Robert von Ranke Graves, the son of Alfred Graves, an inspector of schools, and Amalie von Ranke, was born at Red Branch House, Lauriston Road, Wimbledon, on 24th July, 1895. His father was also the editor of an Irish literary magazine and a published poet.
At thirteen Graves was sent to Charterhouse public school where he was bullied. Graves later wrote how "the legend was put about that I was not only German but a German-Jew." He also became close to a much younger boy, Peter Johnstone: "In English preparatory and public schools romance is necessarily homosexual. The opposite sex is despised and treated as something obscene. Many boys never recover from this perversion. For every one born homosexual, at least ten permanent pseudo-homosexuals are made by the public school system: nine of these ten as honourably chaste and sentimental as I was."
Graves developed a good relationship with George Mallory, encouraging his interest in poetry and mountaineering. Graves later recalled: "He (Mallory) was wasted at Charterhouse. He tried to treat his class in a friendly way, which puzzled and offended them." Richard Perceval Graves added: "Graves's earliest Carthusian verse, though technically imperfect, is highly forceful, reflecting as it does the desperately overwrought condition into which he had been plunged by the assiduous bullying of those who resented him, chiefly because he was trying to live up to the high moral standards of his home. Under the protective tutelage of George Mallory, with whom he went rock-climbing, poetry became not merely an escape, but a positive pleasure."
Graves won a classical exhibition at St John's College. Although a convinced pacifist, Graves was so shocked by the German invasion of Belgium on 4th August 1914, that joining up seemed to him the only honourable course of action. Granted a commission in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, Captain Graves served on the Western Front where he met the poet, Siegfried Sassoon, and the two men became close friends and discussed the possibility of living together after the war.
Graves was traumatized by his experiences in the First World War. Later he recorded the death of a popular officer: "Sampson lay groaning about twenty yards beyond the front trench. Several attempts were made to rescue him. He was badly hit. Three men got killed in these attempts: two officers and two men, wounded. In the end his own orderly managed to crawl out to him. Sampson waved him back, saying he was riddled through and not worth rescuing; he sent his apologies to the company for making such a noise. At dusk we all went out to get the wounded, leaving only sentries in the line. The first dead body I came across was Sampson. He had been hit in seventeen places. I found that he had forced his knuckles into his mouth to stop himself crying out and attracting any more men to their death."
Like many young officers, Graves believed that the only way to survive the war was to get wounded: "I went on patrol fairly often, finding that the only thing respected in young officers was personal courage. Besides, I had cannily worked it out like this. My best way of lasting through to the end of the war would be to get wounded. The best time to get wounded would be at night and in the open, with rifle fire more or less unaimed and my whole body exposed. Best, also, to get wounded when there was no rush on the dressing-station services, and while the back areas were not being heavily shelled. Best to get wounded, therefore, on a night patrol in a quiet sector. One could usually manage to crawl into a shell hole until help arrived."
In July 1916 he was seriously wounded when shrapnel from an exploding shell pierced his chest and thigh. The army mistakenly informed Alfred Graves that his son had been killed and even forwarded the family his personal belongings. His obituary was published in The Times before it was realised that he was still alive. After recovering from his wounds he returned to the front-line. During this period he published two collections of poetry, Over the Brazier (1916) and Fairies and Fusiliers (1917).
The First World War (3,250 pages - £4.95)
In 1917 Graves was hospitalized with shell-shock. While on leave he met up with Siegfried Sassoon who was also recovering from wounds suffered in France. Sassoon, like Graves, had grown increasingly angry about the tactics being employed by the British Army and after a meeting with Bertrand Russell, John Murry Middleton and H. W. Massingham, he wrote Finished With War: A Soldier's Declaration, which announced that "I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation." In July 1917 Sassoon arranged for a sympathetic Labour Party MP to read out the statement in the House of Commons. Instead of the expected court martial, the under-secretary for war declared him to be suffering from shell-shock, and he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital, near Edinburgh.
While he was on leave he fell in love with Nancy Nicholson, the sister of the artist Ben Nicholson. They were married on 23rd January 1918; and after Graves's demobilization they moved into Dingle Cottage in the garden of John Masefield on Boars Hill near Oxford. Over the next five years Nancy gave birth to four children. Graves studied English literature at St John's College during this period. Graves continued to write poetry but was severly distressed by the poor reception given in 1920 to Country Sentiment.
In 1925 Graves was appointed professor of English literature at Cairo University. He set sail for Egypt in January 1926 not only with his wife and family but also with the young American poet Laura Riding. Together they would write the ground-breaking Survey of Modernist Poetry (1927) and helped him prepare his Poems: 1914-26 (1927). Richard Perceval Graves has argued: "After a bizarre period during which the ménage à trois between Robert Graves, Nancy, and Laura became a ménage à quatre with the Irish poet Geoffrey Phibbs (a period which ended only when Laura attempted suicide by hurling herself from the window of 35A St Peter's Square, London), Laura rescued Graves both from his failing marriage and from the moral censure of his wider family. She also acted as intellectual and spiritual midwife."
Riding also encouraged Graves to write his memoirs of the First World War. The book, Goodbye to All That, was published to critical acclaim in 1929. Later that year Graves and Laura moved to Deyá, Majorca, where they lived and worked together. With the help of Riding he wrote two extremely successful historical novels, I Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1934). This period also saw the publication of two more collections of poems: Poems: 1926-1930 (1931) and Collected Poems (1938).
In 1939 Laura Riding left Graves for Schuyler Jackson. Graves returned to England alone, and was saved from a mental breakdown only by the love of Beryl Hodge and the wife of Alan Hodge. Beryl, who had long admired Robert, became his new muse and mistress and in 1940 they set up house in Devon, where they stayed during the Second World War. Over the next few years he published a large number of works including The Story of Mary Powell (1943), The Golden Fleece (1945) and King Jesus (1946).
In 1946 Graves moved to Mallorca where he wrote The Greek Myths (1955), The Crowning Privilege (1955) and The Hebrew Myths (1964), Between 1961 and 1966 Graves was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University. He was also offered the CBE, which he declined as he did not agree with the British honours system.
Robert Graves died in Deya on 7th December 1985.