from the Introduction by Miranda Seymour
Paying homage to a great poet at the time of his death, aged 90, obituarists celebrated the author of the I, Claudius
novels (written in the early Thirties and memorably filmed in 1975) and The White Goddess
(praised to Graves himself by an admiring Ted Hughes in 1967 as 'the chief holy book of my poetic conscience').
Thirty-two years ago, Goodbye To All That
commanded respect, but significantly less awe than The White Goddess
. Part of the immense output of an exceptionally prolific career (Graves published 55 collections of poems, 43 works of non-fiction, ten translations, fifteen novels and one play), his only major work of autobiography was perceived as an admirable contribution to a majestic career. It was an impressionistic and candid document of record about a war that Graves was not alone in believing should never have happened. Nevertheless, the sense conveyed by obituary writers at the time of its author's death was not - as may be argued today - that Goodbye to All That
had been his most significant prose achievement.
Back in July 1916, the month of his 21st birthday, The Times had published - no obituary was required for a young man whose mildly mischievous poems had been published only in school magazines - a brief announcement of the death of Robert Graves.
Graves's narrow escape from a premature demise at Bois de Fourneaux or High Wood (where some 8,000 men lost their lives) stands at the heart of Goodbye To All That
, the eloquent, angry book which the thirty-three year old poet wrote - merely to raise funds, so he said at the time - on the verge of leaving England for a new life in Europe. Attracting a high degree both of censure and praise at the time of its first publication by Cape in 1929, Goodbye was republished by Cassell in 1957. Revising his youthful work at the height of his fame (he had recently delivered - in characteristically iconoclastic mode - the Clark lectures at Cambridge and was about to undertake his first major American lecture tour), Robert Graves had already turned down Harold Macmillan's offer of a CBE. While demurely explaining that poets, as private persons, possess no need of public honours, Graves remained savvy enough to preserve from deletion his 1929 book's apparently superfluous record of a visit to Egypt. Graves, accompanied both by Laura Riding and his wife, Nancy Nicholson, had spent five months teaching English Literature in Cairo in 1926. In 1957, a year after the Crisis, Suez was still a hot topic. A marketing opportunity was not to be resisted.
has become a classic, a wartime memoir that is studied in schools, taught in colleges and read - as it has always been - for the sheer pleasure of hearing Graves's voice. (Graves, who later told a young writer to employ a tape recorder because 'The vox humana is a great help,' had himself dictated much of Goodbye
to Jane Lye, a London neighbour whose husband designed the book's first wrapper. In the troubled and unpredictable world of the 21st century, Graves's autobiography feels more relevant either than the mythic questings of The White Goddess
or the admirable but slightly dated Roman novels, best known now through the halting, meticulously created performance of Derek Jacobi as the Emperor Claudius and that of Sian Phillips as Livia, his shimmeringly unpleasant mother. (Mothers seldom emerge with credit in Graves's work. Sassoon was furious about Goodbye
's tactless presentation of his own grief-stricken mamma as a seance-holding obsessive; Amy Graves's response to the monstrous presence who presides over The White Goddess
Graves published Goodbye to All That
at a time when several traumatised writers were feeling that the moment had come to take stock of the recent past. Ford Madox Ford had already published his great but flawed wartime tetralogy, Parade's End
(1924-28). In 1929, Erich Maria Remarque produced All Quiet on the Western Front
, while R.C. Sherriff's 1928 play Journey's End
continued to shock audiences around the world (it was translated into seventeen languages in 1929). Like Graves himself, Ford, Remarque and Sherriff, all of whom had served at the front, viewed war as an essentially futile venture, in which exceptional acts of loyalty and courage became the norm.
Among all the works that emerged from a decade's musing upon a war that its most clear-sighted recorders believed to have been catastrophically conceived, managed and concluded, Goodbye
survives as the most approachable, the most powerful and - reading it with all the bitter hindsights of a century of shabby acts and betrayals - the most applicable to our own times. On the verge of Britain's momentous break with Europe, we are uniquely placed to read a book replete with folly, written in a spirit of fierce regret.
