Chapters on Robert Graves
Robert Graves and the White Goddess 1940-1985
Robert Graves and the White Goddess 1940-1985
The domestic pressures on Robert Graves, already eased to some extent by Sam’s departure from Galmpton, were further reduced for five or six weeksI34 when in August 1941 he and Beryl and William were joined at The Vale House by a housekeeper. This, curiously enough, was ‘Jenny’s first nurse, Margaret Russell’,I35 the woman who had been sacked by Nancy back in February 1921, at a time when she had been ‘almost the mistress of the house, having charge of the money, & giving R & N pocket-money weekly out of their own money’.I36 Margaret had remained devoted both to Jenny and to Robert; and when her former employer somehow resumed contact with her, she wrote to him most warmly as ‘Dearest Captain’,I37 and was pleased at once again becoming a member of his household.
Shadows from the past continued to fall across Graves’s path. In mid-September, for example, came a long letter from Tom Matthews with fresh news about Laura Riding and Schuyler Jackson. ‘ As you must have heard,’ wrote Tom,
Kit’s divorce from Schuyler went through with no hitches and he and Laura were married sometime last June I think. We were all glad that Kit stuck to her guns about divorcing him. The proceedings took place very quietly at Doylestown PA. Kit’s witnesses (the hearing was in the master’s chambers) were her brother Jimmy, Haven Page (an even older friend of Schuyler’s than I) and myself. It was not fun but it could have been worse. ..Now we hear that L and S have bought a place in Wabasso] Florida (how or with what I don’t know), plan to spend the winters there and the summers on the farm.
Tom added that he and Julie had not seen Laura ‘since a year ago last Christmas’; but that he had ‘r[un] into Schuyler about six months ago in the lobby of the Time building and we just said Hello. The awful thing about it was that it wasn’t more awful. He might have been almost anybody.’
While Graves absorbed the news of Laura’s marriage to Schuyler, he completed the Work in Hand collection, which now consisted solely of poems by himself, Norman Cameron and Alan Hodge, the Hogarth Press having determined to exclude poems by Harry Kemp and James Reeves. There was also work to be done on The Reader Over Your Shoulder, and in late October he gave a wireless talk on ‘War Poetry’ of which a version appeared in the Listener entitled ‘Why has this War produced no War Poets?’139 This talk and the subsequent article brought Graves two new correspondents, both of them poets aged twenty-six: Keidrych Rhys, co-editor with Dylan Thomas of the magazine Wales, who had ‘got himself into muddy waters’ in the Listener correspondence following the publication of Graves’s article, and was advised by him ‘not to get involved in literary politics’; and Alun Lewis, a second-lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers.
Alun Lewis wrote in the first instance complaining that his poem ‘The Soldier’ had been quoted in Graves’s talk ‘to express a point of view I don’t endorse: to wit, the isolation or difference of the poet’. However, he did not blame Graves for this, but Stephen Spender, who had lifted out of context a number of lines from a longer poem. The complete version, he added, was to be published shortly by Allen and Unwin in a selection of his poems (to be entitled Raider’s Dawn).140 Robert replied on 6 November that he was sorry about his mistake, but that it had been a natural one to make in the circumstances which Lewis had outlined; he also suggested that they should exchange their forthcoming volumes of poetry, and asked him to call in ‘if you are ever down this way’.141
Robert’s next visitor was another second-lieutenant: his son David who had been given embarkation leave after being informed that the First Battalion of the RWF, to whom he had recently been posted, might be going abroad very soon. Having purchased ‘tropical kit and a good number of books to last me for the voyage’,142 he had spent four days with Nancy and Sam, and then (en route for Galmpton) had gone to see Jenny in Londonl43 where, having won her commission, she was now working for the WAAF as a public relations officer.144
Jenny’s principal function at that time was acting as liaison officer between the WAAF and the BBC, a role which she fulfilled with enormous success. ‘It was more than exhilarating’, wrote one of her colleagues, ‘sitting next to one of the most enchanting women I have ever met.’ Jenny seemed ‘irresistible with her blonde hair (slightly longer than the approved length) shining eyes and vivacious mouth’; she had tremendous energy and enthusiasm; and when (for instance), the recruiting for WAAF Cooks became an urgent issue, Jenny found a girl in a RAF Cookhouse. ..with a splendid voice and got her on the “Forces Broadcast” -the Singing Cook -and so gave a glamorous twist to that mundane operation’.I45
