eyes sharply focused on something no-one else can see. By the time he died in 1985, at the age of 90, he was a far cry from the man who shaped the myth. It feels wrong to go into the reasons why but whatever made Graves himself seemed to have retreated almost to the point where it no longer existed.
But what of the weight of Graves’s legacy? What did he leave us?
Graves by Mati Klarwein 1957
For poets who came of age in the 1950s, Graves was a kind of astronaut of love. In 1958, poet Philip Larkin wrote, ‘Graves is a good a poetic mentor as the young are likely to get. His advantage as a scatterer of other people’s nonsense resides chiefly in the intimidating quality of his own.’ He was a ‘lone wolf…outside movements’ as the critic DJ Enright put it in his 1965 book Conspirators and Poets. Enright goes on to say that Graves is a necessary counter to poetic modernism (think Eliot and Pound), which remains as true today as it ever was.
Today, Graves’s belief that poetry should be ‘sense; good sense; penetrating, often heart-rending sense’ continues to have its adherents. For poet and critic Grevel Lindop, ‘He remains a very fine poet. An exemplar of how to use English, and how to use poetic form without letting form push you around.’
For me, Graves’s use of English is the most appealing quality of his work. No matter what he’s writing – love poetry, The White Goddess, short stories like She Landed Yesterday, the books of myth and history – Graves’s language is always crystal clear. I may not grasp him but I understand him.
Not so long ago I was arguing about Graves with a friend of mine who champions modernism. I said that Graves’s real significance lies in the way he anticipated a certain shift in consciousness from the early 1960s.
Graves’s relationships with women from the twenties onwards seem astonishingly modern. Whether it’s simply born out of his own complicated psychology or not, his veneration of the Goddess is remarkably ahead of its time. Graves’s belief in the supreme power of the Goddess helped inspire both modern feminism and New Age thinking.
But it’s Graves’s connection to what would become the psychedelic movement which most intrigues me.
Graves was friends with R Gordon Wasson, a JP Morgan vice president and amateur mycologist who was researching into magic mushrooms. He told Wasson about a cult in Oaxaca, southern Mexico, that used the vision-inducing mushroom teonanacatl.
Guided by a shaman, Wasson took the mushrooms. The experience helped shape his belief that ‘psychedelic mushrooms provided the key to many of the world’s religious mysteries…including the tree of good and evil in the Bible.’ (Marcus Boon, The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs). Graves too believed that much of classical and pre-classical mythology could be explained by the use of psychedelics.
When Graves took mushrooms with Wasson on January 31, 1960, aged sixty-four, he ‘experienced worlds of jewels, demons, and erotic fantasy’. But, and this is interesting, mushroom hallucinations didn’t come close to his experience of being in a poetic trance. He also predicted that the psychedelic experience would ‘soon be snatched at by jaded sensation-seekers’.
How right he was.
A call of high romance
The opening line of Graves’s 1918 poem ‘The Last Post’ accidentally sums up his continued appeal for so many of us.
In a world of rampant greed and materialism where constant growth is the new god, Graves offers a ‘call of high romance’. He reminds us that the poetic spirit never dies, love is always supreme, and it is possible to choose how we live.
And this is what Deià promises. If we only listen.