On the Horizon:
A Talk with Robert Graves
I often saw a towering giant of a man, beyond middle age and usually dressed in an over-sized sweater and dungarees, on the beach near our home on Majorca. Sometimes he was alone, but usually he was accompanied by a slender, studious-looking woman and a blond, blue-eyed boy of two. Although our home was not inaccessible, it was off the beaten track for tourists and so the presence of strangers, and strangers who were undoubtedly foreigners, aroused our curiosity. I saw the “giant” as a retired British colonel, while my wife insisted he was a painter. Finally, we asked a Majorcan native who lived nearby if he knew who the stranger was.
“He is supposed to be an extraordinary writer,” we were told, “a very great man who has lived almost all his life here.”
“Do you know his name?” I asked, already half suspecting the answer.
“Roberto Graves. Have you heard of him?”
A week later, while I was admiring the pattern the tides had engraved on the beach, Graves appeared from behind a sand dune and, raising his huge arms, dove into the Mediterranean.
When he returned, dripping, to the beach, I approached him. “Is the water cold?” I asked meekly.
“You’re an American,” he retorted accusingly, not bothering to answer me.
He dried himself by vigorously flapping his hands in the air. “And a writer?”
I blushed and he smiled triumphantly. “I knew it,” he said. “I can always spot Americans and I can always spot a writer and the easiest creature in the world to detect is an American writer. They are sometimes impossible people.”
Impossible or not, Graves invited me to his home in Palma, Majorca’s capital.
Graves, with his wife and the three youngest of his eight children, lived on two floors in an ancient but well-preserved part of the city, where he stays for the three months of the Majorcan winter. The rest of the year he lives in Deya, a remote village in the northeast of the island.
When I arrived at his house Graves greeted me warmly and led me into his study. Piles of books several feet high stood everywhere in the huge room. Socks, underwear, shoelaces, broken pencils, and sea shells were strewn in every direction. A half dozen manuscripts lay on a desk and hundreds of magazines were scattered over the floor. The only thing that lent a semblance of order to the place was a long bookcase in the rear that held copies of all of Graves’s books—over ninety volumes of poetry, criticism, essays, historical novels, and translations from the Greek, Latin, Spanish, and German. Their subjects ranged from the life of Jesus to the reign of Claudius, through the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, to descriptions of the island that has been the writer’s home for nearly half his life.
“You probably want to know,” Graves began, “why I came to Majorca in the first place. Admittedly, this is a rather isolated place for a man whose work so often depends upon painstaking research. There are no libraries here. The island, in terms of certain luxuries, is primitive, and except for a short interlude during which George Sand and Frederick Chopin vacationed here one winter, the island has no real tradition of art. Yet I find it one of the most serene and tranquil spots in the world. There are parts of this island that contain all the beauty that I was accustomed to in Wales as a child, less the bitter climate and provincialism of the latter. The people of Majorca are the most gentle group of individuals in the world. They combine a sense of natural modesty, pride, and honesty in all their dealings. I brought up eight children here and have written over ninety books and hundreds upon hundreds of articles from my home in Deya and I’ve never regretted a moment spent here.”
His eye turned to two manuscripts lying on the desk before him. “These are two translations that I’m currently working on. They’re rather obscure Latin treatises. I try to keep in trim by translating a certain number of books each year. I’m also writing a novel about an Englishman named William Palmer who was hanged in June 1856. I find it very easy to do because the Victorian era was so rich and dirty.”
A maid entered and poured the first cup of English tea I had tasted in Spain. “I have a rather difficult question to ask you,” I said. “You’ve practiced nearly every conceivable form of writing, and according to the critics you have more or less succeeded in all of them. But which do you yourself prefer?”
Graves’s pale blue eyes began to sparkle. He rose and said emphatically, “I enjoy translating, but of course I am not primarily a translator. By the same token I write novels, but I do that mostly for money. In fact all but one thing I do, I do for fun, exercise, or money. The one exception is poetry. All that matters in all my writing has been poetry. It is the only thing that should matter to a dedicated writer. I don’t know how posterity will treat many of the things that I’ve written in the past, but I am convinced that my poetry will endure.
“One of the disheartening features of our civilization,” he continued, “is that men, preposterous men, have succeeded in convincing public and critics alike that they are poets. Dylan Thomas, for example, was an admirable alcoholic, but little else. My good friend T. S. Eliot wrote good poetry, but unfortunately that was over twenty years ago. And then, of course, there is the greatest impostor of them all—Ezra Pound.