At The Vale House, Robert listened to David’s news about Jenny, before giving him some careful advice about what he should take abroad with him -suggesting in particular morphia, and gold tokens. Then, on Sunday afternoon,I46 father and son bade each other ‘a fond and sad farewell’, 147
The following morning there was a further letter from Alun Lewis, who declared that he was ‘surprised, excited and honoured’ by Graves’s letter . He would ‘dearly like’ to call on him if an opportunity arose, and would ‘count it a privilege’ to send Graves his poems, However, he wanted him to:
know beforehand the course from which my writing comes. Humility …the source of all my long struggles, for it brings me into conflict with self-pity and pity for the world, with authority and presumption on the part of those who are not humble, with intolerance and cruelty, and with submission.I48
Graves replied that humility was ‘a characteristic of poets, as they learn the impossibility of poetry by experience’. But he added a warning. ‘1 think it is important’, he wrote,
to make the humility something that one puts between oneself and one’s impossibly high standards, not between oneself and others. After all, nobody can possibly succeed in being Alun Lewis so well as yourself, and gradually you in that favourable position of being in his position can find out far better than anyone else what being him entails.
He added that he did not like ‘synthetic work, from Virgil on through the centuries- including Milton. ..’149
This dislike of Milton was deep-rooted, and was about to be incorporated by Graves into an historical novel far more powerful than his recent volumes on Sergeant Lamb.
Work on The Reader Over Your Shoulder was now well advanced, but Faber, the prospective publisher, had lost their nerve and backed out; and so Robert, needing a new source of income, had been thinking hard about a subject for another popular historical novel. He had almost settled on the story of Jason and the Argonauts when, as he told Alan Hodge,
I had a sudden inspiration that I know all about Milton and his wife whom he was living with when he wrote about divorce. Historically I know very little and will have to get all the relevant books together- tell me, didn’t you read up Mrs. Milton for Laura?150…hair was [Milton’s] obsession and bound up tightly with his Samson complex.151
Graves immediately began researching for this novel, in which he tells the story, from her point of view, of Marie Powell, the daughter of a Royalist squire who in 1642 at the age of sixteen married the thirty-four-year-old Puritan poet John Milton. Published as Wife to Mr. Milton, it made such an impression that it remains in print after more than fifty years.
This is not surprising for it has an emotional charge second only, in Graves’s fiction, to that which had powered the Claudius novels. His ‘sudden’ lightning flash of inspiration had welded not only a number of immediate preoccupations, but also long-standing guilt, hatred and prejudice: much of it deeply buried. And although Wife to Mr. Milton is largely sympathetic to Marie Powell, it displays towards John Milton the kind of virulent hatred which indicates some deeply personal motive.
The unsympathetic side of Milton’s nature had already been well documented. In 1900 Sir Walter Raleigh (subsequently Graves’s friend and mentor) had published a volume on Milton in which he lamented that, after describing in Comus ‘one whole realm of pagan loveliness’, Milton had ‘turned his face the other way, and never looked back’. His guiding star had become ‘that severe and self-centred ideal of life and character which is called Puritanism’; he had elected to ‘reject common ambitions, to refuse common enticements, to rule passions, desires and fears’; and to think of himself as ‘a “cause,” an agent of mighty purposes’.I52
Graves (who had once described Poetry as ‘a modified descendant of primitive Magic’I53) shared Raleigh’s admiration for Comus; but where Sir Walter could admire the spiritual grandeur of Paradise Lost, ‘spanned on frail arches over the abyss of the impossible, the unnatural, and the grotesque’,I54 Robert regarded everything but Milton’s earliest work as a betrayal of his true poetic gifts. For poetry, in Graves’s view, was principally about the relationship between the poet and his Muse; and the ‘classical’ poetry of a Virgil or a Milton was not true poetry at all, but an artificial construction chiefly concerned with impressing its hearers and enhancing the reputation of its autor.
