Robert Graves

(1895 - 1985)


(mostly)  WW1 POEMS





Robert Graves Trust

Richard Schumaker’s page

Danny Reviews


74 poems

72 poems

Fairies and Fusiliers complete – 46 poems

10 poems

6 poems

5 poems




A Boy in Church

A Child's Nightmare

A Dead Boche

An Old Twenty-Third Man

Corporal Stare
Not dead


I’d Love to be a Fairy’s Child

It's a Queer Time


Strong Beer

The Cool Web

Two Fusiliers

When I'm Killed


In thrall to the white goddess

Anthony Thwaite applauds Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward's hefty addition to the collections of Robert Graves

Saturday July 5, 2003
The Guardian

The Complete Poems of Robert Graves
edited by Beryl Graves and Dunstan Ward
896pp, Penguin, £20

To some of us, in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Robert Graves was a revered figure, an exemplary poet. He published his extraordinary "grammar of poetic myth", The White Goddess, in 1948, when I was 18 and, though I couldn't make much sense of it, it became one of my talismanic books for a time. Apparently it had the same effect on another, very different poet of my generation, and went on being important to him: Ted Hughes.

Graves was altogether a singular person. Born in 1895, he emerged early as a poet: when he was reported "dead of wounds" just before his 21st birthday, it was as a poet as well as an officer in the Royal Welch Fusiliers that he was described in the Times obituary. But he didn't fit into any category. Edward Marsh put him in the anthologies of Georgian poetry, but he wasn't a tweedy Georgian. He had nothing to do with the Modernist pioneers, TS Eliot or Ezra Pound, or later with the Pylon poets, Auden and Co. He earned his living writing fiction - most famously the Claudius books - which he described (with uncharacteristic humility) as pot-boilers.

Graves's poems began as poems of the nursery, graduated into soldier-verse of a sort much like his friend Siegfried Sassoon's, then took off into the quirky classic-romantic stuff that made him so appealing to the very odd American poet Laura Riding, who swept into view in the 20s and with whom he vanished to Mallorca in 1930. On that Mediterranean island, and exposed to the basilisk eye of Riding, he developed his quixotic mythical notions of the white goddess, the muse, dominating, inspirational, and - taken too far - deadly.

The Riding domination didn't last (she sidestepped towards an American, Schuyler Jackson, who began as a poet and then became a Time magazine writer); though her influence did last, to the confusion of Graves's emotional life but not, I think, to the detriment of his poetry.

Under the cool, assured tone of very many of his poems, there is a shiver of apprehension, of danger, of being on the edge of madness. From the late 20s, still involved with Riding, there is his much-anthologised "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.

Stylish, subdued, deeply romantic in feeling but classically laconic in expression, there is a courtliness of address which became his characteristic tone. In "Dance of Words", for example: "To make them move, you should start from lightning / And not forecast the rhythm: rely on chance, / Or so-called chance for its bright emergence / Once lightning interpenetrates the dance. // Grant them their own traditional steps and postures / But see they dance it out again and again / Until only lightning is left to puzzle over - / the choreography plain, and the theme plain."

This sort of thing, very much Graves's voice for about 20 years after the second world war, was discovered by and appealed to a number of us freeing ourselves from more strident or obviously seductive voices. Even Kingsley Amis for a time came under Graves's spell, turning out verses of awed adoration of females, totally unlike the creator of Jim Dixon.

Graves (unlike, say, Yeats or Auden) isn't easy to imitate, but his quizzical tone, and his precisely choice diction, are sometimes picked up unconsciously. Philip Larkin called the Graves voice "toneless", but I don't think that's quite right. It is true that, reading his own poems aloud, Graves did indeed sound a bit like a first world war subaltern running through company orders. But he always maintained that poetry was primarily on-the-page stuff, not to be declaimed or recited.

Through most of his long life (he died at the age of 90 in 1985), Graves was a frequent reviser, and sometimes suppressor, of his own poems. Successive volumes of collected poems would show some older work tinkered with, other examples dropped. As he once put it, it is "polite for a poet to cut his canon down to a reasonable size. If all his predecessors had shown decent testamentary politeness, the required reading-list of the Oxford English School would be handsomely curtailed".

Graves's last substantial volume to be supervised by himself was Collected Poems 1975 . It appeared just after his 80th birthday, when he had fallen silent, not only as a poet but as a man. His puckish air of belligerent naughtiness, indulged in the decades of the 50s, 60s and 70s, especially in such exuberantly rude forays into literary criticism as his Cambridge and Oxford lectures, lapsed into a sad inertness. When, in 1978, Penguin Books wanted a revision of his 1972 selected poems to appear, Graves's literary agents asked me to do the tinkering, since Graves was beyond dealing with it.

