Robert Graves’ poetry riddles as other poets of his era do not, and this because his poems set themselves in relation to riddles: they are not forms of riddles, but they are written in the belief that it is for a poem to set out, finding words for, the riddles of the world. At least one major critic has argued that all poems be read as descending from riddles. But it seems to me an error to read Graves’ contemporaries, Eliot, Pound, H.D., Stevens, in that way. At the same time, appreciating that Graves’ poems apprehend (and in so doing, sometimes set) riddles is to help to better understand the influence he had on two of the major British poets of the 1930s, Empson and Auden. Reading through the new Selected Poems, edited by Michael Longley, one is struck by a number of poems that feel very near to either of the later poets:
When mountain rocks and leafy trees
And clouds and things like these,
Caricature the human face,
Such scribblings have no grace
The bulbous nose, the sunken chin,
The ragged mouth in grin
Nature is always so: you find
That all she has of mind
Retching among the empty spaces,
Ruffling the idiot grasses,
The sheep’s fleeces.
Whose pleasures are excreting, poking,
Havocking and sucking,
Whose griefs are melancholy,
Whose flowers oafish,
Whose waters, silly,
Whose birds, raffish,
Whose fish, fish.
Were Graves’ name detached from the poem centuries to come, one could easily it being attributed to Auden: the playful rhymes (oafish/raffish/fish; chin/grin/cretin), the faux-didactic coyly-certain rhetoric (“Nature is always so”), the landscape rendered in Fauve elemental relief.
And the approach to Nature’s lineaments as begging to be read and set into meaningful order—though the order is comically animal and mundane, and the poem closes with a collapse of the riddle: the fish are simply fish. The riddle of the world is confirmed by simile and metaphor; when these stop, so the riddle comes to an end.
Were one to make the case that the poem has distinctive touches of Graves, where would one find them? It might be in the poem’s consciousness that it responds to and captures a riddle: Graves here, and elsewhere, scrutinizes the poem’s act of tracing and spelling out riddles; the poem communicates to us what it is like to go through that process, to find riddles in the world and enter into them through the play and organization of words.
When I hear the roots of Empson in Graves (Empson acknowledged his deep debt to Graves’ criticism; I do not know where he comments on the poetry), it is in the love poems, a distinct category for Graves, overlapping but distinct from war poems, poems about confusion and being confused, and poems on mythological subjects.
Here is one of many of Graves’ beautiful love poems (in the opening line, you might hear Auden too):
As I walked out that sultry night,
I heard the stroke of One.
The moon, attained to her full height,
Stood beaming like the sun:
She exorcized the ghostly wheat
To mute assent in love’s defeat,
Whose tryst had now begun.
The fields lay sick beneath my tread,
A tedious owlet cried,
A nightingale above my head
With this or that replied—
Like man and wife who nightly keep
Inconsequent debate in sleep
As they dream side by side.
Your phantom wore the moon’s cold mask,
My phantom wore the same;
Forgetful of the feverish task
In hope of which they came,
Each image held the other’s eyes
And watched a grey distraction rise
To cloud the eager flame—
To cloud the eager flame of love,
To fog the shining gate;
They held the tyrannous queen above
Sole mover of their fate,
They glared as marble statues glare
Across the tessellated stair
Or down the halls of state.
And now warm earth was Arctic sea,
Each breath came dagger-keen;
Two bergs of glinting ice were we,
The broad moon sailed between;
There swam the mermaids, tailed and finned,
And love went by upon the wind
As though it had not been.
Empson once half-dismissed many of his early poems as “boy meets girl” verse. “Full Moon” seems the same sort of poem. But as in Empson’s densely-metaphorical verse, Graves’ poem shows how deeply significant the encounter of boy and girl can be: the riddle of knowing another. One might respond that the poem is just highly metaphorical—that metaphors themselves are perforce riddles: in what way different and in what way alike? True enough; but not all poems and poets deploy the riddle that is metaphor for the same end; not all, as Graves does here, seem to ask the metaphor to bring into clarity the fundamental confusion of the situation.
Citing the influence of Graves on his criticism, Empson explained that he proceeded from a safe assumption that a poem was written to sort out a conflict in the poem’s mind; Graves’ poetry is written to sort out a confusion, with its conflicting parts laid out to see. The situation of love really is riddling, and by alienating us through riddling comparisons, Graves can make us see what is so riddling about it. His poems arrange metaphors to illuminate a larger riddle than any one contains: they (the larger riddles and the poems both) are sublime because they cannot be fully understood, and they are beautiful because an order, and promise of solution, is implicit in them. Christopher Ricks has spoken of the frequency with which Graves ends poems with questions and question marks, and behind them is both the inability to understand and the hope that an answer is to be had (“These questions, bird, are not rhetorical,” he writes in “The Straw”)
One early poem by Graves might serve as a creed:
In Broken Images
He is quick, thinking in clear images;
I am slow, thinking in broken images.
He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;
I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.
Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;
Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.
Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;
Questioning the relevance, I question the fact.
When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;
When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.
He continues quick and dull in his clear images;
I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.
He in a new confusion of his understanding;
I in a new understanding of my confusion.
The pertinent line for my purposes is the last: “I in a new understanding of my confusion.” And if we take that line seriously, we should see that although the poem disparages the other poet (and we might think that poet is Pound, with his “clear images” with his faith that relevance of facts might be apparent), it turns on itself: he is writing to sort out his confusion as to what sort of poet he is; he finds riddling the fact that so many of his poems are about and demand an approach to riddles.
Graves’ poems, then, are about confusion—as Empson’s and Auden’s are not, in so far as these later poets, even when writing about confusion, enlist the reader into the experience.
