Week 467: To bring the dead to life, by Robert Graves

An intriguing if slightly macabre insight into Robert Graves’s way of working, though perhaps more in his role as a historical novelist than as a poet. One anecdote relates how he would become so absorbed in recreating a particular character that he would lay a place for him at dinner. I can’t say that my own forgetfulness has ever gone that far, but I will say that sometimes when translating a poem from another language I will begin by just writing out the literal meaning and then it is as if the words start to rearrange themselves, with an unseen hand suggesting a rhyme here, a rhythm there, and I am no more than a passive observer watching patterns in a verbal kaleidoscope swirl and settle. As a firm rationalist I don’t believe that this is anything more than some kind of mental muscle memory at work, but I can see how those so inclined might feel that there is something spooky going on.

To bring the dead to life

To bring the dead to life
Is no great magic.
Few are wholly dead:
Blow on a dead man’s embers
And a live flame will start.
 
Let his forgotten griefs be now,
And now his withered hopes;
Subdue your pen to his handwriting
Until it prove as natural
To sign his name as yours.
 
Limp as he limped,
Swear by the oaths he swore;
If he wore black, affect the same;
If he had gouty fingers,
Be yours gouty too.
 
Assemble tokens intimate of him —
A ring, a hood, a desk:
Around these elements then build
A home familiar to
The greedy revenant.
 
So grant him life, but reckon
That the grave which housed him
May not be empty now:
You in his spotted garments
Shall yourself lie wrapped.

Robert Graves

3 thoughts on “Week 467: To bring the dead to life, by Robert Graves

  1. I’m in the rationalist camp with you, David. Strange to see Robert Graves’ insistence on the irrational, although I recall his insistence on the White Goddess as muse. There was a lot of spiritualism around in the early 20th century I know, but I find it hard to judge how far his opening and closing lines in this poem are meant to be interpreted literally and how far as metaphor.

    • Probably more literally than you and I might think – he was surprisingly sympathetic to the New Age stuff in vogue in the sixties. Though probably less literally than W.B.Yeats with his occultism and belief in fairies. I remember he was asked once how much he literally believed in the Muse and he replied on the lines of ‘as much as the Greeks and Romans did’, which rather leaves the question open, Horace, Virgil & co not being around to interrogate.

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