The trouble with the 1975 Collected Poems was that Graves was far too kind to his increasingly repetitive love poems of the previous 15 or so years. Obsessed as he was with a bewildering quartet of young women (his "muses"), he went through the same quasi-magical motions. Few of these poems are actually bad - Graves hardly ever wrote a bad poem. But they are trance-like in the wrong way, as if at the back of his wandering mind he realised he was not bringing the poems into proper focus.

Since the publication of that Collected, and since his death 10 years later, the Graves industry has been hard at work. Something called the Robert Graves Programme is gathering together big volumes of both verse and prose. What is now Penguin Classics' The Complete Poems is a one-volume amalgam of a three-volume annotated edition which came out from Carcanet Press between 1995 and 1999.

Weighing in at 896 pages, it isn't an easy book to handle, nor - even to an old Graves hand such as myself - is it easy to find one's way about, in spite of a thorough index of titles and first lines: as I have suggested, Graves himself fiddled about so much over the years, removing a poem here, changing a title there, that no collected volume could ever satisfy everyone. But I have lived with this big book now for about a month, at the same time fetching down individual Graves books and looking at poems in their earlier states, and I have to say I can't fault it. He still benefits from fairly rigorous selection; but one wants a Complete, too.

Anthony Thwaite's most recent collection of poems is A Move in the Weather (Enitharmon)


I’d Love to be a Fairy’s Child


Children born of fairy stock

Never need for shirt or frock,

Never want for food or fire,

Always get their heart’s desire:

Jingle pockets full of gold,

Marry when they’re seven years old.

Every fairy child may keep

Two strong ponies and ten sheep;

All have houses, each his own,

Built of brick or granite stone;

They live on cherries, they run wild—

I’d love to be a Fairy’s child.









Close bound in a familiar bed
All night I tossed, rolling my head;
Now dawn returns in vain, for still
The vulture squats on her warm hill.


 I am in love as giants are
That dote upon the evening star,
And this lank bird is come to prove
The intractability of love.


Yet still, with greedy eye half shut,
Rend the raw liver from its gut:
Feed, jealousy, do not fly away –
If she who fetched you also stay.








Agrilhoado numa cama familiar,

Debati-me toda a noite, girando a cabeça;

Agora, vem a madrugada em vão, pois ainda

Está pousado o abutre no seu monte quente.


Eu estou apaixonado, como gigantes

Que se babam pela estrada da tarde,

E o que esta ave magra veio provar

É a intratabilidade do amor.


Porém, de ávidos olhos semicerrados,

Arranco, cru, o fígado das entranhas:

Toma, ciúme, come e não te vás –

Se aquela que te traiu também ficar.


Tradução de João Ferreira Duarte, em "LEITURAS

poemas do inglês", Relógio de Água, 1993.

ISBN 972-708-204-1





A Dead Boche

To you who’d read my songs of War  
And only hear of blood and fame,  
I’ll say (you’ve heard it said before)  
 ”War’s Hell!” and if you doubt the same,  
Today I found in Mametz Wood
A certain cure for lust of blood:  
Where, propped against a shattered trunk,  
In a great mess of things unclean,  
Sat a dead Boche; he scowled and stunk  
With clothes and face a sodden green,
Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired,  
Dribbling black blood from nose and beard.




A Boy in Church

Gabble-gabble,… brethren,… gabble-gabble!”  
My window frames forest and heather.  
I hardly hear the tuneful babble,  
 Not knowing nor much caring whether  
The text is praise or exhortation,
Prayer or thanksgiving, or damnation.  
Outside it blows wetter and wetter,  
The tossing trees never stay still.  
I shift my elbows to catch better  
The full round sweep of heathered hill.
The tortured copse bends to and fro  
In silence like a shadow-show.  
The parson’s voice runs like a river  
Over smooth rocks. I like this church:  
The pews are staid, they never shiver,
They never bend or sway or lurch.  
“Prayer,” says the kind voice, “is a chain  
That draws down Grace from Heaven again.”  
I add the hymns up, over and over,  
Until there’s not the least mistake.
Seven-seventy-one. (Look! there’s a plover!  
It’s gone!) Who’s that Saint by the lake?  
The red light from his mantle passes  
Across the broad memorial brasses.  
It’s pleasant here for dreams and thinking,
Lolling and letting reason nod,  
With ugly serious people linking  
Sad prayers to a forgiving God….  
But a dumb blast sets the trees swaying  
With furious zeal like madmen praying.