Although undeniably autobiographical, Goodbye to All That
was written with an agenda and with more concern for effect than precise detail. ('My imagination is not that of a natural liar... but I am Irishman enough to coax stories into a better shape than I found them,' Graves would acknowledge in 1956.) Almost as if staging a school play, the author wanted light to fall most brightly wherever he chose to shine his torch. It troubled Graves far more in 1929 than it had in 1914 that England had taken up arms against a country to which he felt a powerful bond. Describing his early years in the opening chapters of Goodbye
(the Graves family occupied homes in Wimbledon and in Wales, where his mother bought land and built a house near Harlech), Graves took care that his book should emphasise his personal connection to England's wartime enemy.
Linked to the illustrious von Ranke family both through the German marriage of a paternal great-aunt, Clarissa Graves, back in 1840, and through his widowed father's second marriage to the independently wealthy Amalia, or Amy von Ranke, Graves had paid five visits to Germany before he turned twelve. His summers at Laufzorn, a Bavarian country estate owned by his German grandfather, were (so he asserted in both editions of Goodbye
) 'easily the best things of my childhood.'
Graves heightened the poignancy of those early exposures to Germany by his deliberate evocation in Goodbye
of Laufzorn as a lost Eden, an earthly paradise in which everything had its place. It was against this bliss-filled idyll of reminiscence that he placed the deaths of his kindly, playful Uncle Siegfried von Aufsess, owner of an Alpine castle, killed while serving on the Imperial German Staff, and of his German cousin, Wilhelm, 'later shot down in the air by a schoolfriend of mine'. He wrote with tenderness about another cousin, Conrad, 'a gentle, proud creature' who studied animals but hated to shoot them, with whom he went joyously sledging through the snowy streets of Zurich in January 1914. ('Soon after the war ended, a party of Bolsheviks killed him in a Baltic village, where he had been sent to make requisitions.'') Revising Goodbye
for the 1957 edition, Graves decided to introduce another German uncle, a skilled marksman who recalled having shot down - under orders - a single French sniper who had concealed himself within a pinnacle high above Reims cathedral. ('I felt proud to have limited the damage like that,' Graves quoted this uncle as having boasted in post-war years to Robert's younger brother, John. 'Really, you must take a look at it.'
Once again, a point was being made. An English Graves was being invited to admire the murder of a Frenchman, an Ally, by a German. As a von Ranke descendant, Graves belonged to both sides in the war. Like Ford and, through his marriage to Frieda von Richthoven, D.H. Lawrence, Graves's sympathies belonged to both sides. Describing his required supervision of an internment camp at Lancaster in late August 1914, Graves recalled his disgust at seeing 40 German waiters brought in 'handcuffed and fettered' from a Manchester hotel: 'these were family men who had lived at peace in England for many years. The one comfort we could offer them was: "You are safer inside than out."'
Graves's dual heritage and the knowledge that he was taking up arms against members of his own family - that he might even have killed one of them - would contribute to a persistent sense of guilt which was turned to good service in poetry that dealt with anguish and reconciliation. That abiding shame reinforced the savagely satirical spirit in which he wrote Goodbye.
Graves's German blood had served him well during a ragged early progress through seven preparatory schools. At one of these, the headmaster of Rokeby proved to be an enthusiastic admirer of German culture. He went out of his way to praise a bright new boy for speaking the language. (In Goodbye
, Graves wrote that German, while never so familiar to him as French, had played a crucial role in the formation of his sensibility.) In 1909, however, when the fourteen-year-old Graves was sent to an old-fashioned Surrey public school called Charterhouse, the setting down of von Ranke as part of his full name on the electoral list invited a cold reception.
Businessmen's sons, at this time, used to discuss hotly the threat, and even the necessity, of a trade war with the Reich. 'German' meant 'dirty German.' It meant: 'cheap, shoddy goods competing with our sterling industries.' It also meant military menace, Prussianism, useless philosophy, tedious scholarship, loving music and sabre-rattling.'
Graves was a born survivor. For the first - but by no means the last - time in his life, he decided to play up his Irish descent and to boast, with perfect truth, that his father, an inspector of schools, had composed the celebrated Irish ballad, 'Father O'Flynn'. In 1957, still grieving for a son, David, who had died in 1943 while fighting for his father's own old regiment out in Burma, Graves's feelings about Germany had hardened. Goodbye
now declared that he merely 'admired' (he had previously 'preferred') his von Ranke cousins. More emphasis was placed in the revised Goodbye
upon its author's Celtic heritage than on his German antecedents.