Milton admits in Graves’s novel that in his youth he ‘conceived strange amatory fancies for persons of my own sex’; 155 and he is portrayed as ‘small-minded, vengeful, self-righteous’,156 proud, vain and ruthlessly ambitious. He decides to marry partly because Marie Powell, as he notes, is ‘remarkable for the glory of her hair’, 157 so ‘copious’ that in his eyes it ‘bespeaks perfect femininity’; 158 and partly because he believes that only the chastity of the married’, which is ‘neither to commit adultery nor to be greedy of the sensual pleasures by Nature permitted to a married man’ will enable him to become a great epic poet.159
Marie Powell, who marries John Milton in 1642 only because her family owes his family a large sum of money, is shown as being treated abominably. Milton’s arrogance causes so many misunderstandings that the marriage remains unconsummated, she is sent back to her parents, and Milton proceeds to write a number of tracts advocating ‘that such contrariety of mind between husband and wife as will blight the peace of marriage is a just and sufficient cause not only for their separation, but for their divorce’.160
Within three years, learning that Milton is planning bigamously to acquire a second wife, Marie effects a return, cunningly appealing to her husband by throwing herself upon her knees in such a way that ‘my hood tumbled off and showed him my hair’.161 Their marriage is finally consummated, though Milton is too selfish to notice that his love-making gives his wife no pleasure, and she bears him three children before dying in childbirth in 1651.
Tom Matthews was in no doubt about the motive which lay behind Graves’s savage assault upon his fellow-poet. ‘I believe’, he wrote, ‘that he visited on Milton the bitter detestation he felt for Schuyler [Jackson]: that the Milton he was writing about was Schuyler.’162
Graves certainly hated Schuyler Jackson. Earlier in 1941 he had described him to Alan Hodge, deliberately misquoting a Riding poem, as ‘madder than before/ With nothing but a nasty grangrened spot/ Where once had been his heart …,163 His portrait of John Milton clearly has Schuyler Jackson’s selfishness and arrogance; and in retelling the story of how Milton refused to pay his mother-in -law a sum of money to which she felt entitled, 164 Graves also attributes to Milton the ‘cynical dishonesty in business affairs’ which he thought of as the most shocking feature in Schuyler’s character. But there is something more. Graves’s hatred of his Milton/Jackson figure is so extreme that, as Eddie Marsh would comment,
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that you never show him doing a kindly action or saying a civil thing. Is this really credible, that a man who shows such nobility and greatness of mind in his poetry could have been so completely lacking in those qualities in his daily life?166
In expressing such hatred, Graves was also holding up a mirror to the dark side of his own soul.
In his novel, The Wooden Shepherdess, Graves’s friend Richard Hughes would write that:
No man can see his own soul clearly and live: he must hood his eyes which look inwards as if against a dazzling by light when the light is too much- though this is a dazzling by darkness, his soul is too dark to bear looking at.I67
So when we look over Graves’s shoulder, as it were, into that sinister reflection, the picture is often shadowy and indistinct. Yet we can see clear hints in the foreground of the connection between Milton’s story and his own.
For example, Graves’s conviction that Milton had an obsession about hair was derived partly from the passage in ‘Lycidas’ in which Milton had asked:
…What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted Shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankles Muse,
Were it not better don as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?
