Robert von Ranke Graves (24 July 1895 – 7 December 1985) was an English scholar, poet, and novelist. During his long life, he produced more than 140 works in total. He was the son of the Anglo-Irish writer Alfred Perceval Graves; the historian Leopold von Ranke was his mother's uncle, hence his middle name.
Born in Wimbledon, Graves received his early education at Charterhouse School and won a scholarship to St John's College, Oxford University. However, the prospect of spending another four years of his life studying Latin and Greek did not appeal to the nineteen-year-old Graves, and with the outbreak of World War I he enlisted almost immediately in the Royal Welch Fusiliers (RWF). He published his first volume of poems, Over The Brazier, in 1916, but he later tried to suppress his war poetry. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916 he received such serious injuries that his family were informed of his death. However, he recovered, at the cost of permanent damage to his lungs, and, after a brief spell back in France, spent the remainder of the war in England, despite his efforts to return to the front.
In 1917, Graves played an important part in saving his fellow poet Siegfried Sassoon from a court-martial after the latter went absent without leave and wrote to his commanding officer denouncing the war. The two officers had become firm friends while serving with the RWF. Graves's biographies document the story well, and it is fictionalised in Pat Barker's novel Regeneration. The intensity of their early relationship is nowhere demonstrated more clearly than in Graves's Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), which collection contains a plethora of poems celebrating their friendship. Sassoon himself remarked upon a "heavy sexual element" within it, which observation is heavily supported by the sentimental nature of much of the surviving correspondence between the two men. Through Sassoon, Graves also encountered Wilfred Owen, whose talent he recognised. Owen attended Graves's wedding to Nancy Nicholson in 1918, presenting him with, as Graves recalled, "a set of twelve Apostle spoons".
Following his marriage and the end of World War I, Graves eventually entered St John's College, Oxford. He later attempted to make a living by running a small shop, but the business soon failed. In 1926 he took up a post at Cairo University, accompanied by his wife, their children, and the poet Laura Riding. He returned to London briefly, where he split up with his wife under highly emotional circumstances (at one point Riding attempted suicide) before leaving to live with Riding in Majorca. There they continued to publish letterpress books under the rubric of the Seizin Press, founded and edited the literary journal Epilogue, and wrote two successful academic books together: A Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and A Pamphlet Against Anthologies (1928) (both vastly influential on modern literary criticism), among much other literary work.
Some argue that A Survey of Modernist Poetry initiated the new criticism; it is certainly true that it was one of the very first published works to talk about Modernist poetry and literature. (Previous writers had talked of the "modern movement" or similar phrases.) In 1927, he also published Lawrence and the Arabs, a commercially successful biography of T. E. Lawrence.
In 1929 Graves published Goodbye to All That (revised by him and republished in 1957); it proved a success but cost him many of his friends, notably Siegfried Sassoon. In 1934 he published his most successful work, I, Claudius. Using classical sources he constructed a complex and compelling tale of the life of the Roman emperor Claudius, a tale extended in the sequel Claudius the God (1935). Another historical novel by Graves, Count Belisarius (1938), recounts the career of the Byzantine general Belisarius.
Graves and Riding had been forced to leave Majorca in 1936 due to the Spanish Civil War. In 1939, they moved to the United States and took lodging in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The remarkable details of their sojourn there and ultimate breakup have been told in several books: T.S. Matthews, a managing editor of Time magazine, published a factual account in Jacks or Better (1977), and Miranda Seymour, one of Graves's biographers, gave a fictionalized version in her novel The Summer of '39 (1998). Also see Richard Perceval Graves: Robert Graves: 1927-1940, The Years with Laura.
After returning to England, Graves began a new relationship with Beryl Hodge, then the wife of Alan Hodge. In 1941 he published The Long Week-End, a collaboration with Alan Hodge. He also collaborated with Alan Hodge on 1943's The Reader Over Your Shoulder, a book on clear writing. A 1947 revision was published as The Use and Abuse of the English Language. In 1946 he and his new wife Beryl re-established a home in Deya, Majorca. 1946 also saw the publication of the historical novel King Jesus. He published the controversial The White Goddess in 1948 and went on to a series of affairs and lesser amours with his "muses". In 1953 he published The Nazarene Gospel Restored with Joshua Podro. In 1955 he published his copiously annotated version of The Greek Myths. Even those who are unpersuaded by the White Goddess-style interpretations he provided acknowledge the completeness and accuracy of his compilation of the myths themselves. In 1956, he published a volume of short stories Catacrok! Mostly Stories, Mostly Funny. In 1961 he became professor of poetry at Oxford, a post he held until 1966.
In his poetry, Graves was an iconoclast, decrying many of the developments of the modernist schools of poetry, and holding highly individual views about the value of many works in the literary canon. His home in Majorca became something of a Mecca for iconoclasts and rebels of all sorts, and people as diverse as Len Lye, William Gaddis and Robert Wyatt made the pilgrimage. Holding that love was the only true subject for poetry, Graves confined most of his poetry to short lyrics, many of which require an understanding of The White Goddess for full comprehension. Graves dismissed his historical novels, such as I, Claudius and Count Belisarius, as mere potboilers, but they continue to be highly regarded. Graves is highly regarded as a novelist, but like Thomas Hardy (whom Graves knew and admired greatly), Graves always considered himself to be a poet first and foremost.
Graves died in December 1985 at the age of 90, following a long illness and gradual mental degeneration. He and Beryl are buried in the small churchyard on the hill in Deia, overlooking the sea on the Northwest coast of Majorca. A film about Graves's tempestuous relationship with Laura Riding, entitled Poetic Unreason, was scheduled to begin shooting in the spring of 2005.
Graves had eight children: Jenny, David, Catherine (who married nuclear scientist Clifford Dalton) and Sam with Nancy Nicholson, and William, Lucia (herself a translator), Juan and Tomas with Beryl Graves (see the Guardian obituary of Beryl Graves).