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

Week 415: The Persian Version, by Robert Graves

I see that in this blog so far I have rarely if ever featured the poetry of wit and humour, despite the fact that I relish a well-turned parody or satire as much as anyone, so here to make some amends is a report on the Battle of Marathon as seen from the Persian point of view. Robert Graves, though primarily a love poet, could also be very funny – as witness, for example, the poem ‘Welsh Incident’ – and here he takes aim at political/military spin, though in my experience the satire could equally apply to the desperate quest for morale-boosting positivity engaged in by corporate bodies generally.

The Persian Version

Truth-loving Persians do not dwell upon
The trivial skirmish fought near Marathon.
As for the Greek theatrical tradition
Which represents that summer’s expedition
Not as a mere reconnaissance in force
By three brigades of foot and one of horse
(Their left flank covered by some obsolete
Light craft detached from the main Persian fleet)
But as a grandiose, ill-starred attempt
To conquer Greece – they treat it with contempt;
And only incidentally refute
Major Greek claims, by stressing what repute
The Persian monarch and the Persian nation
Won by this salutary demonstration:
Despite a strong defence and adverse weather
All arms combined magnificently together.

Robert Graves

Week 380: The Cool Web, by Robert Graves

I think this is the kind of poem that shows Robert Graves at his best as a lucid yet profound explorer of the human psyche. This one is always associated in my mind with the time my small son, then not quite two, was toddling down the garden path when he suddenly started crying inconsolably, shaking and pointing at something in the border. I hurried to him thinking he must have been stung by a bee, but then saw a small yellow frog hopping away into the undergrowth. ‘It’s just a little frog, it won’t hurt you’, I reassured him. He relaxed visibly. ‘Fwog’, he said, and I thought this is it, the cool web at work, another piece of the world’s strangeness and otherness named, tamed, pigeonholed, filed away. And paradoxically, it is part of the role of poetry to undo that naming and taming, to make us see again that disconcerting otherness and strangeness. Not that I want us to be terrified of frogs, you understand…

The Cool Web

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves

Week 321: Mid-winter Waking, by Robert Graves

I thought this poem, one of my favourite Graves love lyrics, would make a suitable piece for the winter solstice.

Mid-Winter Waking

Stirring suddenly from long hibernation,
I knew myself once more a poet
Guarded by timeless principalities
Against the worm of death, this hillside haunting;
And presently dared open both my eyes.

O gracious, lofty, shone against from under,
Back-of-the-mind-far clouds like towers;
And you, sudden warm airs that blow
Before the expected season of new blossom,
While sheep still gnaw at roots and lambless go –

Be witness that on waking, this mid-winter,
I found her hand in mine laid closely
Who shall watch out the Spring with me.
We stared in silence all around us
But found no winter anywhere to see.

Robert Graves

Week 285: Flying Crooked, by Robert Graves

One of those neat idiosyncratic lyrics, slipping so effortlessly into the memory, that Robert Graves excelled at.

Flying Crooked

The butterfly, a cabbage-white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight,
Yet has – who knows so well as I? –
A just sense of how not to fly:
He lurches here and here by guess
And God and hope and hopelessness.
Even the aerobatic swift
Has not his flying-crooked gift.

Robert Graves

Week 262: Rocky Acres, by Robert Graves

This is an early Robert Graves poem, maybe the first in which he found his true voice, and it remains a favourite of mine, perhaps the more so because I believe the inspiration for it to be the Rhinog country near Harlech in North Wales where I had a fine day’s walking with my eldest son some thirty years ago, taking in the Roman Steps, Rhinog Fawr and Rhinog Fach. It’s pretty rough terrain – boulders, bog and bracken, and that’s just the footpaths – but I was very fit then from running half-marathons, and my son equally fit from fifty-mile hikes with the Venture Scouts, and we covered a lot of ground. Reading the poem brings it all back: the white stars of saxifrage between the slabs of the Steps, the sunlit quietness of the morning, the view north from Rhinog Fawr to the mountains of Snowdonia, only the peaks in mist, the fierce rhythmic climbs to the summits, sweat dripping on every stone, then the glissades down the boulders, like a kind of physical chess, moving from slab to slab, with a cool shower of rain passing over to leave a sweetness in the still air. Ah, those were the days.

Note: Graves was a great reviser of his poems after publication, something that I find a bit annoying especially as I don’t think the changes were always for the better, and slightly different wordings exist, especially in the first verse; not being sure of the chronology, I have stuck with the version I know.

Rocky Acres

This is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.

He soars and he hovers, rocking on his wings,
He scans his wide parish with a sharp eye,
He catches the trembling of small hidden things,
He tears them in pieces dropping from the sky:
Tenderness and pity the land will deny
Where life is but nourished from water and rock,
A hardy adventure, full of fear and shock.

Time has never journeyed to this lost land,
Crakeberries and heather bloom out of date,
The rocks jut, the streams flow singing on either hand,
Careless if the season be early or late.
The skies wander overhead, now blue, now slate:
Winter would be known by his cold, cutting snow
If June did not borrow his armour also.

