The Keys to Robert Graves’s Mythologies

By Matt KeeleyNovember 13, 2019

The Keys to Robert Graves’s Mythologies

Robert Graves: From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That (1895–1929) by Jean Moorcroft Wilson

IT SEEMS APPROPRIATE that Robert Graves has an uncertain legacy. He was a genius, to be sure, but he had a talent for self-sabotage — for risking his reputation on cranky ideas, for revising masterpieces and making them worse, for alienating friends and abandoning family. These self-destructive impulses led Graves to think he could safely inhabit a household comprising himself, his wife Nancy, his lover Laura Riding, his wife’s lover Geoffrey Taylor, and several children. Their “quadrilateral” ended poorly, with Graves hurling himself from a third-story window in pursuit and imitation of Riding, who had just thrown herself from the fourth floor. Perhaps he knew that history wouldn’t know what to make of him. After all, in his novels, he devoted himself to reviving forgotten names and to polishing tarnished reputations. Perhaps he expected that someone, someday would do for him what he had once done for the Roman emperor Claudius, for the discarded Byzantine general Belisarius, for the executed Victorian poisoner William Palmer, for the long-suffering wife of John Milton, and for the woman he believed wrote the Odyssey.

Graves died in 1985 at the age of 90. He was survived by seven children and more than 100 books. The independent press Seven Stories is now halfway through its multi-year Graves Project, which “brings back into print 14 of Robert Graves’ most enduring works.” Most writers never compose a single “enduring work,” much less 14, and Seven Stories can’t claim that its titles represent Graves’s most famous books. The poems that earned Graves’s name a place in the Westminster Abbey Poets of the First World War Memorial, for example, aren’t part of the Project, nor are the memoir Good-Bye to All That (1929), the Claudius novels (1934–’35), or the vexed anthropological speculations of The White Goddess (1948). Those books remain in print from other publishers. I doubt that anyone beyond his biographers has read the Graves corpus entire.

As for biographers, there have already been at least three: Miranda Seymour, Martin Seymour-Smith, and Graves’s nephew Richard Perceval Graves. Graves also plays a prominent role in memoirs by several relatives and in former New Directions publisher Griselda Ohannessian’s autobiography Once: As It Was. But those rare figures as variously accomplished and vigorously self-contradictory as Graves always attract further attention, and last year, Jean Moorcroft Wilson published the first volume of a new Graves biography. From Great War Poet to Good-bye to All That covers just more than a third of Graves’s life. World War I was the great trauma of his life and his generation, but readers unfamiliar with Graves’s memoir or previous biographies may be surprised by how eventful Graves’s life was before and after his wretched years in the slaughterhouse of the Eastern Front. As a lonely teenager, for instance, Graves came under the tutelage of mountaineer George Mallory, he of Everest fame, who taught him climbing on school holidays.

Though Graves is best remembered, at least in the United States, as a novelist, memoirist, and historian, Moorcroft Wilson has written a poet’s biography. A reader who couldn’t be bothered to acquire a copy of Graves’s war poems, reissued by his son in the 1980s, could almost reconstruct an anthology from the quotations Moorcroft Wilson includes. She is adept at linking Graves’s verse to his life, but never loses sight of it as art. The book’s central failing must stem from Moorcroft Wilson’s ambition: because she treats Graves at such length and in such depth, the book ends well before its subject has conceived, much less written, the works that he’s best known for. The twin Falls of Graves and Riding (Graves capitalized the incident) and the subsequent composition of Good-Bye to All That make for a dramatic conclusion, but readers eager to learn of The White Goddess and I, Claudius must wait for the next volume.

In her account of his early years, Moorcroft Wilson nonetheless gives us a hint to the impetus of The White Goddess. She describes Graves’s refutation, with citations from the classics, of a teacher who suspected he’d formed a homosexual liasion with a younger student as “an early example of Graves in lecturing mode, of his firm belief in the rightness of his position and his fearlessness, at times recklessness, in the face of opposition.” Graves was a lifelong lecturer, and this tendency culminated with the publication of The White Goddess. This massive survey first appeared in 1948, when Graves was in his early 50s, though you could say he never quite finished it: subsequent editions were revised, expanded, clarified, and appended.