Corporal Stare

Back from the line one night in June,  
I gave a dinner at Bethune—  
Seven courses, the most gorgeous meal  
Money could buy or batman steal.  
Five hungry lads welcomed the fish
With shouts that nearly cracked the dish;  
Asparagus came with tender tops,  
Strawberries in cream, and mutton chops.  
Said Jenkins, as my hand he shook,  
“They’ll put this in the history book.”
We bawled Church anthems in choro  
Of Bethlehem and Hermon snow,  
With drinking songs, a jolly sound  
To help the good red Pommard round.  
Stories and laughter interspersed,
We drowned a long La Bassée thirst—  
Trenches in June make throats damned dry.  
Then through the window suddenly,  
Badge, stripes and medals all complete,  
We saw him swagger up the street,
Just like a live man—Corporal Stare!  
Stare! Killed last May at Festubert.  
Caught on patrol near the Boche wire,  
Torn horribly by machine-gun fire!  
He paused, saluted smartly, grinned,
Then passed away like a puff of wind,  
Leaving us blank astonishment.  
The song broke, up we started, leant  
Out of the window—nothing there,  
Not the least shadow of Corporal Stare,
Only a quiver of smoke that showed  
A fag-end dropped on the silent road.




Not Dead

Walking through trees to cool my heat and pain,  
I know that David’s with me here again.  
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.  
Caressingly I stroke  
Rough bark of the friendly oak.
A brook goes bubbling by: the voice is his.  
Turf burns with pleasant smoke;  
I laugh at chaffinch and at primroses.  
All that is simple, happy, strong, he is.  
Over the whole wood in a little while
Breaks his slow smile.






A Child's Nightmare

Through long nursery nights he stood
By my bed unwearying,
Loomed gigantic, formless, queer,
Purring in my haunted ear
That same hideous nightmare thing,
Talking, as he lapped my blood,
In a voice cruel and flat,
Saying for ever, "Cat! ... Cat! ... Cat!..."

That one word was all he said,
That one word through all my sleep,
In monotonous mock despair.
Nonsense may be light as air,
But there's Nonsense that can keep
Horror bristling round the head,
When a voice cruel and flat
Says for ever, "Cat! ... Cat! ... Cat!..."

He had faded, he was gone
Years ago with Nursery Land,
When he leapt on me again
From the clank of a night train,
Overpowered me foot and head,
Lapped my blood, while on and on
The old voice cruel and flat
Says for ever, "Cat! ... Cat! ... Cat!..."

Morphia drowsed, again I lay
In a crater by High Wood:
He was there with straddling legs,
Staring eyes as big as eggs,
Purring as he lapped my blood,
His black bulk darkening the day,
With a voice cruel and flat,
"Cat! ... Cat! ... Cat! ... Cat!..." he said, "Cat! ... Cat!..."

When I'm shot through heart and head,
And there's no choice but to die,
The last word I'll hear, no doubt,
Won't be "Charge!" or "Bomb them out!"
Nor the stretcher-bearer's cry,
"Let that body be, he's dead!"
But a voice cruel and flat
Saying for ever, "Cat! ...
Cat! ... Cat!"




Two Fusiliers

And have we done with War at last?  
Well, we’ve been lucky devils both,  
And there’s no need of pledge or oath  
To bind our lovely friendship fast,  
By firmer stuff
Close bound enough.  
By wire and wood and stake we’re bound,  
By Fricourt and by Festubert,  
By whipping rain, by the sun’s glare,  
By all the misery and loud sound,
By a Spring day,  
By Picard clay.  
Show me the two so closely bound  
As we, by the red bond of blood,  
By friendship, blossoming from mud,
By Death: we faced him, and we found  
Beauty in Death,  
In dead men breath.





Strong Beer

“What do you think  
The bravest drink  
Under the sky?”  
“Strong beer,” said I.  
“There’s a place for everything,
Everything, anything,  
There’s a place for everything  
Where it ought to be:  
For a chicken, the hen’s wing;  
For poison, the bee’s sting;
For almond-blossom, Spring;  
A beerhouse for me.”  
“There’s a prize for every one  
Every one, any one,  
There’s a prize for every one,
Whoever he may be:  
Crags for the mountaineer,  
Flags for the Fusilier,  
For English poets, beer!  
Strong beer for me!”
“Tell us, now, how and when  
We may find the bravest men?”  
“A sure test, an easy test:  
Those that drink beer are the best,  
Brown beer strongly brewed,
English drink and English food.”  
Oh, never choose as Gideon chose  
By the cold well, but rather those  
Who look on beer when it is brown,  
Smack their lips and gulp it down.
Leave the lads who tamely drink  
With Gideon by the water brink,  
But search the benches of the Plough,  
The Tun, the Sun, the Spotted Cow,  
For jolly rascal lads who pray,
Pewter in hand, at close of day,  
“Teach me to live that I may fear  
The grave as little as my beer.”