And this not because Graves never risks confusing or disorienting his readers, but for Graves, evidently, a function of poetry was sanity, and bringing into clarity in language a confusion that, were it experienced directly, would lead to madness.
As with the later Empson, madness is a specter hanging over Graves’ poetry; the great virtue in the poetry is sanity, and sanity comes from the capacity to puzzle, set out puzzles, and puzzle matters out in terms that contain and order.
The Cool Web
Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent 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.
The child in the poem (a young child, presumably) is heroic for withstanding the world without words. But it is a child with language that Graves holds up as a special hero: when Graves praises Alice he does so because she can maintain the distinction, while recognizing the continuity, between the looking-glass world and her Victorian England. In lines that might be mis-heard as Empson, Graves writes in “Alice”:
Let us observe with what uncommon sense—
Though a secure and easy reference
Between Red Queen and Kitten could be found—
she made no false assumption on that ground
(A trap in which the scientist would fall)
That queens and kittens are identical.
Poetry, trucking in metaphors and in riddles, offers a bulwark of sanity that science (says Graves, parenthetically) cannot. Poetry is vigilant in assigning metaphors, and in appreciating where identities cannot be drawn or recognized; it might not, for Graves, do anything more.
Where Graves presents the recognition of something that cannot be identified beyond itself, his poetry is most riddling, and most impossible to solve because the answer, the poems tell us, are not recoverable in terms beyond themselves:
We looked, we loved, and therewith instantly
Death became terrible to you and me.
By love we disenthralled our natural terror
From every comfortable philosopher
Or tall, grey doctor of divinity:
Death stood at last in his true rank and order.
It happened soon, so wild of heart were we,
Exchange of gifts grew to a malady:
Their worth rose always higher on each side
Till there seemed nothing but ungivable pride
That yet remained ungiven, and this degree
Called a conclusion not to be denied.
Then we at last bethought ourselves, made shift
And simultaneously this final gift
Gave: each with shaking hands unlocks
The sinister, long, brass-bound coffin-box,
Unwraps pure death, with such bewilderment
As greeted our love’s first acknowledgement.
Death, the greatest undoer of identity, is brought to close proximity of love because love too represents a challenge to identity: the promise, thrill, and terror of loss of oneself in another’s attention and self.
Myth, and Graves’ late fascination with the “White Goddess” might be thought a way of getting at the problem again: myth might function to establish equations between the world’s broken parts—though Graves is vigilant against its facile application. In the poem “White Goddess,” he calls her “sister of mirage and echo.”
Behind it all, as Longley’s selection makes evident, is the war. Graves stands as one of the great poets of the first world war, and the poetry’s fascination with identity can be understood as an aftershock of the traumas he experienced. For in the war poetry, the question of where identities hold is most desperately asked, with answers most desperately proffered:
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.
The inverted syntax of “he is,” in the third and third to last line is not a reach for rhyme: it is a copula that intends to predicate and to affirm existence of what is past: to be alive is to have an identity, and yet being dead, the identity of David can only be found in all of the world that reminds Grave of what is gone.
The riddle of identity is the riddle of the war poems, and the riddle is most clearly the subject of the astonishing “A Letter from Wales.” The poem is too long to quite here in its entirety; it is written as a letter from Richard Rolls “to his friend, Captain Abel Wright.” It opens:
This is a question of identity
Which I can’t answer. Abel, I’ll presume
On your good-nature, asking you to help me.
I hope you will, since you too are involved
As deeply in the problem as myself.
Who are we? Take down your old diary, please
The one you kept in France, if you are you
Who served in the Black Fusiliers with me.
The poem asks who each man is, since each man, the author remembers, might have been killed in France. I will quote the final two verse paragraphs, which follow a description of a magnificent sunset that both might have witnessed together:
Well, did that happen, or am I just romancing?
And then again, one has to ask the question
What happened after to that you and me?
I have thought lately that they too got lost.
My representative went out once more
To France, and so did yours, and yours got killed,
Shot through the throat while bombing up a trench
At Bullecourt; if not there, then at least
On the thirteenth of July, nineteen eighteen,
When you took a rifle bullet through the skull
Just after breakfast on a mad patrol.
But still you kept up the same stale presence
As children do in nursery battle-games,
‘No, I’m not dead. Look, I’m not even wounded.’
And I admit I followed your example,
Though nothing much happened that time in France.
I died at Hove after the Armistice,
Pneumonia, with the doctor’s full consent.
I think the I and you who then took over
Rather forgot the part we used to play;
We wrote and saw each other often enough
And sent each other copies of new poems,
But there was a constraint in all our dealings,
A doubt, unformulated, but quite heavy
And not too well disguised. Something we guessed
Arising from the War, and yet the War
Was a forbidden ground of conversation.
Now why, can you say why, short of accepting
My substitution view? Then yesterday,
After five years of this relationship,
I found a relic of the second Richard,
A pack-valise marked with his name and rank…
And a sunset started, most unlike the other,
A pink-and-black depressing sort of show
Influenced by the Glasgow School of Art.
It sent me off on a long train of thought
And I began to feel badly confused,
Being accustomed to this newer self;
I wondered whether you could reassure me.
Now I have asked you, do you see my point?
What I’m asking really isn’t ‘Who am I’
Or ‘Who are you’ (you see my difficulty?)
But a stage before that, ‘How am I to put
The question that I’m asking you to answer?’
Here a poem written by Graves, from the mind and perspective of someone who is not Graves, and who might be nobody at all; and here, beyond his own identity, Graves expressed what was the deepest of the challenges posed by way—the riddle of how to set the riddle of identity straight, of seeing clearly what the riddle of identity might be.