Robert von Ranke Graves was born in Wimbledon, London. His father was  Irish and his mother German (the von Ranke name was to cause suspicion among some of his fellow soldiers that he was a German spy). He volunteered for active service at the outbreak of the First World War, aged 19, and went on to serve as a Captain in the Royal Welch Fusiliers, alongside Siegfried Sassoon, his closest friend during the war years. He was badly wounded at the Somme, and reported dead on his 21st birthday, though recovered enough to return to the front a few months later. He suffered from shell shock, or neurasthenia, for many years after the war and continued to be haunted by traumatic memories of the war until old age. Goodbye To All That (1929) is the most compelling and enduring contemporary prose account of the First World War. From 1929 he spent most of his life in Spain, and became one of the leading literary figures of the age. He was Professor of Poetry at Oxford University in the 1960s. His novels include I, Claudius, King Jesus and The Golden Fleece, and his writings on myth include The White Goddess and The Greek Myths.

His first book, Over the Brazier (1916), included youthful poems that the Times Literary Supplement found full of ‘compelling rawness and … blunt familiarity’, and the ‘arresting sense of the realities of trench life.’ The poems were tame compared to what Graves himself, as well as Owen, Sassoon and others of their circle went on to write, but the review shows that Graves was one of the first to attempt to write in a way about the war which tried to capture the extremeness of the experience. Indeed, Sassoon was shocked by Graves’s early realism and thought the poems ‘violent and repulsive’.

Like Sassoon and others, Graves wrote poetry that challenged unthinking attitudes to the war, but he also appeared to use his poetry to protect himself from being overwhelmed by war, in writing about situations and images that were emblematic of peace. Most of the poems he wrote in 1917 were not about the horrors of trench life, but about childhood innocence and the English countryside.

Graves is one of the foremost English poets of the twentieth century. His feelings about the First World War were complex and ambiguous, and his writings reflect this. Graves continued writing poetry into the 1970s and many of his best war poems were written long after it was all over, including ‘Recalling War’, ‘Cuirassiers of the Frontier’ and ‘Last Day of Leave’.

Last Day of Leave

We five looked out over the moor
At rough hills blurred with haze, and a still sea:
Our tragic day, bountiful from the first.

We would spend it by the lily lake
(High in a fold beyond the farthest ridge),
Following the cart-track till it faded out.

The time of berries and bell-heather;
Yet all that morning nobody went by
But shepherds and one old man carting turfs.

We were in love: he with her, she with him,
And I, the youngest one, the odd man out,
As deep in love with a yet nameless muse.

No cloud; larks and heath-butterflies,
And herons undisturbed fishing the streams;
A slow cool breeze that hardly stirred the grass.

When we hurried down the rocky slope,
A flock of ewes galloping off in terror,
There shone the waterlilies, yellow and white.

Deep water and a shelving bank.
Off went our clothes and in we went, all five,
Diving like trout between the lily groves.

The basket had been nobly filled:
Wine and fresh rolls, chicken and pineapple—
Our braggadocio under threat of war.

The fire on which we boiled our kettle
We fed with ling and rotten blackthorn root;
And the coffee tasted memorably of peat.

Two of us might stray off together
But never less than three kept by the fire,
Focus of our uncertain destinies.

We spoke little, our minds in tune—
A sigh or laugh would settle any theme;
The sun so hot it made the rocks quiver.

But when it rolled down level with us,
Four pairs of eyes sought mine as if appealing
For a blind-fate-aversive afterword:—

‘Do you remember the lily lake?
We were all there, all five of us in love,
Not one yet killed, widowed or broken-hearted.’

(1916) © Copyright the Robert Graves Estate

[From Collected Poems, 1914-1947 (Cassell, 1948); reprinted in Complete Poems Volume 2 edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward, (Carcanet, 1997) and in Complete Poems, edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward, (Penguin, 2003)]

Suggested reading:

  • Goodbye to All That (Cape, 1929)
  • Complete Poems, edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward (Penguin, 2003)
  • Poems about War, edited by William Graves (Cassell, 1988)
  • In Broken Images, Selected Letters of Robert Graves 1914-1946, edited by Paul O’Prey (Hutchinson, 1984)
  • Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895-1926, by Richard Graves (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986)

Links: The Robert Graves Society Journal of the Robert Graves Society

Paul O’Prey, September 2004