An Old Twenty-Third Man

“Is that the Three-and-Twentieth, Strabo mine,  
Marching below, and we still gulping wine?”  
From the sad magic of his fragrant cup  
The red-faced old centurion started up,  
Cursed, battered on the table. “No,” he said,
“Not that! The Three-and-Twentieth Legion’s dead,  
Dead in the first year of this damned campaign—  
The Legion’s dead, dead, and won’t rise again.  
Pity? Rome pities her brave lads that die,  
But we need pity also, you and I,
Whom Gallic spear and Belgian arrow miss,  
Who live to see the Legion come to this,  
Unsoldierlike, slovenly, bent on loot,  
Grumblers, diseased, unskilled to thrust or shoot.  
O, brown cheek, muscled shoulder, sturdy thigh!
Where are they now? God! watch it struggle by,  
The sullen pack of ragged ugly swine.  
Is that the Legion, Gracchus? Quick, the wine!”  
“Strabo,” said Gracchus, “you are strange tonight.  
The Legion is the Legion; it’s all right.
If these new men are slovenly, in your thinking,  
God damn it! you’ll not better them by drinking.  
They all try, Strabo; trust their hearts and hands.  
The Legion is the Legion while Rome stands,  
And these same men before the autumn’s fall
Shall bang old Vercingetorix out of Gaul.”





It's a Queer Time


It's hard to know if you're alive or dead
When steel and fire go roaring through your head.

One moment you'll be crouching at your gun
Traversing, mowing heaps down half in fun:
The next, you choke and clutch at your right breast -
No time to think - leave all - and off you go...
To Treasure Island where the Spice winds blow,
To lovely groves of mango, quince and lime -
Breathe no good-bye, but ho, for the Red West!
It's a queer time.


You're charging madly at them yelling "Fag!"
When somehow something gives and your feet drag.
You fall and strike your head; yet feel no pain
And find ... you're digging tunnels through the hay
In the Big Barn, 'cause it's a rainy day.
Oh, springy hay, and lovely beams to climb!
You're back in the old sailor suit again.
It's a queer time.


Or you'll be dozing safe in your dug-out -
A great roar-the trench shakes and falls about
You're struggling, gasping, struggling, then... hullo!
Elsie comes tripping gaily down the trench,
Hanky to nose-that lyddite makes a stench -
Getting her pinafore all over grime.
Funny! because she died ten years ago!
It's a queer time.


The trouble is, things happen much too quick;
Up jump the Boches, rifles thump and click,
You stagger, and the whole scene fades away:
Even good Christians don't like passing straight
From Tipperary or their Hymn of Hate
To Alleluiah-chanting, and the chime
Of golden harps ... and ... I'm not well to-day...
It's a queer time.




When I'm Killed


When I'm killed, don't think of me
Buried there in Cambrin Wood,
Nor as in Zion think of me
With the Intolerable Good.
And there's one thing that I know well,
I'm damned if I'll be damned to Hell!

So when I'm killed, don't wait for me,
Walking the dim corridor;
In Heaven or Hell, don't wait for me,
Or you must wait for evermore.
You'll find me buried, living-dead
In these verses that you've read.

So when I'm killed, don't mourn for me,
Shot, poor lad, so bold and young,
Killed and gone - don't mourn for me.
On your lips my life is hung:
O friends and lovers, you can save
Your playfellow from the grave.






August 6, 1916.—Officer previously reported died of wounds, now reported wounded: Graves, Captain R., Royal Welch Fusiliers.
 …but I was dead, an hour or more.  
I woke when I’d already passed the door  
That Cerberus guards, and half-way down the road  
To Lethe, as an old Greek signpost showed.  
Above me, on my stretcher swinging by,
I saw new stars in the subterrene sky:  
A Cross, a Rose in bloom, a Cage with bars,  
And a barbed Arrow feathered in fine stars.  
I felt the vapours of forgetfulness  
Float in my nostrils. Oh, may Heaven bless
Dear Lady Proserpine, who saw me wake,  
And, stooping over me, for Henna’s sake  
Cleared my poor buzzing head and sent me back  
Breathless, with leaping heart along the track.  
After me roared and clattered angry hosts
Of demons, heroes, and policeman-ghosts.  
“Life! life! I can’t be dead! I won’t be dead!  
Damned if I’ll die for any one!” I said….  
Cerberus stands and grins above me now,  
Wearing three heads—lion, and lynx, and sow.
“Quick, a revolver! But my Webley’s gone,  
Stolen!… No bombs … no knife…. The crowd swarms on,  
Bellows, hurls stones…. Not even a honeyed sop…  
Nothing…. Good Cerberus!… Good dog!… but stop!  
Stay!… A great luminous thought … I do believe
There’s still some morphia that I bought on leave.”  
Then swiftly Cerberus’ wide mouths I cram  
With army biscuit smeared with ration jam;  
And sleep lurks in the luscious plum and apple.  
He crunches, swallows, stiffens, seems to grapple
With the all-powerful poppy … then a snore,  
A crash; the beast blocks up the corridor  
With monstrous hairy carcase, red and dun—  
Too late! for I’ve sped through.  
           O Life! O Sun!