Yet this is my country beloved by me best,
The first land that rose from Chaos and the Flood,
Nursing no fat valleys for comfort and rest,
Trampled by no hard hooves, stained with no blood.
Bold immortal country whose hill-tops have stood
Strongholds for the proud gods when on earth they go,
Terror for fat burghers in far plains below.

Robert Graves

Week 190: Surgical Ward: Men, by Robert Graves

I know of very few poems on the subject of physical pain. Perhaps this is because there is nothing much useful to be said about it; perhaps we just don’t have the vocabulary. After all, don’t you just hate the modern fad whereby health services ask you to ‘rate your pain’? So you go to consult about something irksome but fairly minor on the scale of human affliction, say acute sciatica, and you get: ‘And how do you rate that on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the worst pain you can imagine?’ What do you say? A truthful ‘Well, compared with being burned alive or torn to pieces on the rack or dying of strangury, about 0.01’ seems likely to elicit a response of ‘So, why are you wasting my time?’, whereas a confident ‘Oh, at least six’ surely marks you out as a big wuss with a very limited imagination.

So all credit to Robert Graves in this poem for managing to convey something about the nature of the beast in his usual distinctive way.

Surgical Ward: Men

Something occurred after the operation
To scare the surgeons (though no fault of theirs),
Whose reassurance did not fool me long.
Beyond the shy, concerned faces of nurses
A single white-hot eye, focusing on me,
Forced sweat in rivers down from scalp to belly.
I whistled, gasped or sang, with blanching knuckles
Clutched at my bed-grip almost till it cracked:
Too proud, still, to let loose Bedlamite screeches
And bring the charge-nurse scuttling down the aisle
With morphia-needle levelled….

Lady Morphia –
Her scorpion kiss and dark gyrating dreams –
She in mistrust of whom I dared out-dare,
Two minutes longer than seemed possible,
Pain, that unpurposed, matchless elemental
Stronger than fear or grief, stranger than love.

Robert Graves

Week 153: A Time of Waiting, by Robert Graves

There are perhaps too many poems written by poets about the process of writing poems, but I think this is one of the better ones. I like the image of the slowly filling pool, though I tend myself to think more in terms of electricity, a static of observation and emotion slowly building till it finds its discharge. 

A Time of Waiting

The moment comes when my sound senses
Warn me to keep the pot at a quiet simmer,
Conclude no rash decisions, enter into
No random friendships, check the runaway tongue
And fix my mind in a close caul of doubt –
Which is more difficult, maybe, than to face
Night-long assaults of lurking furies.

The pool lies almost empty; I watch it nursed
By a thin stream. Such idle intervals
Are from waning moon to the new – a moon always
Holds the cords of my heart. Then patience, hands;
Dabble your nerveless fingers in the shallows;
A time shall come when she has need of them.

Robert Graves


Week 81: The Broken Girth, by Robert Graves

My birthday this week, and to adapt Housman slightly, now of my threescore years and ten, seventy will not come again. I’ve done the math and it doesn’t look good, nor am I entirely convinced by reassurances that seventy is the new twenty. So I thought I’d mark the occasion with one of my favourite poems by Robert Graves, which begins to take on a very personal note.

In case anyone is unfamiliar with the legend, Oisin was the son of the Irish hero Finn mac Cumhaill, leader of the Fianna. He was lured away to Tír na nÓg, the Land of the Young, by the beautiful Niamh, daughter of its king, but eventually wanted to see his own land and people again: he was given leave to do this, but warned he must on no account get down from his horse. But time passes differently in that country, and he returned to find a diminished Ireland and all the Fianna long dead.

The Broken Girth

Bravely from Fairyland he rode, on furlough,
Astride a tall bay given him by the Queen
From whose couch he had leaped not a half-hour since,
Whose lilies-of-the-valley shone from his helm.

But alas, as he paused to assist five Ulstermen
Sweating to raise a recumbent Ogham pillar,
Breach of a saddle-girth tumbled Oisin
To common Irish earth. And at once, it is said,
Old age came on him with grief and frailty.

St Patrick asked: would he not confess the Christ? –
Which for that Lady’s sake he loathed to do,
But northward loyally turned his eyes in death.
It was Fenians bore the unshriven corpse away
For burial, keening.

Curse me all squint-eyed monks
Who misconstrue the passing of Finn’s son:
Old age, not Fairyland, was his delusion.

Robert Graves

Week 8: Through Nightmare, by Robert Graves

Through Nightmare

Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated –

The untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.

In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land
Who are timorous by nature.

Robert Graves

Back in nineteen sixty-nine I met Robert Graves in London, and we were leafing through his newly published ‘Poems About Love’ together. I remember lighting on ‘Through Nightmare’, long a favourite of mine for the haunting otherworldly quality of that second stanza, and saying, with the cheerful patronage of the young, ‘This is very good, you know’. He smiled a pleased but slightly ironic smile; coming to think of it, he probably did know…