Photographs of Robert Graves as a schoolboy show a sulkily handsome youth, large-eyed and well-built, with his mother's unusually full and sensitive mouth. An unexpected talent for boxing rescued him from becoming a school pariah. The arrival at Charterhouse of a friendly and well-read young assistant master, George Mallory, produced an introduction both to the thrills of mountaineering, at which Graves found that he excelled, and a valuable outlet for his poetry. Goodbye
, while giving full credit to Mallory for introducing a talented pupil to Edward Marsh, a generous first patron of Graves's work, was less gracious about the debt he owed to his own well-connected father. Writing his riposte, To Return To All That
, in 1930, Alfred Graves reminded readers that he, as much as Marsh, had supported the publication of Graves's three short wartime books of poems. But Graves, back in 1929, was feeling hostile towards the old-fashioned parents who had wanted him to become a schoolmaster or a civil servant, and who, noting that their son was by now a married man with four small children, refused to condone his new life with Laura Riding.
Uncharacteristic of the memoirs of those hidebound times was Graves's candour in 1929 about the important role that homosexuality had played in his early life, from schooldays until his marriage to the boyishly charming seventeen-year-old Nancy Nicholson, in January 1918. Still a virgin on his wedding night (as he was only ready to acknowledge in 1957), Graves had written his one wartime love poem for the youth whose identity is screened in both versions of Goodbye
by a pseudonym which can't have been carelessly chosen. ('Call him Dick.')
Graves had become enamoured of George Harcourt Johnstone, a boy who was four years his junior but far more sexually precocious, while he was still at Charterhouse. At school, the relationship was notorious enough for their names to be publicly linked in graffiti, and for Graves's composition books to be mockingly annotated in blue pencil. Threatened with expulsion during his last term, after he revenged himself by pushing one mean-spirited young censor into a bath and knocking down another, Graves successfully defended himself to a mild headmaster against accusations of a more serious kind. A schoolmaster, accused by Graves of having kissed 'Dick' (he hadn't, but Dick backed up Graves's assertion) was sacked. Graves and Dick escaped unscathed. Graves reported the incident in Goodbye
with no sign of a bad conscience.
As a schoolboy, Graves had opposed war. On 12 August, 1914, having turned nineteen just after leaving Charterhouse, he joined up to fight for his country with the Royal Welch Fusiliers.
Among the accusations of inaccuracy that were levelled at Graves in 1929 (most of the mistakes were corrected in But It Still Goes On
, his unsatisfying 1930 follow-up for Cape to Goodbye
), none challenged the sincerity of the author's love for his regiment. In 1940, Graves wrote two novels about one Sergeant Lamb, in which he paid homage to the historic Royal Welch's gallant participation in the American War of Independence. Until the end of his long life, he remained as devoted to the courage and loyalty of the Royal Welch Fusiliers as any romantic poet to his muse. It disappointed him, when he was finally sent out to France in May 1915, to find himself serving instead with the recently-recruited and largely under-age second battalion of the almost equally venerable Welsh Regiment. (In July, together with the surviving RWF officers who had been attached to the Welsh, Graves rejoined the first and second battalions of the Royal Welch Fusiliers at Laventie.) Goodbye to All That
is among the finest books about war that has ever been written. The cool but burning lucidity with which Graves describes the ironies - the boredom; the terror; the vertiginous swings between extreme happiness and jangling nervousness - of serving both on the front line, and behind it, are perhaps best experienced by reading the author's own words from the trenches. The sense of dazed bewilderment is well conveyed in a letter (of which he makes use in Goodbye
) written to Edward Marsh in London from Cambrin. Graves felt, he told Marsh, as if he had been flung from a sleepy cinema seat straight onto the screen' in the middle of a battle between scalp-hunting Sioux and runaway motor cars.' A second passage from the letter (of which Graves made use in Goodbye
), described the shock experienced during his first weeks in France when, bending down to reprove a barefoot, sleeping soldier for his slovenliness, he realised that a naked toe had managed to squeeze the trigger to a rifle barrel crammed into the corpse's mouth. Such gunshot suicides, Graves bleakly wrote, were said to be quite common.
. . .
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Copyright © 2018 by Robert Graves; Introduction by Miranda Seymour. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.