Graves believed he had composed a genuine Key to All Mythologies, and a few on the esoteric and occult fringes still agree with him. To make short work of a long book, The White Goddess argues that humanity once worshipped a three-aspected moon goddess, but that in time immemorial, patriarchal revolutions the world over suppressed her. In a speech given a few years post-publication, Graves, never humble, characterized the “inspiration” that descended upon him: “I seem to have stumbled on the central secret of neolithic and Bronze Age religious faith, which makes sense of many otherwise inexplicable myths and religious customs.” The innumerable “myths and customs” encountered in his investigations include medieval Welsh riddle poetry, forbidden druidic alphabets, the chthonic associations of the elder tree, “the Orphic tree-alphabet,” the cults of Apollo and Minerva, the isle of Avalon in Arthurian myth, and much more. Graves emphasizes the literary significance of his enlightenment, arguing that genuine poets are unknowing Goddess worshippers who reject Apollonian rationality (Apollo is a sort of anti-Goddess in Graves’s scheme) and give ecstatic, if uncomprehended, homage to the mother of poetry.

The White Goddess now seems like the last in a loose series of passionately argued, thoroughly researched, elegantly written, and generally dubious cultural-mythical exegeses. James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a loose, baggy, repetitive, and enthralling account of a dying and resurrecting god across cultures and civilizations, may be the first. Later iterations include Jessie Weston’s Grail study From Ritual to Romance, which influenced T. S. Eliot’s symbolism in The Waste Land, and Alfred Watkins’s The Old Straight Track, the first book to posit ley lines (the term originates with Watkins) across the English landscape. Joseph Campbell’s Jung-lite The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which appeared in 1949, is a disreputable cousin to these books; the anthropological histories of Claude Lévi-Strauss might be their academic heirs.

Graves saw this study as an apex of his career, and the importance he placed on the Goddess has ensured that no critic can read Graves’s poetry without looking for her three faces. Grevel Lindop, in his introduction to the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition of The White Goddess, notes that Graves to some degree became a prisoner of the deity he invented or discovered. Can we read Graves without looking to the moon?


Happily, Graves at his best still enthralls, whatever your opinion on his theories. And there’s something moving about his drive to burnish tarnished reputations and ventriloquize forgotten voices. On the first page of I, Claudius, the emperor introduces himself, declining to reel off the many titles that are his due as emperor of Rome, preferring instead to reflect on his former titles: Claudius the Idiot, Claudius the Stammerer, Clau-Clau-Claudius, and Poor Uncle Claudius. This is a man much mocked, forever put upon, and invariably underestimated. He’s an observer by nature, trained as a historian, and a bystander for his health, since imperial Roman politics are lethal for troublemakers.

As Graves has it, most of the lethality derives from Livia, wife to Augustus, grandmother to Claudius, and the Lady Macbeth of ancient Rome. The first 300 pages of I, Claudius, which cover some 60 years of history, might as well be called She, Livia, for she drives the action, dictating her husband’s policies, executing rivals, maneuvering and living to a ripe old age. Near death, she admits her crimes to Claudius, stating that all were done in fulfillment of prophecies and for the greater glory of Rome. Reading with a knowledge of Graves’s later career, it’s hard not to read her as the White Goddess in her cruelest guise. She’s a thoroughly evil character, but one who wins the reader’s awe. And it’s hard to judge her too harshly after reading of her successor, Caligula, whose iniquities, cruelties, and lunatic fancies account for the last quarter of the novel.

Claudius devotes most of his life to the art of history, and Graves himself took pride in his scholarship. In Graves’s introduction to Claudius the God, he takes exception to critics who believed he “had merely consulted Tacitus’s Annals and Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, run them together, and expanded the result with [his] own ‘vigorous fancy.’” To ensure that such complaints would not recur, Graves then lists more than 20 classical sources, from apocryphal gospels to Greek and Roman histories, that he consulted in preparation for the second book.

As for that vigorous fancy, Moorcroft Wilson quotes a letter from Graves in which he explains his tendency to reuse personal material from his life and the lives of those he knows without consideration of the harm this might do. Graves asks for understanding: “I plead in extenuation that I have very little of what is called ‘ordinary imagination’; it often does not occur to me that people can possibly have strong feelings about things which appear to me perfectly trivial.” He concludes that any offense given springs from this “imaginative defect in me.” For Moorcroft Wilson, “this is a remarkable admission from one of the greatest imaginations of the twentieth century”; for me, it illuminates the paradoxical appeal and frustration of Graves’s writing. When talking of himself in his poems or his memoir, he is direct and engaging. When writing fiction, he almost invariably constructs so sturdy a framework of fact, theory, conjecture, and supposition that the conventional pleasures of fiction are elided.