But alongside Neaera we may also imagine two likenesses of Nancy Nicholson: one very recent, and one dating back to 1926. In each of them she is ill, her hair is falling out, she holds a wig in her hand, and she stares accusingly at her husband and tormentor. By her side is a single image of Laura Riding, whose hair had once been cropped close, but who here, in 1928, in the process of stealing Robert away from his wife, has grown her hair long, so that it falls luxuriantly across the breasts between which she flaunts a silver locket containing Nancy’s picture.
Further back in the reflection, their images clouded with guilt, stand Nancy’s children; with Beryl not far away.
How roundly Graves attacks Milton for the treatment of his wife; yet where Milton rejected Marie for three years, and was then reconciled, Graves has already rejected Nancy for twelve years, and will continue to reject her for the rest of his life. How forcefully Graves attacks Milton first for his dishonourable wish to divorce Marie; and then for his still more dishonourable plan, once he has realized that a divorce is out of the question, of marrying bigamously. Yet where Milton ultimately remained faithful to his wife, Graves had deserted Nancy and their four children for Laura Riding, and was now living as though married to Beryl Hodge.
John Milton is also implicitly ridiculed for his relationship with a woman eighteen years younger than himself; yet Beryl was almost twenty years younger than Robert Graves. Milton is attacked for his puritanical notion of ‘chastity’ within marriage; yet for much of his relationship with Laura Riding, Robert had embraced the far more puritanical ideal of total sexual abstinence. Milton is attacked for his early homosexual leanings; yet Robert too had passed through what he would describe as a ‘pseudo- homosexual’ phase in his early manhood. Milton is attacked for spending part of his youth dependent upon his father’s generosity; and yet on more than one occasion it was only Alfred Perceval Graves who had saved Robert from financial ruin.
In this mirror held up to the dark side of Robert Graves’s soul, the figure of his father is almost completely obscured; as is that of his once beloved school-fellow Peter Johnstone.
In the background of all these figures swathed in guilt there is a great darkness; and the strongest element in that darkness is arrogance, closely intertwined with the desire for fame. How fiercely Graves attacks Milton for his arrogant belief in the excellence of his own poetic powers, and for his determination to write some great work that would live for ever. Yet Graves had long ago declared that: ‘with the poet there is always the tinge of arrogance in the thought that his own poetry has a lasting quality which most of his contemporaries cannot claim’;168 and in his recent correspondence with Alun Lewis, he had specifically cautioned him against too much humility.
Graves believed not only that a measure of arrogance was an essential ingredient in the personality of any writer or artist; 169 but also that at any one time there were only a few people in the world (‘proper chaps’ he had called them in Good-bye to All That) whose lives were of any real importance. Riding, with her own conspicuous failure either to earn money or to achieve the recognition she felt she deserved, had subsequently taught him that he should despise both fame and commercial success; yet, although he could never acknowledge it, even to himself, Graves retained for both these things a powerful longing which fuelled his creativity, even if at times it unbalanced his critical thought.
Once Graves had signed a contract for Wife to Mr. Milton with Cassell, he intensified his researches, although he was deeply committed to his point-of-view and wrote to James Reeves on the subject: ‘Nothing can make me like, admire, or even pity John Milton. That was my earliest judgment and the more I read the sounder it seems.’I70
Robert Graves: The Years with Laura 1926-1940
Robert Graves: The Years with Laura 1926-1940
According to Laura’s later fictionalized account, when Geoffrey failed to return from dinner with his aunt, she and Nancy hurried to the aunt’s flat. Here the only definite news was of Geoffrey being ‘out of England -with the right woman [in other words, his wife]’.38 It seemed most likely that Geoffrey and Norah would be in Ireland; and Robert was despatched immediately to bring them back.39
Geoffrey, however, had reached Paris, although Norah had no idea that he was on his way until:
a friend. ..knocked on my door to tell me that Geoffrey was downstairs and begged me to see him. Eventually I did. He begged me to go with him -he had run away from Laura. I was glad and consented to go off to Rouen for a few days (a second honeymoon). We had several days together and I felt all might be well and I was happy about this. …40
Geoffrey Phibbs was not so happy. On the contrary, soon after arriving in Rouen he wrote a letter to Laura Riding, explaining that he had left her partly for Robert’s sake, and partly for Norah’s; and that (although he evidently felt that he had done the right thing) he was now ‘terribly terribly unhappy’.41 The letter contained no return address;42 but the envelope bore a Rouen postmark, which gave his pursuers their first real lead.