“Do you know, many years ago, I was invited to a dinner at which Pound was present. When we were introduced, the host said, ‘Robert, I want you to meet Ezra Pound. You and he won’t like each other.’ Well, not only do I not like Ezra Pound and not only do I regard him as a charlatan and an impostor, but I abhor and refuse to forgive his fascism. Lunatic or not, after the war ended and after he had defended the right of the Nazis to slaughter six million Jews, and of the Italians to wipe out the primitive and helpless Ethiopians, I could not in honesty follow Eliot’s example and sign my name to a petition for clemency on his behalf. Even if he were truly a poet, I wouldn’t have done it; but acknowledging the fact that he is not a poet and hardly a human being, I emphatically refused to assist him. While I am prepared to admit that I am neither an Egyptian nor a Chinese expert and not able to evaluate his attempts at introducing these languages into his cantos, I am an English, Latin, and Greek scholar and I insist that in none of these tongues does Pound write poetry. He is a faker.”
Graves paused for a moment, and I began to ask him about contemporary literature. “Frankly,” he said, “I am pessimistic about the future prospects of literature. I don’t believe that I am confronted with any sort of competition. Naturally, I believe that I am the best writer living today and I say this not out of self-adulation, but merely as a well-established fact.
“Actually, I would welcome a rush of new writers and poets, but then where shall they come from? Surely not from England, and certainly not from America. The United States, incidentally, is an odd case. It experienced some phenomenal luck in the 20’s with some of its expatriate authors and it’s been living on that glory ever since. Actually, American literary life is unimaginably dull and unproductive. It’s amazing how a country as large and wealthy as yours should produce so painfully little.”
“Were you ever in America?” I asked.
“Yes,” Graves answered quickly. “I had that misfortune. I spent some time in your country not too long ago. I lectured at Princeton. It was a very interesting experience and I met some very clever and nice people, but I was never so pleased to return to Majorca in all my life. I like to read about America and I’m even pleased to meet Americans here on the island, but one thing I’m certain of, there is no single compulsion that could get me back to the States again.”
“Yet,” I said, “it’s common knowledge on the island that there are a number of American writers that have settled around Deya and write under your tutelage.”
“True,” replied Graves. “But that’s different. It’s a very informal affair. There is no pupil-teacher relationship. Besides, we’re friends. You see, I like to do what I can for young serious writers because I recall that I myself had a long, anguishing period of vacillation before my books began to earn enough money for me to live meagerly in one of the cheapest spots in Europe. In fact, it took a full fifteen years before I could in any way consider myself solvent.”
My next question was directed to his personal philosophy. Instantly he became somewhat evasive.
“I believe in the Muse of Poetry. Actually, if you want to understand more about it, I suggest that you read my book called the White Goddess. You’ll find it illuminating and perhaps even suggestive.”
Unlike many other contemporary poets of eminence, Graves has always been an outspoken democrat and humanitarian. “I don’t like intolerance and I despise bigotry,” he said. “Some of the finest, most sensitive Americans I’ve met have been Negroes. I think it’s shameful that they should be discriminated against for their color.”
“Do you have any particular attitude to Jews?” I asked, knowing beforehand that his treatment of the Jewish-Roman struggle during the early part of the Common Era in Claudius, the God, flattered the Jews,
“My attitude to the Jews can best be summed up by stating that I consider the Majorcans the most noble people I have ever encountered and that I am convinced that, while at least 10 per cent of them are unmixed Marrano converts, at least 50 per cent of the rest are predominantly of Jewish blood. I have the greatest respect for Judaism and I have attempted to express that sentiment in my books. It’s strange though, isn’t it, that the Majorcans, who are mostly Jewish themselves and are generally free of intolerance, are strangely anti-Semitic. Do you know that there are parts of this island where a Jew can still not buy any land?”
“Do you believe,” I asked, “that your family has fared better on Majorca than they would have in a less primitive part of Europe?”
Graves smiled and called his youngest child to him, the boy who had accompanied him on the beach. “This is Tomas,” he said. “He is only two and yet he already understands English and Spanish and probably speaks Majorcan [a form of Catalonian] better than his father. The other two children living with me are nine and thirteen. They both speak French, Spanish, English, and Majorcan more or less fluently and the older of the two, my daughter, has just begun on Greek and Latin. I don’t think they could learn much more in London, do you? But, of course, there are limits. As soon as the children reach a certain age, we send them off to boarding school in England.”
At that moment Graves’s very charming wife, Beryl, entered and scowled at him and me. “Robert,” she said in an irritated tone, “will you do nothing today?”
Graves seemed abashed and looked at me apologetically, almost as if to say, “Women are the bane of the world but they do see to it that the work is done.”
“Just one last question,” I asked hurriedly. “Do you have any plans for the future?”
“Plans?” Graves scratched his gray head. “I shall probably continue doing exactly what I have always done: writing. I expect that things might be a little easier financially for us now since I’ve sold the screen rights to I, Claudius. And I’ve just learned that Alec Guinness has been hired for the leading role. But that won’t affect our lives very much. Majorca is very quiet, a tranquil place, and as long as I remain here I shall continue producing the best I can.”