Robert Graves (1929)

The autobiography of one of the four main English-language poets of the First World War (the others being Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rupert Brooke) offers a fascinating insight into the first-hand experience of war – if a less fascinating insight into the poet’s life.

Graves is clear about the trauma, dirt, terror, and suffering of the war. His description of a battle at Loos sums-up the mindlessness of the experience: waiting, anticipation, false starts, screwing-up courage only to be knocked back. It’s hard to imagine anyone going through that and not being exhausted by the adrenaline. On the way he meets Sassoon, as well as Thomas Hardy, TE Lawrence, and various other figures of the literary times.

The rest of the book is less satisfying: his boyhood at Charterhouse perhaps prepared him for the capricious nature of war, in a way, while his later experiences at Oxford and elsewhere added little to my appreciation, apart from summoning-up a vague jealousy at some of his descriptions of intellectual society just after the War: it’s hard to imagine many of the conversations he describes happening now, with their deep classical allusions and assumptions of erudition on all sides.

Least satisfying is that to autobiography of a poet reveals so little about his poetic frame of mind. Graves doesn’t explore the what it means to be a poet, although he alludes to the “poetic tendency” often enough. It’s a surprisingly unrevealing book at a personal level: perhaps less intimately revealing than his poetry itself, in fact, but worth reading for its historical context.

3/5. Finished Saturday 24 January, 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)