The actual address was then tricked out of Geoffrey’s aunt by Len Lye, who ‘pretend[ed] he had a splendid job for him’.43
In the meantime, Norah remained happily unaware that Laura was on their track, until, on the morning of Saturday 6 April, ‘after two days our peace and attempt at reconciliation were shattered. A waiter knocked on our door at 8 a.m. to tell us that three people wanted to see us -they had a most important statement to make.’ The members of the Trinity had travelled all night, via Dieppe, and had come to announce to Norah that ‘they must have made a mistake in shutting me out of the Holy Circle. ..and their mission now was to gather me in’. Norah, totally astonished by this new development, ‘could only suggest we might have breakfast!44
Norah had already noticed to her disgust that Laura, ‘I expect to fascinate Geoff …had every Woolworth ornament on her, even sparkling buckles on her shoes !’ And after breakfast ‘a long morning’ in the hotel was spent ‘mostly in symbolic language and signs’, presumably part of a cabbalistic ritual designed to draw Norah into the ‘five-Iife’. Norah, however, was unimpressed by these sinister proceedings, and eventually left the others to their own devices while she went for a walk in Rouen. On her return she was told that lunch had been ordered in an hotel in some woods just outside the city ; and since she was feeling hungry she agreed to go with them.45
On the way, Laura stopped to buy yet another necklace with which to dazzle Geoffrey; and then, after an excellent lunch, Norah recalls that:
Geoff and I were told we must walk for half an hour in the woods and come back and report [my] decision. We walked. Geoff said if I didn’t go with them, he wouldn’t. I sensed he was tom. However, I said I wanted to keep sane, and nothing, not even losing Geoff, would induce me to go to what I thought was the mad house of Hammersmith. Even though I had been told Geoff and I would have our own flat – all physical contact would cease between Laura and Geoff (?) and that they would meet only to continue the great work -a dictionary. So I just said ‘No’.46
Geoffrey declared again that he intended to stay with Norah; and then they walked back to the hotel to report their decision to the others.
Laura Riding, faced with the apparent wreckage of her plans, and the permanent loss of Geoffrey, lost control; and Norah later wrote a scathing description of how’ “God” in the Public Lounge threw herself on the floor, had hysterics, threw her legs in the air and screamed. The manager got two waiters to remove this spectacle from the alarmed eyes of the wealthy French onlookers.’47 In Robert’s more sympathetic version of the story, he describes the hotel as a ‘hill-top where you [Laura] seemed to die’; and for him the event had another dimension which made it even more nightmarish: they had chosen to go to this hotel because it was on the site of the Rouen hospital to which Robert had been sent after his near- fatal wound on the Somme in I9I6. So it was the very place where he himself ‘had seemed to die thirteen years before’. That night, as soon as Laura was well enough to travel, she and Robert and Nancy went ‘immediately back’ to England,48 arriving in Hammersmith late the following afternoon.
