In this detailed, sometimes plodding biography of English novelist Robert Graves, Wilson (Siegfried Sassoon) labors to demonstrate the significance of the author’s WWI poetry, drawing on extensive new material. Graves (1895–1985), in fact, suppressed much of this work during his lifetime, although he wrote a successful memoir about his wartime service, Good-Bye to All That. Wilson first chronicles Graves’s early years, from his upbringing in an “unusually talented” family to his boarding school years (including much about wavering sexuality), before finally arriving at 1914, when Graves, at age 19, enlisted in the British army. The core of the book explores Graves’s wartime experiences, including the pivotal episode at the Battle of the Somme where he was given up for dead after being badly wounded. In the concluding section, Wilson emphasizes Graves’s significant if complicated relationships with his wife, Nancy Nicholson, whom he married during the war; and American poet Laura Riding, with whom he lived in Spain for many years after the war. Readers will benefit from some background knowledge about WWI poetry, as Wilson tends to stay on the micro level of Graves’s experience. The volume only covers one-third of Graves’s life, which perhaps does not merit quite such meticulous investigation, but does allow Wilson to carry out a thorough study of a famed author’s wartime record. (Oct.)
Commanding ... To encounter [Graves] in these pages is to feel something of the relentlessly explosive energy with which he lived the first half of his life. Wilson lands him like a Zeppelin bomb.” Observer
“Jean Moorcroft Wilson has built an unassailable reputation as our leading authority on the poets of the Great War ... Combining intelligent and perceptive criticism of his work, with revealing insights into the man, this study of the devastating impact of the conflict on Graves makes for compelling reading. I cannot recommend it too highly” Nigel Jones, author of Rupert Brooke: Life, Death & Myth
“Diligent and insightful ... Jean Moorcroft Wilson teases the truth from Graves's exaggerations, mis-rememberings and downright gibs ... She is by turns compassionate and caustic and is clear sighted … [Her] close reading of the war poems is illuminating.” The Times
“Wilson unveils the poet behind the man struggling to make, not write, poetry [and] clarifies our understanding of what Graves was about” Literary Review
“Consistently illuminating” Andrew Motion, Spectator
“A sensitive rendering of the poet's formative years ... finely nuanced” Kirkus Reviews
“A fine attempt to give Graves his due in the context of the Great War” Evening Standard
“This is an exemplary biography and a terrific entertainment … Wilson brings this difficult, unlovable but strangely impressive man yelpingly to life” Sunday Times
“Deft and commanding ... On a par with her other outstanding biographies” BBC History Magazine
“25 years after the last biography, a fresh approach … Measured and dispassionate … This is biography at its best” Country Life
“A sensitive rendering of the poet's formative years … A sympathetic perspective on Graves' eventful life.” Kirkus Reviews
“A well-researched, readable biography” Library Journal
A sensitive rendering of the poet's formative years.
As Wilson (Edward Thomas: From Adlestrop to Arras: A Biography, 2015, etc.) acknowledges, Graves (1895-1985) has been the subject of several well-regarded biographies. She justifies her new examination of his youth, war experiences, and early career on the basis of material recently available, including published letters to a fellow soldier, eight unpublished letters to one of his sisters, and his lover Laura Riding's autobiographical writings. Despite these sources, however, this biography offers a familiar, if finely nuanced, portrait of Graves, his family, and his scandalous relationship with the mercurial Riding. The author sees World War I as "the defining experience of his life," praising his war poems as "unsurpassed in their variety, ranging from the brutally realistic and harrowing to the allegorical," marked by "technical brilliance." Although Graves destroyed most of those poems—deeming them "journalistic"—Wilson claims that they are "among the best to come out of that war." But the poet's youthful "adherence to the traditional forms and metres, together with his belief in rhyme," may have contributed to his later assessment on aesthetic grounds. Graves' service was typical for upper-class young men who enlisted: They were eager for the adventure and soon shocked at the reality. Battle experiences, the deaths of many friends, and a severe wounding left him suffering fears and terrors for years afterward. Wilson examines Graves' platonic male attractions and his relief—proving to himself that he was solidly heterosexual—when he decided to marry. Children quickly followed, and the "relatively spoilt," naïve, and impractical couple found themselves repeatedly in financial straits, turning to their parents for help. Graves' life was upended by Riding, who thrived in "a world of violent emotions." The author vividly recounts the chaos, "near hysteria," and "bizarre and dramatic events" that she created and Graves' willing complicity. He eventually left his wife and children to live with Laura until, 10 years later, she left him.
A sympathetic perspective on Graves' eventful life.
Wilson (Univ. of London; Virginia Woolf, Isaac Rosenberg) has been called the "doyenne of war poet biography." The author's new book on English poet Robert Graves (1895–1985) draws on recently uncovered material and spans the first 34 years of the writer's life. Wilson pays particular attention to Graves's war poems, of which he wrote more than a hundred but omitted almost all of them from his later collections of verse. A significant portion of this volume is devoted to Graves's wartime experiences (1914–18) and to the first years of his life with American poet Laura Riding (1926–29), who does not come off well in this account. Another focus is Graves's association with writers such as Siegfried Sassoon and T.E. Lawrence (whose biography Graves wrote), Indian philosopher Basanta Mallik, and Graves's poet father, Alfred. Wilson has relatively little to say about Graves's best-known publication of the period covered, Good-bye to All That (1929), which she points out was indeed a farewell. After finishing the book, Grave left England, his first wife, and his four children to move with Riding to Majorca, where he spent almost the rest of his life. VERDICT A well-researched, readable biography for most literature collections.—Joseph Rosenblum, Univ. of North Carolina, Greensboro