July is the month in which life in Deià begins both to slow down and accelerate. The true heat of summer has arrived and we know it’s only going to become more and more intense. Now we begin to conserve our energy, going out early in the morning, taking siestas, living at night. At the same time, we’re preparing for August, a month wild with parties and craziness, when the village is filled with people we haven’t seen in years or others who rapidly become new friends.
For Robert Graves, who spent almost all of his adult life in the village, July meant something very different. The story begins 100 years ago this month.
Left for dead
Graves, a captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers was caught up in the Battle of the Somme. On 19 July 1916 he was told that his company would be in reserve for an attack taking place the next day. As Miranda Seymour writes in Robert Graves: Life on the Edge, “On the 20th, four days before his twenty-first birthday, he was caught by a fragment of a shell that burst eight paces behind him”.
He was taken to a dressing-station where he was left to die and placed on the casualty list. In a letter dated 22nd July, Robert’s mother Amy was informed of the loss of her gallant son. The letter arrived on Graves’s 21st birthday. His death was announced in The Times.
Graves, of course, survived with mostly minor wounds apart from severe damage to his right lung. But, although he recovered physically, Graves was profoundly – and naturally – changed. He turned his back on his war poetry and remained haunted by his wartime experiences for the rest of his life. But there was more to Graves’s transformation than this.
O Life! O Sun!
As Miranda Seymour writes, ‘His death became for him a mythic event, the giving back to him of his life on (almost) his twenty-first birthday, as if he had been born again. In the poem ‘Escape’ he saw himself as Orpheus, descending into the underworld and making good his escape.’
With monstrous hair carcase – red and dun –
Too late! for I’ve sped through.
O Life! O Sun!
It was to be another thirteen years before Graves was to begin a new life in the sun, and escape from ‘all that’ he left behind in Britain.
The meaning of rebirth
As I’ve written before here, I’m endlessly fascinated by the question of how much Graves’s life and consciousness singlehandedly shaped the idea of Deià, as opposed to the physical place. (Which is not to say they’re not intrinsically connected.)
Like so many of us since, Graves associated a life in the sun with escape into a certain kind of freedom. Could he, or we, have been as liberated as we believe we are in Deià in, I don’t know, Helsinki? If you come from England, probably not.
But why did Graves choose to settle in Deià and what effect did living in the village have on his life and work? Another intriguing question that I’ll speculate upon soon.
If you’d like to read Miranda Seymour’s excellent Robert Graves: A Life on the Edge there’s a copy in the Joan Graves library in Deià.