When Nancy reached the Avoca, where she had left a nurse in charge of the children, she was surprised to find that APG, Amy, Clarissa and Rosaleen were all on board, and in a highly anxious state because the children ‘were showing off their dare-devil tricks -Jenny & Cath[erine] standing on their heads and Sam hanging head downwards from a rope over the deck II feet below’. Nancy mentioned that there had been ‘an all-night chase with R & L of Geoffrey Phibbs who had bolted from them to Paris’, but declined to comment further.49
In the meantime, Geoffrey and Norah Phibbs had returned to Paris to collect Norah’s things, and had then set out for Lisheen. But, although Geoffrey had not been lured back to Hammersmith, Norah could see that he was ‘clearly very upset’.50 Laura, as manipulative as ever, had written him a letter from Rouen station, begging him to remain silent about their past together. No doubt it was kind but firm, and, having read it, Geoffrey suddenly felt excluded from everything in the world that was worthwhile ; he began carrying the letter around with him ‘as my most complete humiliation’.51 In the circumstances, Norah’s ‘dream of a second honeymoon became a nightmare. …Geoffrey practically never spoke to me en route. Perhaps it was about this time that my ardour for him started to cool.’52 When they arrived at Lisheen, Geoffrey’s mother greeted them warmly, and some peaceful days followed.
Laura, wrongly believing as the result of some ambiguous correspondences53 that Geoffrey was once again falling under her spell, did her idiosyncratic best to tighten the bonds between them. In Norah’s words:
Strange objects started to arrive by post -bus tickets, bits of twisted wire, coins and coloured ribbons -accompanied by symbolic signs, which I didn’t understand. Geoffrey was in turn annoyed or proud to feel important again.
However, the magic of Miss Riding didn’t work. …So she had the brilliant idea of sending her lover’s wife, Nancy Nicholson, over to Sligo to plead her cause!54
Geoffrey was lying ill in bed, when a telegram arrived announcing Nancy’s imminent arrival. His mother opened the telegram, showed it to Norah, told her that they should not mention it to Geoffrey, and then instructed the butler not to let Mrs Nicholson into the house. Instead, when she arrived, Nancy was shown round to the east verandah. There, as Norah later recalled, she and Mrs Phibbs were waiting:
in a piercing east wind. Nancy said she wanted to speak to Geoffrey -Mrs. Phibbs said she couldn’t as he was ill and it was much too cold for him to come out. Nancy suggested it would be wiser to sit indoors, to which Mrs. Phibbs replied she did not wish to receive Mrs. Nicholson in her house. At this point I said Geoff must see the telegram as he was no good to me if he couldn’t make up his mind whom he wanted or where he wanted to be. I brought the telegram up to Geoff who dressed and came down. He walked with Nancy along the back avenue until they were stopped by. ..Geoffrey’s father -who. ..pointing at Nancy, shouted ‘Get out of my grounds, you scarlet woman!’55
As he shouted, Mr Phibbs looked like ‘a raging bull’; but Geoffrey held his ground, and told his father bluntly that he was ‘so ashamed that, from that moment, he was changing his name from Phibbs to Taylor (his mother’s name)’. Soon it was clear that Mr Phibbs’s angry intervention had achieved precisely the opposite of what was intended, and had drawn Geoffrey and Nancy closer together than ever. By the time of Nancy’s departure on the afternoon train from Sligo, Geoffrey had promised that he would do exactly as she asked, and follow her to London as soon as possible.
In the event he remained with Norah at Lisheen for another week (Norah herself was so unhappy that it later seemed to her like three) ; and then it was Norah who declared that she could not stand their life together any more, and was going back to Paris. The following day, probably Thursday 25 April, the two of them left Sligo. They journeyed together as far as London; but then Norah went on to France, while Geoffrey, instead of travelling to Hammersmith, caught a train to Cambridge, and then another to Hilton, to call on David Garnett.
The contents of the telegram, which he sent from there, and which arrived in Hammersmith on Friday 26 April, were a considerable shock. Phibbs declared very forcibly that it was impossible for him to rejoin the ‘four-life’ ;56 and Graves was immediately despatched to Hilton to bring him back to London. Norah later heard from David Garnett that, before setting out for Hilton, Robert made a telephone call in which he announced that he would ‘kill Geoffrey if he wouldn’t return to Laura’,57 When, in his own words, Graves ‘burst in upon’ David Garnett, who was ‘gulping his vintage port’, he had no difficulty in persuading Phibbs to return with him after ‘scandalising’ Garnett with ‘soldier’s oaths’.58
That evening, Robert, Laura, Geoffrey and Nancy began a debate which raged on inconclusively for most of the night. Why had Geoffrey stayed away from them? What were his precise motives for doing so? Did he not care for Laura? Did he not wish to continue work on the dictionary? Could he not arrive at some ‘clear decision’ about his future which would also be acceptable to Laura? On and on and on, until they were all utterly exhausted.
