Robert Graves’s “Recalling War”

Like his friend Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves survived the war. He went on to become a prolific writer, penning over one hundred books and becoming especially famous for his poetry, translations of classical texts, work on poetic inspiration (The White Goddess) and his novel I, Claudius.  (Seriously, Dear Readers, if you haven’t seen the miniseries based on the novel, go get it. It’s made for binge-watching, and features a plethora of stars: Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, Brian Blessed, John Hurt, and — my personal favorite — Patrick Stewart. With hair.)

photo (93)Graves is also justly famous for his only autobiography, 1929’s Goodbye to All That, considered by many to be the best memoir that came out of the war. It is, by turns, wry (, dramatic, darkly funny, and elegiac. It’s absolutely worth reading, and I heartily commend it to your attention.

Graves’s poetry about the war is not as well-known as Sassoon’s or Owen’s, but it too rings with the depth of feeling only born out of horrendous experience. In “Recalling War,” Graves borrows Homer’s knack for comparing the brutal business of war to those events common to homely life; in Graves’s poem, the speaker remembers the guns “Nibbling the walls of factory and church / Like a child, piecrust; felling groves of trees / Like a child, dandelions with a switch!” In these lines, Graves reminds us that nothing — church, work, nature itself — remains untouched by war.

“Recalling War” finds the speaker looking back twenty years after the war’s end, wondering, “What, then, was war?” He answers himself,

No mere discord of flags
But an infection of the common sky
That sagged ominously upon the earth
Even when the season was the airiest May.
Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
Natural infirmities were out of mode,
For Death was young again; patron alone
Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.

and later in the poem,

War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world has still kept head in air,
Protesting logic or protesting love,
Until the unendurable moment struck –
The inward scream, the duty to run mad.

It is a bitter remembrance, and Graves offers us no comfort in the poem’s final lines:

Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.

You can read the full poem at The Legacy Project.

Recommended Reading: Life Class and Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

One of the many gifts my father has given me is sharing his lifelong interest in World War I, that brutal period in history that often disappears into its sequel’s shadow. The war was terrifying in its intensity, its stagnation, its sheer totality. And it also produced some of the finest poetry of the twentieth century before an entire generation of young poets, novelists, painters — an entire generation of young men — was wiped out.

[Which is not to say that that women didn’t suffer didn’t the war, or that there were no incredibly talented women writers and artists of the period; see my earlier post on Anna Akhmatova.]

Some other time I’ll write a post on my recommended reading on the war, but for now, let’s talk Pat Barker.

If you haven’t read Ms. Barker’s Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road), drop everything and make a run for your neighborhood bookstore. The trilogy is complex and marvelous, focusing especially on the war’s psychological effects on soldiers. Particularly masterful is the way Barker blends fact and fiction; her characters interact with historical figures like Owen, Sassoon, and Graves. Readers with STEM proclivities will appreciate her fine understanding of scientific and medical concepts.

As you might imagine, I was delighted to run across Ms. Barker’s lastest book, Toby’s Room (2012), in our local library a few weeks ago. It wasn’t until I read the jacket copy after I finished the novel that I realized that Toby’s Room is a sequel of sorts to Life Class (2007), which I promptly found and read next. I say ‘a sequel of sorts’ because the timelines in the two books overlap, as do the characters, though the focus shifts among them. I would describe the two novels as companion pieces.

Both are concerned with trauma—emotional and physical, resulting from war and from domestic life—and its relationship to art. Once again, Ms. Barker’s characters blend seamlessly into a landscape populated by very real figures. Of particular interest is the work of Henry Tonks, which I won’t say much more about in order not to spoil the plot of the books.