Robert Graves: War Poems

Charles Mundye
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
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Robert Graves: War Poems is a significant publishing event, the first book that draws together all of Robert Graves’s poems about the Great War and, even more significantly, brings into print for the first time the unpublished 1918 manuscript, The Patchwork Flag. The book includes poems written while Graves was on active service on the Western Front, and many published over a number of years after the war, which provide a more contemplative aspect to the subject. Graves’s is an authentic voice from someone who saw active service at Mametz Wood among other action, and whose experiences guided his work towards a realism not previously seen in poetry of the time.

War Poems consists of Graves’s first two major published volumes: Over the Brazier (1916) and Fairies and Fusiliers (1917), and includes Goliath and David, also published in 1916, which was subsequently absorbed into Fairies and Fusiliers. Graves completed The Patchwork Flag for publication but never published. For many years it has lain in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, and now appears, excitingly, almost a century after composition, an unexpected addition to the canon of First World War poetry.

Graves’s 141 poems are accompanied by editor Charles Mundye’s critical and contextual Introduction, giving biographical and historical context and locating and ranking him amongst the other soldier poets of World War One: Sassoon, Owen, Thomas, Rosenberg et al. The book also includes explanatory notes which explore specific biographical, cultural, military and historical contexts, and provide a sense of publishing history. The poems are published in their first edition, first impression form, a return to first principles also recently adopted in the new Penguin edition of Good-bye to All That, Graves’s 1929 classic war memoir, now a companion text to the War Poems.


Review by Gerald Morgan, Planet

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Robert Graves was perhaps the supreme eccentric of modern English letters. What would have become of him in a sane century, without the hell of war which so wrecked his body, disturbed his mind and which surely rendered his relationships with women so fraught? In War Poems Charles Mundye has brought together everything that Graves wrote bearing any relationship to war, and edited it with a valuable introduction. Indeed the net is spread so wide that it includes the splendid tribute to John Skelton ('What could be dafter / Than John Skelton's laughter...') simply because it was published in Graves's second volume, Fairies and Fusiliers (1917): not a 'war' poem, though written in a time of war. Graves refused to include either that volume or its predecessor (Over the Brazier, 1916) among later collections. Only the poem 'In the Wilderness' seems to have been allowed to remain as a kind of adolescent talisman, a relic of the faith he so firmly renounced. 

Mundye's collection offers curious new insights: in an interview for the Paris Review in 1969, Graves was asked why he had not written 'war poems' like those of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. He answered:

"I did. But I destroyed them. They were journalistic. Sassoon and Wilfred Owen were homosexuals; though Sassoon tried to think he wasn't. To them, seeing men killed was as horrible as if you or I had to see fields of corpses of women."

He may have destroyed some poems, but he suppressed much which nevertheless survived, including many poems here printed for the first time in Seren's attractive volume. Graves's extraordinary dismissal of Owen and Sassoon, and the weird attribution of a sexual motive to grief for the slaughtered dead, both defy common sense. Asked why he constantly revised his collections, Graves replied:

"I realise from time to time that certain poems were written for the wrong reasons and feel obliged to remove them; they give me a sick feeling. Only the few necessary poems should be kept."

'Few' is not quite the word for the 1975 Collected Poems, which includes 628 pieces! Graves was not the best editor of his own work nor always good critic of the work of others. His opinion of In Parenthesis as 'a war book by Joyce out of Eliot' was a typical throwaway judgement and does him little credit. The abandonment of virtually all his early work was one eccentricity: more serious was his inability to discriminate among the later goddess-oriented poems. Fortunately, the finest of his mature poems show muscle, passion and wit, elements which can be traced in embryo through the poems in this edition. 

As war-reporting we have the sonnet 'Limbo', with its vigorous evocation of 'horror, mud and sleeplessness', where 'the reek / of death offends the living'. 'Goliath and David' is an early ironic reversal of the original story, anticipating the later 'The Persian Version', suggesting how marginal to the Persians was 'the trivial skirmish fought near Marathon'. My own favourite among the early poems is 'Dead cow Farm', already striking a lapidary note: 

An ancient saga tells us how

In the beginning the First Cow

(For nothing living yet had birth

But Elemental Cow on earth)

Began to lick cold stones and mud:

Under her warm tongue flesh and blood

Blossomed, a miracle to believe:

And so was Adam born, and Eve.

Here now is chaos once again, 

Primeval mud, cold stones and rain.

Here flesh decays and blood drips red,

And the Cow's dead, the old Cow's dead.

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