In the early hours of Saturday 27 April 1929, they snatched a little sleep, and then the debate was resumed. At length Geoffrey, much emboldened by the knowledge that Nancy was falling in love with him, said quite brutally that he was ‘not going to continue to live with or near Laura’.59
Laura could take no more. It was not long since there had been a sensation in the press about the suicide of another young woman poet, Charlotte Mew, who had died after drinking a powerful disinfectant called Lysol; and, in an agony of mind and spirit, Laura Riding decided to emulate her example. She drank some Lysol, but evidently not enough, for it had no immediate effect. Then, while the others watched in horror, she leaped from the window of 3S(A).60 It was a fourth-floor flat, with nothing to break her fall but the ‘stone area’61 far down below, and Laura must have expected to be killed. She herself was later to remember chiefly how dignified she had been: ‘sitting on the [window-]ledge …quite calmly, even smiling a little, and saying, “Goodbye, chaps.” ‘62 Robert’s memories, however, centred on her ‘doom-echoing shout’63 as she hurtled towards almost certain death.
Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895-1926
Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic 1895-1926
One of Robert’s great strengths was always the whole-hearted way in which he threw himself into whatever he was doing; but this meant that he was sometimes a man of extremes; and his ‘all-or-nothing’ approach to friendship is vividly highlighted by the contrast between his sudden and complete abandonment of Johnstone, and the heroic efforts which he made to save Sassoon.
On Thursday 12 July 1917, the day that Robert wrote his worried letter to Eddie Marsh, Sassoon had received a telegram ordering him to report at once to Litherland.255 When he did so, on Friday the 13th,256 he received a surprisingly warm welcome. The Colonel was away on leave, but had left his senior major as acting C.O. with clear instructions. Sassoon should be asked to withdraw his ultimatum and told that if he did so, the whole incident would be forgotten
Sassoon refused. His aim was to gain maximum publicity for his stand against the war by forcing the army to court-martial him, and when he refused, he did so fully expecting and indeed hoping to be placed under arrest. Instead, he was told to stay quietly at an hotel in Liverpool until higher authority had been consulted.
In the meantime, Robert had decided on a course of action. First he wrote to the senior major -not knowing that he was acting C.O. – asking him to persuade the Colonel to see things ‘in a reasonable light’. Sassoon was clearly ill, and must be protected from himself. Robert received in reply ‘a most kind sympathetic letter…saying that Siegfried would be ordered a Medical Board and the best would be done to treat the whole thing as a medical case’..257
Robert’s next step was ‘to get out of Osborne’ so that he could ‘attend to things’.
He knew that he was by no means well enough to leave the convalescent home, but he persuaded a Medical Board to pass him as fit for home service. They allowed him to leave Osborne on the morning of Monday 16 July, and Robert wired the news to APG, who met his cab coming up Wimbledon Hill.
On Tuesday morning Robert went into town to discuss Siegfried’s case with some of those who knew him best. First he lunched with Eddie Marsh -now intending to use six of Robert’s poems in his next volume of Georgian Poetry -and then he kept an appointment to meet Robert Ross. Graves had to tell Ross that he had no up-to-date news. He had not yet received a letter written to him by Siegfried on Sunday night, which had arrived at Osborne after his departure; nor could he have known that Sassoon had now been ordered to appear before a Medical Board, but had torn up the order, and had then spent the rest of the day learning poems by heart so that he would have something to recite in prison.