The first chapter of Homer’s Daughter (1955), part of the Seven Stories Graves Project, is a case in point. After a foreword, which asserts the novel’s double project of vindication — of Nausicaa, the woman Graves believes wrote the Odyssey, and of 19th-century author Samuel Butler, who first posited this theory — we receive 15 pages of ancient Sicilian history. The various tribes and clans and folkways described do pertain to the plot of the book, and I’m sure Graves’s research is impeccable, but the reader suffers. The plot of Homer’s Daughter incorporates several plot elements from Odysseus’ wanderings, and at its best, the novel possesses a similar power to the great epic. The hanging of Penelope’s maids (as Graves refers to them, though Odyssey translator Emily Wilson points out that they were slaves) is perhaps the most distressing and foreign event in the Odyssey. It recurs here, in all its ugliness, and the heroine narrator bears some responsibility for it. She can’t bear to watch and reports that one of the perpetrators vomits after accomplishing his brutal work. But Nausicaa, remember, is the author of the Odyssey and includes the killings in the poem she writes. Perhaps Nausicaa is Graves’s self-portrait as ruthless artist.

Other novels are less successful. Among those reissued by Seven Stories this fall is They Hanged My Saintly Billy (1957), Graves’s last historical novel. The central figure, since “protagonist” overstates things and “antihero” grants him virtue he never displays, is the surgeon William Palmer, hanged for poisoning John Parsons Cook in 1856. The novel appeared a century after Palmer hanged, but eight years before the United Kingdom executed its last felon. In a brief introduction, Graves opines that “all opponents of capital punishment should be wearing black” in commemoration of the surgeon’s death. Alas, this reader, an opponent of capital punishment, finished the book convinced that Palmer, “scoundrel and spendthrift,” was born to hang.

Palmer lost two apprenticeships through his bad behavior; in his maturity he covered thousands of pounds of his lost bets with his mother’s forged signatures. And, whether or not he murdered his dissolute brother Walter, no one can deny he deliberately helped him graveward. The doctor took out a life insurance policy on the booze-soaked Walter, already a delirium tremens sufferer, and encouraged him to drink more, even going so far as to cover any pub bills Walter might incur as he staggered to his deathbed.

Graves makes much of the suicides that plagued the family of Palmer’s ill-fated wife Annie and even has her intimate friends confide to the narrator that, in fact, the congenitally depressed Annie poisoned herself so her husband could benefit from her life insurance policy. Perhaps. But how many people deliberately poison themselves as slowly as Graves alleges Annie Palmer did? Graves is a great accumulator of incidental detail and memorable anecdotes but, as ever, he’s an indifferent analyst of character.


Early in I, Claudius, the emperor reflects on the posthumous life of his memoirs. “When it is written,” he suggests, “I shall treat it with a preservative fluid, seal it in a lead casket and bury it deep in the ground somewhere for posterity to dig up and read.” And then he thinks again: “Perhaps on second thoughts, I shall not take the trouble to seal it up in a casket: I shall merely leave it lying about. For my experience as a historian is that more documents survive by chance than by intention.” Dozens of Graves’s books have little hope of emerging from the lead casket of obscurity. We may safely let Impenetrability: or, The Proper Habit of English (1926) languish, and in the nearly 100 years since their publication, we’ve moved beyond the futures described in Lars Porsena: or, The Future of Swearing and Improper Language (1927) and Mrs. Fisher: or, The Future of Humour (1928).

There are more reissues to come — including Count Belisarius (1938), Wife to Mr. Milton (1943), The Isles of Unwisdom (1949), and the two Sergeant Lamb books (1940, 1941) — and it’s easy to imagine other books, like Antigua, Penny, Puce (1936), a tale of philately and other obsessions, receiving reissues further on. Aside from a few devotees of the White Goddess, no one rates Graves as a prophet these days, but his books, some of them at least, are too good to be left “lying about.” The best of them should be picked up and read. We should be grateful that it’s easier than ever to rediscover Graves and grant his work the attention it deserves.


Matt Keeley lives in New York, where he reads a lot of books and buys more. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

LARB Contributor

Matt Keeley lives in New York, where he reads a lot of books and buys more. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.


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