On Wednesday 18 July Robert arrived at Litherland, where the situation was serious. The Colonel was now back from leave, and had already told Sassoon that his failure to appear before a Medical Board meant that matters would soon be beyond his control. A court-martial seemed inevitable. Robert immediately went to call on Sassoon, whom he found looking ‘very ill; he told me that he had just been down to the Formby links and thrown his Military Cross into the sea.’258
The two men talked together for a long time. Robert made it clear that he agreed with Siegfried about the futility of the war, but tried to persuade him not to persist with his defiance: it would do nothing to end the war, and would be regarded as a betrayal by his comrades-in-arms. This line of argument made no impact upon Sassoon, and Graves began to realize that it would be impossible to sway him from his self-destructive course of action so long as he believed that he could compel the army to court-martial him. Graves knew that Ross had obtained a ‘promise of powerful help if necessary at the War Office’ ;259 and in what he did next he felt perfectly justified by the overriding necessity of rescuing Sassoon from a further ordeal which might permanently unbalance him.
First Robert declared that Siegfried would be locked in a lunatic asylum if he persisted, and that ‘nothing would induce them to court-martial [him]. It had all been arranged with some big bug at the War Office in the last day or two.’ Then, when Siegfried pressed him on this point, Robert swore on an imaginary Bible that what he had said was true. Sassoon saw that in the circumstances his struggle was futile. He immediately gave way, and agreed to go before a Medical Board. The strain on his nerves had already been enormous, and now he felt ‘a sense of exquisite relief’ that it was all over. 260
The very next day a Medical Board was convened and Robert, giving evidence as a friend of the patient, helped to convince its members that Sassoon was in a state of mental collapse. Robert’s own nerves had been affected by his efforts to help Sassoon. and he burst into tears three times in the course of his statement. As he left the room the psychologist who was present said to him: ‘Young man, you ought to be before this board yourself.’261 But that evening Graves could write triumphantly to Marsh : My dear Eddie, It’s all right about Siegfried. After awful struggling with everybody (I arrived at 59 minutes past the eleventh hour) I’ve smoothed it all down and he’s going away cheerfully to a home at Edinboro’. I’ve written to the pacifists who were to support him telling them that the evidence as to his mental condition given at his Medical Board is quite enough to make them look damned silly if they go on with the game and ask questions in the House about his defiance. I’m quite knocked up….262 R. A further letter went to the Hon. Evan Morgan, who was private secretary to a Government Minister. He was also a poet, and had been one of the friends who had been with Robert in the boat which had gone over the weir into the Isis earlier in the year. Robert outlined the story of Sassoon’s revolt, and asked Morgan to use whatever influence he possessed to keep the ‘defiance letter’ hushed up.
Within the next few days, Robert was one of two officers’263 detailed to escort Siegfried up to a convalescent home at Craiglockhart, near Edinburgh ; though Robert and the other escort both missed the train, and actually arrived at Craiglockhart four hours later than their ‘prisoner’. Sassoon was placed in the care of Dr W.H.R. Rivers, a psychologist and a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, who was now a temporary captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Sassoon liked him from the first; and although it seemed strange being among ‘160 officers, most of them half-dotty’, Sassoon wrote in a relaxed mood to Robert Ross, telling him that it was ‘very jolly seeing Robert Graves up here’, and adding that on 24 July, Robert’s twenty-second birthday, ‘We had great fun…and ate enormously.’264
When Robert arrived back at Litherland, it was to find that his efforts to hush up Sassoon’s ‘defiance letter’ had failed. A pacifist M.P. read it out in the House of Commons; and although he was personally silenced by a Government Under-Secretary, who pointed out the state of Sassoon’s mental health, the press took up the story, and the letter was published in dozens of newspapers, from The Times to the Bradford Pioneer. But by this time Sassoon was out of harm’s way at Craiglockhart, and Robert wrote to him affectionately and almost a little jealously: ‘Well, you are notorious throughout England now you silly old thing! !”265